In the wake of the Queen of Soul’s passing, I’ve read lots of articles praising Aretha’s talents, but so many them reference her mid-60s pop breakthrough into the early 70s. As much as that needs to be talked about, it’s only part of her story.
When I saw her in The Blues Brothers movie and asked my parents who she was, they told me she was a singer who used to be popular in the 60s. Yes, in the 1980, she was a ‘used to be’, a reminder of what was, a singer whose career seemed to be done. That same year Donald Fagen sang about a nineteen year old who didn’t even ‘remember the Queen of Soul”. None of this was lost on Aretha, who changed record labels that year from Atlantic to Arista and began the long climb back into the pop mainstream, finally breaking into the Top 10 twice with Freeway Of Love & Who’s Zoomin’ Who in 1985, peaking with her 2nd #1 hit in 1987, I Knew You Were Waiting For Me, a duet with George Michael.
Now it may seem in a retrospect a calculated move to have an easy hit and sing with George, but it was a lot riskier than you would think. The song was recorded in early 1986 just as George was finishing up his obligations in Wham!. This was before he released Faith and there was no guarantee that he would become a superstar on his own. He wasn’t even on the Arista label, so Aretha would have needed to make an extra effort to seek him out, though I’m sure this was a dream come true for George. His first duet opportunity shows not only how well his voice complimented Aretha’s, it’s a great example of how less is more, and in singing what’s needed and works for the song is more important than showboating.
I’m not sure if the label even knew what they had in this classic pairing as this was the 3rd single released from that album. When it shot to the top in April 1987 for two weeeks, it also provided Aretha with her only UK #1, her biggest hit on the AC charts and won a Grammy for best R&B vocal, duo or group. George would go on to have 6 more #1 pop hits. Aretha would never hit the Top 10 again. Both are now gone and sorely missed.
Aretha’s last pop hit was 1998’s A Rose Is Still A Rose which reached #26, but more importantly her resurgence in the 80s fully revitalized her career keeping her in the public eye right up until her passing as she will forever be remembered as the Queen of Soul.