Aretha always drew from the Broadway songbook. Sometimes she went with obvious choices, and other times, she went for the obscure. One somewhat-obscure pick was “Look To The Rainbow”, from Finian’s Rainbow, which closed out 1986’s Aretha.
With lyrics by EY Harburg, who also wrote the lyrics to that other song about a rainbow, “Over The Rainbow”, the song is something of a sequel to the aforementioned ubiquitous song from The Wizard of Oz. The song was even meant to be the album’s title, but upon seeing the Andy Warhol-helmed artwork for the album cover Aretha decided she wanted it to be Aretha, despite already having 2 Aretha’s: her Arista debut six years earlier in 1980, as well as her Columbia debut in 1961.
“Look To The Rainbow” held a special place in Aretha’s heart. Aretha wasn’t the first, nor the last usher the song into the pop music canon. In fact, Aretha drew inspiration from one of the greats before her in covering the tune, one she remembered hearing when she was younger. Dinah Washington, one of Aretha’s idols, released her version of “Look To The Rainbow” on her 1956 album Dinah! Aretha’s vocal delivery has flourishes of Dinah in it, while the arrangement lends itself towards contemporary R&B. She performed it numerous times around the album’s release. Produced by Aretha herself, it was a meaningful inclusion on an album of predominately-new material.
On the studio recording, she makes a slight lyrical update, changing the “waiting for me” line to “waiting for Ree”. It’s an interesting recording to behold. It’s a quality production, but on the vocal side, it faces challenges. In 1986, Aretha’s voice had deteriorated notably. Her upper register diminished greatly, and her voice adapted a rasp. Some per age, and some per the Kool cigarettes she kept on hand. Despite all that her soul is intact, and her belts have no shortage of the feeling that Aretha always evoked.
Aretha performed the song several times around Aretha’s release. One performance appeared on her HBO special. She also performed it on Prime Time with no accompaniment except herself on the piano.
One performance in particular, was semi-off the cuff, but held special significance. In 1986, a street in Detroit was named after her father, Reverend C. L. Franklin. During the ceremony, Aretha took to the piano. After inviting the rhythm section back and giving them a G#, she began to play “something from the new LP”, she warned that she hadn’t been singing for the last week or two and had a bad cold, but that didn’t deter her from putting her soul into the performance. It’s perhaps the strongest of the three performances.
Listen to Aretha “Look To The Rainbow”: