The Number Ones

April 18, 1987

The Number Ones: Aretha Franklin & George Michael’s “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Aretha Franklin went 20 years without a #1 hit. In 1967, the 25-year-old Franklin was a former gospel prodigy who’d taken tentative steps toward pop stardom. Recording for Columbia in the early ’60s, Franklin sang standards, show tunes, and genteel ballads. They didn’t click. Franklin was obviously a generational talent, but her early singles generally stalled out in the lower reaches of the charts. In 1967, though, Atlantic Records was becoming a soul powerhouse, and producer Jerry Wexler snapped up Franklin once her Columbia contract was up. Wexler helped Franklin find a fiery Southern-soul sound, taking full advantage of her overwhelming howl. Franklin’s first single for Columbia was both a smash and a classic: “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You),” which peaked at #9. (It’s a 10.) Franklin’s second Atlantic single was even bigger, and it was arguably even better. It was “Respect.”

“Respect” was a defining statement, an iconic world-destroyer of a song. For two decades, it was also Aretha Franklin’s only #1 hit. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Franklin was a bona fide chart monster, and she kept cranking out big singles. In her first six years on Atlantic, Franklin released 14 top-10 hits. A couple of those singles, 1967’s “Chain Of Fools” and 1971’s “Spanish Harlem,” made it as high as #2. None of them got to #1. (“Chain Of Fools” is a 10. “Spanish Harlem” is an 8.)

During that run, Franklin wasn’t just a pop star. She was a universally recognized powerhouse, a historic figure. She made appearances with Martin Luther King, Jr. She showed up on the cover of Time. She returned to her gospel roots with the live 1972 double LP Amazing Grace, probably the biggest gospel album of all time. In some ways, she was the face of Black music in America. After that run sputtered to an end, people still spoke Aretha Franklin’s name with awe and reverence. But living legends don’t always make hits, and Franklin’s hits dried up. After 1973’s “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do),” Franklin didn’t score a top-10 hit for more than a decade. (“Until You Came Back To Me” peaked at #3. It’s an 8.)

For Aretha Franklin to return to #1, a lot of the right dominoes had to fall. She had to sign to the right label, work with the right producer, and find the right song. More importantly, she had to team up with a surging young white pop star — a man who was only too happy to sing with Aretha Franklin. In 1987, George Michael was only just embarking on a solo career after his time in Wham!, and he was desperate to be taken seriously, to be heard as something other than a teen heartthrob. I don’t think that’s why Michael recorded a duet with Aretha Franklin. If you consider yourself a soul singer, which George Michael definitely did, then that’s just the kind of opportunity you don’t turn down. But even if the decision wasn’t calculated, the Michael/Franklin duet did good things for both of them. George Michael got to move into a new phase in the public eye, and Aretha Franklin, for the second time in 20 years, got a #1 hit.

The Aretha Franklin comeback probably started in 1980. That’s when she walked away from Atlantic, which wasn’t really a soul-centric label anymore and which wasn’t getting her records into the charts. She signed with Clive Davis at Arista, and Davis made a project out of her, working to capitalize on her beloved-icon status. 1980 was also the year that Aretha Franklin showed up in the hugely successful movie The Blues Brothers, singing her 1968 hit “Think” and quite possibly stealing the entire film. (In 1968, “Think” peaked at #7. It’s a 10. The Blues Brothers’ highest-charting single, their 1979 version of “Soul Man,” peaked at #14.)

In her first few years at Arista, Franklin stayed strong on the R&B charts, where she’d never lost her touch, but her singles didn’t cross over much. Franklin’s first four albums on Arista only yielded one real pop hit: 1982’s Luther Vandross-produced “Jump To It,” an R&B chart-topper that peaked at #24 on the Hot 100. Those fortunes changed when Franklin made the 1985 album Who’s Zoomin’ Who. Working with producer Narada Michael Walden, Franklin embraced a synthy dance-pop sound, and it became her biggest-ever studio album. Who’s Zoomin’ Who went platinum, and it launched two top-10 singles. (“Freeway Of Love” peaked at #3. It’s a 7. “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” peaked at #7. It’s a 6.)

Around the time as Franklin was mounting her comeback, Whitney Houston, the daughter of Franklin’s longtime backup singer Cissy, signed to Arista and became a huge star. Whitney also went to work with Narada Michael Walden, and she recorded her own #1 hit “How Will I Know” at the same session where Franklin cut “Freeway Of Love.” Franklin, who made a cameo in the “How Will I Know” video, was central to Whitney Houston’s whole origin-story narrative, and her name probably granted Whitney a ton of credibility. In turn, Whitney’s massive success probably helped power the Aretha Franklin comeback.

In 1986, Franklin followed Who’s Zoomin’ Who with her album Aretha. It was her 31st studio LP, and it was the third time she’d used Aretha as an album title. Its cover art was the last work that Andy Warhol completed before he died in 1987. Narada Michael Walden returned to produce most of the album, though Franklin produced a few tracks herself and Keith Richards came in to produce Franklin’s version of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” That Stones cover, the album’s lead single, peaked at #21, and its follow-up, the album opener “Jimmy Lee,” only made it to #28. But Clive Davis had an ace in the hole. He had George Michael.

Wham! officially broke up in the summer of 1986, when they played their goodbye show at Wembley Stadium. In America, where “Careless Whisper” had been credited to Wham! Featuring George Michael, Michael’s first official solo single was “A Different Corner,” a pillowy ballad from Wham!’s final album Music From The Edge Of Heaven. (“A Different Corner” peaked at #7. It’s a 5.) Michael was still working on his first solo album when he got the call to sing with Aretha Franklin. Michael was nervous to attempt to stand on the same ground as Franklin, but he had to do it, so he took the Concord from London to Detroit.

The song that Michael and Franklin sang together came from another unlikely pair. (It feels weird to call them “Michael and Franklin,” like they’re the main characters in a family movie about a little boy who’s best friends with a dog, but we’re going with last names out of professionalism and respect. I never met Aretha Franklin. I can’t just call her “Aretha” like we’re old buddies.) Songwriters Simon Climie and Dennis Morgan met in London in 1983, when the Everly Brothers played a reunion show at Royal Albert Hall. Climie was a Londoner who wanted to become a pop star. Morgan was a veteran Nashville songwriter with a string of country hits to his name. Morgan had flown out to see the Everlys’ show, but he was also looking for a new songwriting partner, and he wanted to see if he could do anything outside the realm of country. Climie and Morgan met at an after-party, and they decided to start writing songs together. “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” was only the third song they wrote as a team.

“I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” never mentions God explicitly, but it’s a gospel song. There are plenty of big songs that could be about religious devotion or romantic love, but “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” isn’t really one of them. I guess it could be about finding redemption with a lover, but the track never hides its churchy leanings. The lyrics are pure gospel: “When the river was deep, I didn’t falter/ When the mountain was high, I still believed.” Climie and Morgan pitched the song to Tina Turner, and she definitely could’ve done something cool with it. But if you’re going to record a gospel song that’s also a pop song, you really can’t do any better than Aretha Franklin.

Climie and Morgan didn’t write “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” as a duet, and they were surprised to learn that Franklin was recording it as one. And honestly, it doesn’t sound like a duet, though maybe that lets you suspend your disbelief and think of it as a straight-up love song. (Even then, you have to think about Aretha Franklin and George Michael as a couple, which seems improbable.) But Clive Davis had the idea of getting Michael on the track, and Franklin, who liked Wham!, was into it. Franklin recorded most of her vocals and ad-libs alone, before Michael showed up. Michael sang his parts the next day, while Franklin hung out in the studio, eating ribs. (Michael once told a great story about that.) But when the two of them sang the chorus, they sang it together, facing each other in the same vocal booth.

Maybe it was George Michael’s job to turn “I Knew You Were Waiting” into a pop song, but I think producer Narada Michael Walden had that covered. Walden’s backing track is pure big-’80s dance-pop — gated drums, twinkly keyboards, growling guitars. That’s a clean, mechanistic sound, which isn’t exactly what we think of when we think of Aretha Franklin. But more than any of his contemporaries, Walden knew how to get real energy out of that aesthetic. (Walden also produced Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” the song that “I Knew You Were Waiting” knocked out of the #1 spot. Walden was on fire in ’87. We’ll see his work in this column again soon.) “I Knew You Were Waiting” has a real sparkle, and Franklin sounds perfectly comfortable on it.

It really should be an Aretha Franklin solo song. The track was never going to be one of Franklin’s best, but she sounds amazing on it. She’s commanding and purposeful, and all of her big runs are genuinely thrilling. Michael seems to know that it’s his job to stay out of her way, and that’s what he does. Even when he’s singing his ad-libs, Michael doesn’t really show off. He just stays in the cut, setting things up for whenever Franklin will come storming back in. Still, I like the way their voices sound when they sing together. Michael is outclassed and overpowered, but he still adds a certain heft and smoothness. He doesn’t sound like he’s scared to be there.

Andy Monahan, the guy who made most of Michael’s Wham! videos, directed the clip for “I Knew You Were Waiting,” and it’s mostly pretty unremarkable — just Franklin and Michael singing in big rooms full of screens. But both of them have huge charisma, and Michael uses the occasion to try out a new look: Tight jeans, aviator shades, wavy hair, stubble, dangly earring, Grease-looking leather jacket. Michael was working towards his solo breakthrough, and “I Knew You Were Waiting” set him up beautifully. We’ll see a whole lot more of him, and that look, in this column.

“I Knew You Were Waiting” also set things up for the co-writer Simon Climie, who was still trying to become a pop star himself. Around the same time that the single was hitting, Climie formed the duo Climie Fisher with the former Naked Eyes keyboardist Rob Fisher. The group didn’t last long, but they made a couple of UK hits, and their 1988 single “Love Changes Everything” — another song that Climie wrote with Dennis Morgan — made it to #23 on the Hot 100.

Aretha Franklin never had another top-10 hit after “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).” I don’t know if that mattered to her. Franklin was 45 when she landed her second #1 hit, and it’s not like she disappeared afterward. Instead, she lived out her final decades as the undisputed queen of soul — a true eminence of American music. Franklin sang “America The Beautiful” at WrestleMania III in her Detroit hometown and didn’t get booed — a tremendous achievement when you’re talking about wrestling crowds. She subbed in for a sick Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammys, singing the Puccini aria “Nessun Dorma” and tearing the roof off. She sang “My Country, ‘Tis Of Thee” at Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential inauguration and wore a very memorable hat. A couple of years before her death, Franklin was still capable of incredible things.

Aretha Franklin died of pancreatic cancer in 2018. She was 76. Both Aretha Franklin and George Michael are gone now, and they’re both remembered as legends, albeit very different sorts of legends. Their one big hit together is a footnote in both of their careers, but it’s still a pretty good song.

RATING: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Cynthia Erivo and Adam Lambert singing “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” together as part of a remote fundraiser last year:

(Adam Lambert’s highest-charting single, 2009’s “Whataya Want From Me,” peaked at #10. It’s a 6. Cynthia Erivo has never had a Hot 100 single, but she kicks ass in Widows.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: Crowded House’s melancholy lighters-up ballad “Don’t Dream It’s Over” peaked at #2 behind “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).” It’s an 8.

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