“I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” — George Michael and Aretha Franklin
To celebrate her life, today I’m writing about one of Aretha Franklin’s biggest, but lesser-known, hits — a Billboard and UK Number One in 1987.
That’s not to take away from the brilliance of her performances of songs like “Respect”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Say A Little Prayer For Me”. Aretha Franklin made those songs her own, even though she didn’t write any of them.
Admittedly she was able to build on already-great songs written by some of the 20th Century’s most talented songwriters — Otis Redding, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and Burt Bacherach and Hal David respectively.
But Aretha Franklin summoned the performance of a lifetime for each of them, elevating those already great songs into all-time classics. The memories of her singing those songs is burned deeply into the collective consciousness of us all.
Looking back now, as you read all the obituaries to the Queen of Soul, you might be forgiven for thinking that Aretha Franklin has always been at the top of the tree. But in the 1980s problems with her record company and several years without a big hit meant she’d largely faded from people’s minds.
Thankfully, one of the biggest stars of the day had long been an admirer. George Michael — in my opinion one of the best singers and songwriters who ever lived, and criminally under-rated in both aspects of his career — was riding the crest of a wave after his successes with Wham! and had recently embarked on his solo career.
I don’t know what was in the coffee that day at Arista Records, but Clive Davis, the head of Arista, was pitched “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” and had the idea of putting together a current superstar in the shape of George Michael and an old-school diva in the shape of Aretha Franklin.
“I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” was written by Simon Climie (half of Climie Fisher, who had a big hit with “Love Changes Everything”) and American songwriter Dennis Morgan. It wasn’t even written as a duet and had been pitched as a solo project to Tina Turner before Clive Davis got involved.
Simon Climie and Dennis Morgan’s song tells the story of a struggle…
Like a warrior that fights
And wins the battle
I know the taste of victory
Though I went through some nights
Consumed by shadows
And was crippled emotionally
Somehow I made it through the heartache, yes I did
I escaped, found my way out of the darkness
Kept my faith, kept my faith
In addition to her music, Aretha Franklin was well known as an activist for civil rights and gender equality. She also worked hard to eliminate discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and was a long-standing supporter of Elton John’s AIDS Foundation.
So it’s tempting to see the appeal to her of “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” as a reflection on those issues. But it probably also appealed to her after struggling through several years in the music-industry wilderness. When you’ve been at the top of the tree, it’s hard when nobody returns your calls.
1987 would go on to be a great year for both George Michael, who released his album “Faith” later that year, and Aretha Franklin, who had released her comeback album “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” a short time beforehand.
We should also pause for a moment to reflect on the brilliance of producer Narada Michael Walden who crafted “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” into such a perfect piece of 1980s pop…and a record that has stood the test of time in a way that few of its contemporaries have.
A talented drummer and multi-instrumentalist, as well as a record producer, Narada Michael Walden has worked with greats like Jeff Beck, Al Jarreau, George Benson, Ray Charles, Diana Ross and Gladys Knight over the years.
His experience meant he would probably be one of the few record producers not to be overwhelmed by the talent when Aretha Franklin and George Michael turned up in his studio one day.
When you’re working through a struggle, sometimes it’s hard to keep going. It’s tempting to give up after you’ve been slogging away for so long without success. What sets the greats apart…and Aretha Franklin was one of the greats…is that they keep going…
And the river was deep
I didn’t falter
And the mountain was high
I still believed
And the valley was low
It didn’t stop me, no, no
I knew you were waiting
I knew you were waiting for me
You see, faith on its own is an important part of making it through the struggle, but it’s not enough by itself. When we take on the biggest challenges of our lives, we have to do it for someone…there has to be a purpose…there has to be someone waiting for us on the other side of our struggle, or there’s no point.
That’s why the title of “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” doesn’t reference the struggles or the challenges. Its power comes from being all about the person who makes you want to keep going through all the suffering in the first place.
That perspective on the struggle is what makes this song great…Simon Climie and Dennis Morgan nailed the sense of needing to do it for someone, to be with someone, rather than just blindly moving forward for no great purpose.
That person who’s waiting for you to emerge unscathed on the battlefield and come home safe again. It’s worth suffering for them.
That person who’s always there for you when things are at their hardest and you’re at your lowest ebb. It’s worth suffering through your demons to get better for them.
That person you know you can call in the middle of the night and they’ll talk to you for as long as you need when you’re trying to make it through the stillness and solitude of another night all alone. You know someone’s there for you, so it’s worth keeping on keeping on.
Simon Climie and Dennis Morgan sum this up perfectly…
With an endless desire I kept on searching
Sure in time our eyes would meet
And like the bridge is on fire
The hurt is over
One touch and you set me free
No, I don’t regret a single moment
I know you don’t, looking back
When I think of all those disappointments
I just laugh, I just laugh
Once you’re through the other side, you can afford to laugh, even though you won’t feel much like laughing while you’re battling through your disappointments.
Aretha Franklin had her share of disappointments. And, although we didn’t know it at the time “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” came out, George Michael would go on to have his share of disappointments in the years to come as well, before meeting an untimely end of his own a couple of years ago.
Yesterday Aretha Franklin, one of the brightest stars in music history, left us. When she knew time was short, I’m pretty sure Aretha Franklin knew George Michael was already in heaven, waiting for her.
There someone waiting for us all on the other side of our struggles.
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published.
Video below, or listen on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/0f6pHbsLzpWxl5CfhOUjBA