This song was written by Narada Michael Walden and Jeffrey Cohen. Walden is the guy you call when you need to produce a diva: he has written and produced hits for Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Diana Ross. When we asked him about the one song that had the greatest impact on his career, he told us it was "Freeway of Love" by Aretha Franklin.
Walden played drums for John McLachlan and the Mahavishnu Orchestra and also released albums as a solo artist. He wrote this song for one of those solo albums, but didn't release it. Two years later, Clive Davis at Arista Records tapped Walden to produce Aretha's Who's Zoomin' Who? album. After recording the title track and "Until You Say You Love Me," he decided that "Freeway" could work for Franklin, so he recorded a new demo of the song with a singer named Kitty Beethoven so Aretha could hear how it might sound. Said Walden, "By that time we were working well together and it was all good and she sang the hell out of it. In fact, she had the whole thing memorized, even down to all the ad libs on the ending. Everything about the song was memorized. So I went, 'Damn, now I know why they call you the Queen of Soul.' When she comes in she's really well prepared." (Here's the full Narada Michael Walden interview.)
This joyful tune is about a joyride in a pink Cadillac convertible - one of those trips on a beautiful day when you have nowhere to be and all the time you need to get there. Narada Michael Walden wrote the song on a piano in his living room. He had the "Pink Cadillac" line, but it was fellow songwriter Jeffrey Cohen who added "Wind's against my back" to round out the lyric. Cohen then wrote the verse, and Walden recorded it with a Motown vibe, which translated to Franklin's version. "It came out at the right time, which was Summertime," said Walden. "All the tops down on the cars, girls in bikinis; it's was on; it was everywhere."
This is one of the most famous driving songs of all time, but Aretha Franklin doesn't drive. The lyrics don't specify who is driving the car, however, so we'll assume that Aretha is the passenger.
Aretha Franklin has an astonishing 20 #1 R&B hits - more than any other artist - and this song was the last of them. It was also a huge pop hit and revitalized her career. Franklin took a lot of time off in the early '80s as her father was in a coma from 1979 until his death in 1984. When she recorded her Who's Zoomin' Who? album, she hadn't been in a studio in two years, and hadn't had a Top 10 on the Hot 100 since "Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)" in 1973. Her producer Narada Michael Walden was careful to ease her in, and his nurturing style paid off with a great performance by Aretha. It also led to a gig producing another very talented singer. Walden told us: "I almost turned down working with Whitney Houston because I was busy cutting 'Freeway of Love.' I got a call from Arista and I said, First of all, I'm right in the middle of making this album for Aretha. I can't take my attention off that. But they said, You've got to make time for this girl because she's going to be incredible. So they sent me the demo on 'How Will I Know.' I said, the song's only half done, will it be okay if I mess with it? Eventually, the writers said it would be okay. So I rewrote it and cut it on the same session as 'Freeway of Love.'"
Bruce Springsteen's saxophone player Clarence Clemons played on this track, recording his sax part at 9am. Clemons got more work the next year when he did a duet with Jackson Browne called "You're A Friend Of Mine," which Walden also produced and co-wrote with Jeffrey Cohen. That song hit #18 in the US.
This song was recorded at United Sound Studios in Detroit. Musicians included Walden on drums, Preston Glass on vibraphone, Corrado Rustici on guitar and future American Idol judge Randy Jackson on bass. Aretha's sister, Carolyn, was one of the backing singers.
Franklin is from Detroit, which presented a fairly obvious concept for the video, which is heavy on car factory scenes, but also includes plenty of performance footage and some group dancing, which was pretty much mandated in post-Thriller MTV years. The black and white video made great use of Clarence Clemons, who appeared in sunglasses and a white suit. Walden gets lots of airtime playing the drums.
Bruce Springsteen released his song about a Pink Cadillac first, but relegated it to the B-side of his 1984 hit "Dancing In The Dark." After Aretha scored with "Freeway," Natalie Cole covered Springsteen's song and took it to #5 US in 1988.
This won Grammy Awards for Best R&B Song and Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female.