“I sparkle, loving the way that I do, it is true, I feel so good,” Aretha Franklin declares in front of glittering piano keys, sweet strings, over what is now a classic production from Curtis Mayfield. And truly, she’d feel even better after Sparkle hit record store shelves in 1976. The title track and opening cut to Aretha’s relief from late 70’s slump, “Sparkle” sets the tone for the short yet sweet body of work that followed.
Written by Curtis Mayfield, who composed and produced the entire LP, “Sparkle” aligns with Curtis’ other musical explorations around that time. “PS I Love You” from 1976’s Give, Get, Take And Have has some similar elements to Sparkle’s title cut. The background vocals pale in comparison to Aretha’s, and the instrumentation isn’t quite as soulful, but the core the song and chord progressions echo the sentiments and shimmering vibe of “Sparkle.” The string arrangements on The Staple Singers’ 1975 “Let’s Do It Again”, written and produced by Curtis are also reminiscent of “Sparkle.”
What gives “Sparkle” it’s shine is funk, soul, brass, strings, and a glittering piano part (the piano could be Aretha, but all of the players on Sparkle remain unknown). Everything fits together perfectly. The brass and bass accentuate the moments of vocal staccato, while the horns and the strings beautifully compliment each other. The piano adds a nostalgic layer that harkens back to Aretha’s early Atlantic recordings. But of course, what makes “Sparkle” truly glisten is Aretha and that vocal performance. Aretha begins her performance subdued and quickly crescendos to demonstrate her vocal prowess (superiority, dominance, power). A troupe of background singers provide Aretha the reinforcement she needs to convey her message. “Understand, there will be no other man but you baby” she reassures. “You can believe,” she continues, “this love in me, as I believe in you.” Her surges of power are staggering, and her control is
Sparkle arrived in the midst of Aretha’s dry spell, despite being in some of her best voice in her career, the material aside from Sparkle didn’t match that. The two albums released before, and three released after have never been reissued. Sparkle is Aretha’s only post-1974 LP on Atlantic Records to be available on CD, digital, and streaming. And it’s Aretha, not her sister Carolyn who Curtis approached first to record the LP, nor Irene Cara and the other actresses in ‘Sparkle’ the film, who could have pulled off such a feat.
As I researched, I was surprised to learn that Curtis also gave his own reading of “Sparkle” the following year on 1977’s Never Say You Can’t Survive. It’s fascinating to listen to how he rearranges elements of the song, while maintaining others. It’s similar, but it doesn’t glisten the way Aretha’s version does, relying more heavily on acoustic guitar and shaker in the forefront. The brass, piano, and strings are all there, but further back in the mix. For much of the song, he carries the weight with none of the backgrounds which are so foundational to Aretha’s. Until a little after 2 minutes when they charge in, and then a minute later they become prominent just like Aretha’s. Curtis’ implementation of background vocals, strings, and electric guitars, plus strings all fall in line. It gives a touch of Chicago soul that both counters and compliments, and contrast Aretha’s southern, Detroit soul stew.
Every one and a while, Aretha mixed “Sparkle” into her setlist. It appeared rarely though compared to Sparkle’s big hit “Something He Can Feel” and the well-known “Hooked On Your Love.” It seemed to become more prominent post-2000 and even post-2010. “Sparkle” appeared on Aretha’s setlist at least 3 times in 2017, during some of her final live performances. This is the last live performance Aretha ever gave of “Sparkle”:
Listen to Aretha glisten on “Sparkle”: