Aretha Franklin's Columbia recordings reveal a young singer finding her voice
Susan Whitall / Detroit News Music Writer
The conventional wisdom in any assessment of Aretha Franklin's musical career has always been that Columbia Records didn't know what to do with the gifted 18-year-old brought to the company by famed producer John Hammond in 1960.
Most point to 1967, when Atlantic Records scooped her up and released an unprecedented string of 30 consecutive Top 10 soul-pop hits, as the time that Franklin found her voice. Undoubtedly Columbia tried to groom her into an adult pop singer, taking her far from her gospel roots into jazz and show tunes.
And yet "Take a Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia," a box set to be released next Tuesday, is an opportunity to reconsider the body of work she recorded for the New York label from 1960-65. The set of 11 CDs comprises all of her Columbia albums plus unreleased material, all remastered from the original analog tapes. There is also a DVD of videos of her appearances on the Steve Allen "Tonight Show." Released just three days before Franklin's 69th birthday, it's a welcome reminder, amidst a barrage of tabloid interviews about her health and other issues, of the sense of joy and release, but also the artistic skill at the core of her music.
As Franklin herself told her biographer, David Ritz, "I look at my entire Columbia experience in a positive light. I wouldn't change anything." (Well, almost anything. She's often noted that her signing bonus at Atlantic was more than she made during her entire time at Columbia).
Born in Memphis but raised in Detroit, Franklin is often misidentified as a "Motown" singer, because it's assumed that any African-American singer of her generation who grew up here surely must have been snapped up by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr.
She was neighbors and a "sandbox friend" with Smokey Robinson in Detroit's north end, and she knew Gordy, but Franklin was never a Motown artist. As a child, she was a prodigy as both a singer and pianist, performing at her father the Rev. C.L. Franklin's church and on the road in his gospel show.
In 1959-60 Gordy was that guy running a label out of his garage, honing a sound that was performed by jazz musicians, but aimed squarely at teenagers. Franklin's father wanted the top of the line for his daughter, and in 1960, that was Columbia.
When word got out that Sam Cooke, a longtime friend of the Franklins, was determined to sign the teen for his sub-label on RCA, Hammond pressed his bosses to offer a contract, and an advance â€” unusual for a rookie singer.
The teenager was whisked off to New York, where she lived off and on for a time, taking dance lessons from Cholly Atkins (before he was hired by Motown), honing a live act with a jazz combo and learning how to present herself as a sophisticated lady of song. It gave her an affection for New York City that has never abated; she still vacations there in the summer.
Daphne Brooks, a professor of English and African-American studies at Princeton, wrote about Franklin in the CD box set.
"That early period was so intriguing to me, what it was like for her to be 18," Brooks said in an interview. "I kept thinking about these young women, these young sisters who evoke this Marlo Thomas, 'That Girl' spunk and individuality. I love the idea of her taking performance classes in the CBS building, dance lessons with Cholly, and living in the Village."
In the early '60s, the music world was sharply divided between mainstream adult pop and the teenaged sound of rock 'n' roll and R&B. Columbia had not staked its claim in the newer sounds, and it was set up to produce serious music for adults.
But the social tumult of the time, and the progress of the civil rights movement was important to Franklin, whose father was a civil rights advocate and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And it can be heard in the music.
"What a treasure it is to be able to listen to her becoming a woman, at the height of this historical transformative moment for African-Americans," Brooks said. She believes that Franklin has been too narrowly defined as a soul singer, when the Columbia sides reflect how diverse her musical skills were, and are.
"It challenges us to stretch our lexicon, to really place her in line with and on a continuum with many of her peers, the aesthetics she was tapping into," Brooks said. "Nancy Wilson, but there's also the influence of Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan, there's a kind of elegant glamour, a jazz culture that Aretha was immersing herself in, doing the jazz club circuit, doing these gigs with (Charles) Mingus and (John) Coltrane that we really have to pay attention to."
Indeed, as the DVD of her appearances on the "Tonight Show" illustrate, Franklin was a poised, satin-clad chanteuse, at ease singing any part of the classic American songbook. Her jazz training and musicianship have not always been acknowledged, but she has the respect of musicians because she is not "just" a singer, but one of them, a gifted pianist and arranger. She still loves including jazz classics like "Moody's Mood for Love" into her live sets.
While Brooks defends the more middle-of-the-road offerings here as proof of her versatility, numbers like "Swanee" or "That's Entertainment" might be more problematic for many. Just because Franklin is able to infuse kitsch with passion and meaning, doesn't mean she should have to do it.
Much of the credit for Franklin's blossoming at Atlantic Records can be laid at the door of producer Jerry Wexler, who knew to craft songs around her piano playing, creating "head" (or spontaneous) arrangements in collaboration with the other musicians. (Franklin should have gotten producing and arranging credits for much of her Atlantic work). Her Columbia producers kept her in much tighter rein, and it's interesting to hear their stern comments to the young singer, in snippets of studio talk included here.
But there are also times when she accompanies herself on piano on a song like Jimmy Reed's "Trouble in Mind," that you can hear the stirrings of a new sound, the soulful, gospel-infused music that would soon explode for her and the entire country.
What: "Take a Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia" (Sony/Legacy)
Release date: Tuesday
Price: Suggested retail: $169.98
Details: An 11-CD, 1 DVD box set of all of Franklin's Columbia albums from 1960-65 plus unreleased material
Worth a listen
"Take a Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia" (Sony/Legacy) was remastered from the original analog tapes, including many unreleased tracks. It's fascinating to hear Franklin's young, earnest voice come into its own. Some highlights:
"Today I Sing the Blues." Included on the first Columbia album, "Aretha with the Ray Bryant Combo," this is the song that first brought her to John Hammond's attention.
"Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington." Franklin always had a special feel for the feisty Washington's jazzy blues, and still had many of the Queen of the Blues' inflections on this stellar album.
"Walk on By" (Bacharach & David). Aretha later did a version of Bacharach & David's "I Say a Little Prayer" that Burt Bacharach pronounced his favorite version of any of his songs by any singer. Here, too, she takes her sweet time, making you wait for the next note.
"Every Little Bit Hurts" (E.Cobb), a Motown hit for Brenda Holloway, made for Aretha's expressive soulfulness.
"Trouble in Mind" (R.M. Jones). Blues and gospel blend beautifully, held together by Aretha's gospel-infused piano as her voice soars.
"Runnin' Out of Fools." Franklin shows how adept she was at infusing a blues feel into the most sophisticated jazz.
"Skylark." Aretha's dreamy take on the Hoagy Carmichael gem is also captured on the Steve Allen "Tonight Show" DVD.
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