In this day and age, it’s standard practice for artists to release songs that may or may not end up making their album. Even some of the biggest names in music today like Beyoncé have engaged in the practice. The song is either strictly for promotion, or that becomes the story when it doesn’t perform as expected. It happened to Aretha Franklin in 1973 with “Master Of Eyes (The Deepness Of Your Eyes).”
Released on January 17, 1973, “Master Of Eyes” served as the lead single to Aretha’s 1973 LP Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky), which Aretha produced alongside Quincy Jones. When the album hit shelves in June 1973, “Master Of Eyes” was nowhere to be found. The reason for this remains unknown, although it’s likely due to its chart performance. The song peaked at number 33 on the pop charts and number 8 on the R&B charts, which was somewhat out of step for a lead single from an Aretha Franklin LP during this time period.
Aretha worked exclusively with Jerry Wexler and company from the beginning of her time at Atlantic Records in early 1967, which began a legendary run of hits culminating in the recording of Amazing Grace in January 1972. After cutting Amazing Grace, Aretha decided to branch out and enlisted Quincy Jones for her next LP, Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky). The two recorded on and off during spring and summer of 1972 at The Record Plant in Los Angeles.
One of the final tracks recorded was “Master Of Eyes,” a soulful cut with a psychedelic aura. The flute that helps introduce the song is classic Quincy, and fuels the song’s trippy profile. It swirls during the introduction as Quincy’s orchestra ramps up, almost akin to the sounds of an orchestra warming up before the conductor taps his music stand. It zips in and out for the rest of the song, following its own melodic pattern. It’s an accent that sets the record apart from others.
Lyrically, it’s a knockout. Aretha and Bernice Hart crafted yet another adoring record in Aretha’s era of love and adoration. Starting with 1972’s Young, Gifted and Black and all the way into the 80’s Aretha’s music was filled with brighter themes and more love songs. It was a direct reflection of her own love life, which had turned a corner after her divorce from Ted White, and the removal of alcohol in her life. Even though Aretha had been recording songs she wrote since 1962, she didn’t really break into love song territory until 1970’s “Call Me.” “Dr. Feelgood” in 1967 came closest, but that’s more sexual than love.
And yes, there is a sexual component to “Master Of Eyes.” The way she and her background singers deliver the phrase “the deepness of your eyes,” is lustful, and the opening lyric reveals that she’s turned on just by the look in his eyes. But there’s so much more to the lyrical content of this record. “Do we reflect the sameness of one, the unity to have and to hold,” Aretha ponders. By invoking “to have and to hold,” she’s referencing marriage vows and trying to discern the depth this entanglement possesses. The notoriously private Aretha tends the love “in quiet seclusion,” but admits that she’s not holding the aces. Only he can tell “if this is love or just an illusion.”
“I feel your loving all the time” she wails during the song’s chorus, before a disjointed bridge where Aretha details a “wheel of fading fortune, standing, for a long, long long, day.” It’s a perplexing reference, but likely an allegory for her love life. There’s so much love here, yet so much uncertainty to accompany it. But for all the uncertainty, she can’t stop loving him.
“Master of Eyes” occupies a lot of singular positions as it pertains to the album. It’s the only song released during the album’s cycle to not be included on the album as well as the only excluded cut to be included on the 1994 reissue. It’s also the only known composition of Bernice Hart, the song’s co-writer. Finally, it’s the only song from the album whose exact recording date is publicly known.
Aretha and Quincy first went into the studio to record in April 1972. Subsequent sessions took place to complete the album in May and August of the same year. It’s easy to see a list of the songs recorded during each month (even those still unreleased), but the exact dates the recording sessions took place may be lost to time. According to the liner notes from 1992’s Queen of Soul: The Atlantic Recordings box set though, they recorded “Master of Eyes (The Deepness of Your Eyes)” on August 25, 1972. Based on the data available, it was the penultimate song they cut during the album’s sessions.
The single was released on January 17, 1973, with Aretha’s rendition of “Moody’s Mood” as the b-side. It would have been a reasonable taste of the LP, which largely found Aretha and Quincy dabbling in R&B and jazz. Though the song didn’t perform well, it was well-received. Despite its absence from the album, Rolling Stone’s mixed review of the album from 1973 shined a light on the “inexplicably… omitted” “Master Of Eyes.” The writer felt the original material didn’t “measure up to the standards she’s been setting for herself,” and called “Master Of Eyes,” “overly ambitious” in comparison.
Despite the exclusion from Hey Now Hey in 1973, “Master Of Eyes” has been recognized as an important piece of Aretha’s musical legacy. The song was included as part of Aretha’s legacy on multiple compilations, including the immensely popular The Very Best Of Aretha Franklin: The 70’s as well as both of the big four-disc compilations, 1992’s Queen of Soul: The Atlantic Recordings and 2021’s ARETHA. It even won a Grammy Award in 1974 for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female, part of Aretha’s record-holding run of 8 consecutive wins in the category.
Most interestingly, the song found its way onto the Spanish pressing of Aretha’s 1974 LP Let Me In Your Life. It replaced track 2, “Every Natural Thing”. No other pressing appears to bear “Master Of Eyes”, and this was apparently due to “Every Natural Thing” being censored in Spain.
The only performance of “Master of Eyes (The Deepness Of Your Eyes)” that’s online was recorded during Aretha’s April 1973 appearance on Soul Train. It was the final song in her setlist. The performance features Aretha lip syncing to a track, not singing live. It’s unclear if she sang it live or to a track during the recording.
Listen to “Master Of Eyes (The Deepness Of Your Eyes)”
Bonus: Check out the mono mix of “Master Of Eyes.” Aretha’s lead vocals are more resonant and striking than they are in the stereo mix, which is what’s been remastered and digitized. It highlights the importance of seeking out both mixes when listening to these records.