After becoming anointed The Queen of Soul following a lengthy string of hits in the late ’60s through the early ’70s, Aretha Franklin’s career became volatile. 1976’s Sparkle soundtrack provided a temporary relief, but it was followed by a string of underwhelming albums that ultimately necessitated her departure from her long time home of Atlantic Records. She was wooed over to competing label Arista by noted executive Clive Davis. Her first two albums for that label did okay business before Davis had the brainwave to team her with an up and coming Luther Vandross for the R&B smashes “Jump To It” and “Get It Right”.
As inconsistent as her R&B chart entries became, her crossover success ground to a complete halt. Aretha was a pop chart mainstay during her heyday, but only two Aretha singles graced the top 40 of the pop chart between 1974-1985; Sparkle‘s “Something He Can Feel” and the aforementioned “Jump To It”. And while both songs spent weeks at the #1 position on the soul list, neither of them managed to crack the top 20 on the Hot 100.
“Freeway of Love” restored Aretha’s chart fortunes in a major way. It was a massive R&B smash that shot the diva back into the public eye via a stylish video and some canny synergy. Tina Turner’s Private Dancer (released a year before “Freeway”) set a template for soul divas on the comeback trail, and Aretha’s single boasted a sax solo by Bruce Springsteen’s right hand man, Clarence Clemons.
Calculation and timing may make for a hit song, but they don’t necessarily make for a good song. “Freeway of Love” may have been designed to point Aretha back in the direction of pop success, but it is also a stone jam. The Queen sounds refreshed, sassy and playful in a way that she hadn’t in years. Everything about “Freeway” is propulsive, from Narada Michael Walden’s shiny production to the insistent background vocals provided by a murderer’s row of session singers including the great Martha Wash, Aretha’s sister Carolyn Franklin, and disco diva Sylvester. If the goal was to have cars around the country pumping to Aretha’s voice during the summer of ’85, Clive and company succeeded, giving Aretha one of her biggest hits (and best songs) of her post-Atlantic career.