During the 1990’s, Aretha Franklin made almost as many appearances on other albums as she did her own. She released just 2 albums in the span of the decade, making the 90’s her sparsest decade of releases up to that point. That also became her standard output in each decade until her death in 2018. After 1991’s tepid What You See Is What You Sweat, Aretha stepped back from releasing full-length LPs and instead contributed original recordings to film soundtracks and compilations. Up to that point she’d only recorded one song for a soundtrack: 1980’s The Blues Brothers. The second film Aretha recorded for was Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X. Her cover of her late friend Donny Hathaway’s classic “Someday We’ll All Be Free” plays during the film’s end credits. This classic R&B record about personal struggle and perseverance takes on new meaning at the hands of Aretha.
The song hails from Donny Hathaway’s final solo album, 1973’s Extension of a Man. Donny composed the music to “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” but the lyrics were written by Edward Howard. Howard apparently wrote the lyrics about the mental turmoil Donny was experiencing. By that time, Hathaway had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, which would eventually lead to his tragic death in 1979.
Aretha sheds the deeply personal message behind the lyrics and instead gives them a completely new meaning; She transforms “Someday We’ll All Be Free” into an anthem for equal rights, while maintaining the sentiment of perseverance. Like many recordings before it, Aretha drives home her point by taking it to church.
Aretha took many of her records to church in a variety of ways, usually infusing elements in the arrangement, and adding gospel-influenced vocal runs to a song’s climax. It was standard for Aretha to open a record with a pop sentiment and take it to church at their climax. “Someday We’ll All Be Free” is a rare deviation from that strategy.
Instead of going gospel at the end, this magnanimous 8 minute rendition feels as though it opens in the midst of a church service. The organ and piano are vamping, the choir hums, and then Aretha surges through with a towering run as the tambourine begins to shake. It instantly evokes 1972’s Amazing Grace LP. She lets the Spirit lead her as she begins her testimony. This revival lasts for just over two minutes. With a final declaration of “freedom!,” the choir yields and the song shifts from gospel into contemporary R&B. Keyboards and a piano take over as Aretha carries her gospel into the secular realm right before our ears.
As she delivers the first chorus of “take it from me, someday we’ll all be free”, there’s a quality about her voice that sustains. A certainty. It’s subtle at first, but it’s unmistakable. When she comes back around to deliver the chorus again after the second verse, it’s more apparent. She emphasizes the “from me” by taking it up the octave, and suddenly sounds even more authoritative. As someone who worked with Dr King, she certainly is an authority. She knows freedom is possible. She’s seen it in the eyes of others, and possibly even her own, through her own experiences and tribulations. As these words surge from her with an intensity only the Queen of Soul can bring, Aretha sounds like she believes them with every fiber of her being.
Her delivery oozes perseverance and determination. She sounds entirely certain as she declares “take it from me someday we’ll all be free”, especially during the second chorus where she emphasizes “from me” and goes up instead of singing the melody straight out.
For all the soul Aretha brings to the record, she’s vocally at her worst on “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” Decades of smoking had diminished her range to the point where her tone possesses a distinct rasp and notable limitations. But at no point does it impede her effectiveness nor her soulfulness in any capacity. If anything, the diminishment permits her voice to achieve a higher level of conviction. It’s a strong contrast to the late 1970’s, when her voice was at its strongest but her material was weakest. Certainly her high notes elevated things to another level during both her peak years and her vocal resurgence in the late 1990’s. What she lacks in range here, she more than makes up for in feeling.
Roger Ebert commented that “One of the most stunning things of all is to watch the film’s closing credits. Note… the sound of Aretha Franklin’s phenomenal voice.” The placement of “Someday We’ll All Be Free” at the end of the film concludes a powerful portrayal of a trailblazing figure, and leaves no doubt in Aretha’s belief that freedom will come, someday.
There is a single live performance of “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” Aretha brought it to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. during An American Reunion, one of the inaugural celebrations for President Bill Clinton in January 1993. Good luck finding the video footage though. It seems to have been scrubbed from the internet, for now.
Stevie Wonder also performed it in front of Aretha at her UNCF Evening of Stars Tribute in 2007. It was one of two performances from that night to bring Aretha to tears. And excuse the horrendous autotune. Someone involved with the show got a little trigger happy and autotuned the entire show.
Aretha’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” is currently streaming on Amazon Music. However, on July 30, 2021, it will be released across all formats and platforms as part of Rhino’s ARETHA 4-CD box set and 2-LP vinyl release.
Listen to Aretha’s towering “Someday We’ll All Be Free”