“A Tender Touch” from Aretha Franklin’s twenty-third studio album, Sweet Passion, surely lives up to its name. There’s a tenderness to the song. The combination of bass, background vocals, and strings lay forth a gentle atmosphere for Aretha’s piano playing to come in and out of focus as Aretha tries to let her man down easy.
This is another Aretha-penned composition, and sweetness emanates from every angle of the music. But at moments the sweetness masks the subject matter. Lyrics like “I don’t think I love you, I ain’t gon’ love you at all,” make this an unmistakable break-up record. They can still be friends, she reassures him, but their affair is at an end.
It’s interesting to listen to the different elements that comprise the song, specifically the piano and the strings. It sounds like the goal of this record was to emulate Curtis Mayfield, who Aretha worked with the previous year. Curtis wrote and produced 1976’s blockbuster Sparkle, which gave Aretha a momentary resurgence. Following the failure of Sweet Passion, they’d reunite the following year for another commercial failure, 1978’s Almighty Fire.
With a different producer and arranger though, “A Tender Touch” could easily have been transformed into a sizzling disco record. Disco was burning up the charts by 1977, and “A Tender Touch” has the makings of a disco record. The sweeping strings that are constant throughout and Aretha’s defining piano accompaniment would have played well with a faster tempo, and different vocal production and instrumentation, especially the percussion. Maybe one day Aretha’s catalog will be dissected by some remixers who can turn that fantasy into a reality.
Listen to “A Tender Touch”: