The closest we ever got to an Aretha Franklin-Stevie Wonder collaboration unfolded in 1974, with “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” from Let Me In Your Life. Though the story actually began in 1965 when fifteen year old Stevie Wonder composed the song and recorded it two years later in 1967. His recording revolved around a poppy/R&B bossa nova groove reminiscent of Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By”. For whatever reason, Stevie’s version remained unreleased until 1977’s anthology Looking Back. At some point along the line, Stevie offered the unreleased song to Aretha, who, as she often recalled, sent someone to pick it up and went to town with it. The rest, is history.
With Aretha at the piano, she adorned the song with it’s now-unmistakable opening chords, and an arrangement that centers around her at the piano. Those chords drove a steadier groove, which allowed Aretha to realize the song’s tenacity better than Stevie had, and Aretha’s arrangement became the blueprint for all versions that followed.
When it was released in as a single in late 1973, “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” didn’t quite match the immediate impact of Aretha’s previous Atlantic hits, though it did reach number one on the R&B charts. However, over the years it proved to be one of the last career-defining cuts of Aretha’s days at Atlantic Records.
The song describes a protagonist, determined. They’re going to get their love back and taking every action imaginable to prove their love, devotion, and loyalty. In all honesty and today’s world, it does get a little stalker-y as it details the intention to “rap on your door, tap on your window pane… camp by your steps until I get through to you”. 9-1-1? I would like to report an emergency. And of course, from the perspective of 32 year-old Aretha Franklin singing this, today’s climate can make the song appear to be a bit stalker-ish. Yet, when placed in the context of being written by a 15 year-old in the 1960’s, it takes on a much more innocent meaning, even than that of a 15 year old in the social media era of today’s world, overflowing with technology.
In an interesting bit of history, the song peaked at number 3 on the Billboard pop chart and number 1 on the R&B chart. Usually a song peaking at the bottom of the top 3 is far from exciting, since most artists are striving for a number 1. By that point Aretha had already scored her #1, 2’s, 4’s, 5’s on the chart and so on. What made this special, is that by peaking at number 3, Aretha charted a song that peaked at every number from 1-10 on the pop chart. This made Aretha the first artist in history to achieve a peak at every position in the top 10 of what is now known as the Billboard Hot 100. To date only 4 other artists have achieved that feat.
Over the years Aretha and Stevie joined forces on stage from time to time but never performed “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do) together. In 2006, that finally changed. While Aretha was honored with the Lena Horne award at the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards in Los Angeles Stevie joined her onstage and two performed “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” together. It was a magnanimous union of two of the biggest artists in music.
The final time I saw Aretha in full concert in 2016, she sang “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)”, to my recollection for the first time in my history seeing her. Naturally, I broke out my camera to capture the moment. I’m very grateful I did. Despite being under the weather, she delivered a knockout performed, accentuated by some brilliant scatting at the end.
Listen to Aretha’s pleas on “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)”: