On a soundtrack jammed with modern-day R&B stars Boyz II Men, Jody Watley, and rapper Queen Latifah, Aretha Franklin, the original Queen of Soul, stands out. Boy, does she stand out. The 21 2 minutes that Franklin’s ”If I Lose” is heard on screen in White Men Can’t Jump are a powerful reminder of an era getting more distant by the minute: Sorry, Jody, but some singers still sing for a living.
What makes ”If I Lose” a significant departure for Franklin is how bare it sounds — and how magnificent her voice can still be when unencumbered by overproduction. It’s a sad reminder of her glory days at Atlantic in the ’60s (the quiet ballad wouldn’t sound out of place on 1968’s Aretha: Lady Soul). Unfortunately for those who loved the simple, elegantly soulful quality of that music, Franklin has been conspicuously ”modernized” since 1980, during her tenure at Arista Records. Although she’s had her share of hits there, most of them have been assembled by big-name producers like Narada Michael Walden and might have easily featured another singer entirely — like, say, label mate Whitney Houston, whom Walden has also produced. Arista has also turned the Queen of Soul into the Queen of Duets, pairing her with Houston, Annie Lennox, George Michael, and James Brown. Like…Aretha Franklin needs a gimmick?
Ironically, Mitchell Leib, VP of A&R/Soundtracks at EMI Records, who put together the White Men Can’t Jump soundtrack, included the Franklin track only as a ”gimme” to the film’s director, Ron Shelton, and its music director, saxophonist Bennie Wallace. For its featured slot — immediately after Woody Harrelson’s double-or-nothing basketball-dunking loss to Wesley Snipes — the two directors had wanted a piece with a ”traditional” feel, says Leib. ”I wanted to go in a contem-porary direction,” he says. ”Shelton, being the kind of music head he is, loves the Aretha Franklins and the Ray Charleses — the people you couldn’t have a hit with if you put them together with Prince, basically. And I kept trying to tell him, ‘Look, they’re old, nobody cares anymore — and you’re making a picture that’s going to have a young audience. They’re not going to appreciate the music.’ So we went back and forth.”
Shelton and Wallace not only won — they wrote the song Aretha sings in the film. Franklin is accompanied by jazz pianist Tommy Flanagan, drummer Grady Tate, Wallace’s bassist, Bill Huntington, and Wallace himself on sax. ”Aretha really hung in there,” says Wallace. ”It was a good experience.” Unlike her work for Arista-for that matter, unlike today’s record biz — ”If I Lose” was recorded live in the studio, with only the strings added later. It may be the major reason the track sounds so much like classic Aretha. She may never make a hit record with Prince, but hey — despite what you hear, this Queen is not dead.