Aretha Franklin is going to be the what? That’s typically the first question one asks themselves upon first hearing Aretha proclaim “I’m gonna be the only star at the disco” on “Only Star” from 1979’s La Diva. This is one of those oft-referenced disastrous forays into disco a day late and a dollar short. It was such a perplexing ask for Aretha to go disco, that even Chic’s Nile Rodgers refused to produce the record. He recalled sitting at the piano with Aretha as she sang him some of “Only Star” and as he heard the hook his reaction was, “holy shit! We’re with Aretha Franklin and she’s telling us she’s going to be the only star in the disco tonight. Is she nuts?” He elaborated further on his decision, saying that he didn’t want to be known as “the guy who wrote Aretha Franklin’s disco hit”. Based on the outcome, he made the right choice.
The bookmark on the conclusion of Aretha Franklin’s career at Atlantic Records is a far cry from the one which initiated it’s star. On La Diva, Aretha’s sixteenth and final studio album for the label, the Queen of Soul who cemented her aforementioned title on her Atlantic debut chases the disco trend she’d been resisting for years. While the entire album isn’t a straight up disco LP (see the underrated “Honey I Need Your Love“) as been often mis-reported, there’s enough disco on it that it’s been easy to refer to as “the Aretha disco LP”.
“Only Star” surely has the glittering bells and electric keyboard parts to qualify it as disco, but something about it never fully connects. Maybe it’s that it’s the Queen of Soul growling that she’s going to “boogie down”. Maybe it’s the tepid introduction and monotonous production, or painful inclusion of “magnifique” and Spanish spoken bits. Written by Aretha and produced by the late Van McCoy (“The Hustle”), it’s not an inherently bad song, it’s just not a good disco song. What probably would have worked better? Aretha at the piano providing a vocal introduction, leading into a bigger production and more grandiose arrangement. This would have turned “Only Star” more into a daydream from the soul queen than a matter of fact occurrence from a hit-starved powerhouse.
Experience the perplexing “Only Star”: