Portrait of the artist as a young woman
The should-have-been hits and misses of Aretha's years at Columbia Records
Published: June 22, 2011
In 1964, the Beatles shifted culture with "I Want to Hold Your Hand," the Civil Rights Act passed, but creepy Klansman Byron De La Beckwith got off twice for the murder of Medgar Evers. The same year Aretha Franklin wrote and recorded "I'll Keep on Smiling," one of the most overlooked songs in her canon, a stunning, pissed-off ode to empowerment — foreshadowing her career-defining "Respect" three years down the road — whose opening salvo was a witty, pre-feminist call-to-arms: "I'm gonna smile and take it baby/ Until I get tired of you/ When I've had enough of this business/ You'll be the first one to know we're through." Powerful, self-assured, in a voice that rolls and rumbles like balls in lanes at a bowling alley, it's easy to forget those are words of a drop-dead beautiful 21-year-old girl-woman, daughter of a fiery Detroit minister, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, a single mother who three years earlier had left two small children behind and boarded a New York-bound bus to make it in the music business.
The scampy jazz-shuffle of "Smiling" could've sidled up on Sam Cooke's contemporaneous album Night Beat, except that Aretha's lyrics work in opposition to male dominance if you consider Cooke's wily take of "Shake Rattle and Roll": "Get into that kitchen/ Make some noise with the pots and pans ..." Aretha was not here to make any noise with pots and pans. She was here for a very different kind of noise.
In another context, the "Smiling" lyrics tell of Aretha's frustration in her final years at Columbia Records.
That's not to say that all of her time at Columbia was frustrating; she did record seven official albums and dozens of other songs, singles and experiments, all of which became the fascinating foundation of her legacy and the genesis of Take a Look: Complete on Columbia, a recent collection of her entire Columbia output. Because she recently overcame an illness and cancer scare and she's performing back in Detroit in late summer, and because her debut album dropped 50 years ago, her early work and sometimes rocky early stages as a recording artist are worth considering now more than ever.
But let's cut back to 1960. That was when the bouffant-headed 18-year-old got signed to the world's biggest, most prestigious record company by John Hammond, the producer-talent scout renowned for owning the sweetest set of ears in the biz. Hammond had nearly three decades' worth of music biz experience, and he'd already found Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Charlie Christian, Count Basie and would soon discover Bob Dylan and later Bruce Springsteen. More, Hammond was a bit of a perfectionist and a big reason why Columbia albums sounded so good, going lengths to capture the music's authenticity, dynamics and human intent. Music today would look and sound a lot different had Hammond not existed.
For a young African-American singer-pianist in those days, to collaborate with Hammond at Columbia Records was akin to winning American Idol and working with Polow da Don and other top biz brass — there's no way the Franklin-Hammond hookup could not strike commercial gold, even if white America wasn't ready for it. Or so went conventional thinking at the time.
In his 1977 autobiography, Hammond writes that he first heard Aretha accompanying herself on piano via a roughly recorded demo tape intended to showcase the work of songwriter Curtis Lewis. Curtis merits no further mention, but in Aretha, Hammond realized he'd found the most "dynamic jazz voice" since Billie Holiday. He called his latest discovery an "untutored genius."
Well, that "untutored" genius had already wowed legions with her 14-year-old voice in front of thousands at her dad's celebrated 4,500-member New Bethel Baptist Church on Linwood at West Philadelphia in Detroit. Aretha and her singing sisters, Erma and Carolyn, were local celebs, particularly Aretha, such was her vocal power and the influence of her dad's church.
She'd learned road-life unpleasantness and witnessed Southern racism firsthand on Dad's gospel caravan, a scorching evangelist show that toured the country (Aretha's performances were collected on Songs of Faith and released by Chess Records, which also licensed dozens of Dad's sermons on LP.)
Her influences extended beyond the church doors too, into the Motor City's North End neighborhood, that superstar breeding ground where Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Smokey Robinson, Bettye LaVette and others grew up in the '50s. Detroit was its own living, breathing life form; music infused the city and ghettos with true personality; teen crooners and harmonizers populated schoolyards and street corners.
Aretha's girlhood crush on boxer Ray Robinson matched her love of roller skates; she taught herself piano at a tender age. Her personality could be described as mostly withdrawn and timid, but self-possessed and driven while singing, which she learned in her family's Boston Boulevard living room watching gospel greats such as Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward roar and shout during one of many all-night parties. Flesh-and-blood blues informed her life and voice too; her mother, Barbara, died of heart complications when Aretha was 10, and she quit Northern high school after becoming pregnant at 14 with Clarence (named after dad) who, she said, was fathered by a local teen. A couple years later, Aretha gave birth to Eddie, named after another teenage local daddy.
In Nick Salvatore's biography of C.L. Franklin, Singing in a Strange Land, Dad's reaction to Aretha's pregnancies is unknown, but Aretha is quoted as saying her father's "concern and participation in the lives of his children were exemplary."
But Aretha was inspired. Hip to her wise-beyond-its-years voice, pre-Motown Berry Gordy (with Billy Davis) attempted to sign her in 1958 to a production deal, but Dad nixed it. She was too young. (Older sister Erma demoed for Gordy with Aretha backing on piano. Erma later quit college and eventually signed to Epic Records, getting a hit with the original "Piece of My Heart." Who knows what would've gone down had the sisters Franklin stuck with Gordy.)
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