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
Sam Cooke had been a frequent guest at the Franklins', and Aretha was enamored with him. He'd drive in from Chicago to sing in the reverend's choir and perform in his road shows. Aretha's eyes opened to the possibilities of singing in a pop context when Cooke switched to secular music in 1956.
In his biography Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul, Mark Bego explains that Dad supported Aretha's desire to explore musical genres — and, eventually, her switch to secular music — but he wasn't exactly keen on her leaving Detroit for New York City. But he relented. Had to. How else would the world hear her voice? Salvatore writes that church traditionalists, both in the South and Detroit, criticized Rev. Franklin for "allowing her to record rhythm and blues." The reverend retorted by saying good Christians can cross over, that Aretha left gospel but not the church, not her religious upbringing.
Imagine how few opportunities were afforded young black women in 1960, not just in pop; the Jim Crow South was as much alive as JFK's promise. Aretha would be singing for much more than the airwaves, or self-belief; she was part of a new generation already turned on by Ray Charles, interpreting American jazz and white pop music transcendently, beautifully, with the emotional and expressive appeal of gospel blues.
But no one could've guessed that Columbia Records would have no idea what to do with Aretha Franklin.
Sam Cooke was a star at RCA by 1960, and he lobbied to get Aretha signed to the label. Hammond found out and insisted Columbia offer her a contract first, which they did, one with an unusually high royalty rate for an unknown signee. Dad, who was said to be very, very protective of his daughter then, flew to New York City and oversaw the Columbia signing alongside her new manager Jo King.
Her skillfully recorded Columbia debut reveals a singer hardly depending on training wheels. She's suddenly a schooled sophisticate wearing couture, able to smolder and croon like Sam Cooke and Dinah Washington. She's empathetically backed by five of the best jazz cats in the city, led by pianist and Hammond signee Ray Bryant. (Aretha was once quoted as saying she loved everything Ray did, that "he had a church background which made us perfectly compatible.")
Recording began Aug. 1, 1960, at Manhattan's Columbia Studios on Seventh Avenue. Hammond's idea wasn't to create a pop sensation but to see his young singer win a jazz audience while maintaining her gospel integrity. (R&B, he admitted, held little interest for him.)
If you're only familiar with Aretha's Atlantic work, Aretha (With the Ray Bryant Combo) — released in early 1961— is an essential sonic curio, often showing a girl-woman strutting a kind of sullied sassafras and unspoken sexuality, but with a defiant, childlike innocence, atop a mix of downtown jazz, Broadway show, slow-burn blues and a kind of R&B lite. Some Detroit grit and straight-up gospel shouting had been exorcised, but that's not to say her voice wasn't capable of enough inhuman depths and heights to justify Hammond's "genius" adjective.
"Somewhere Over the Rainbow" was Aretha's choice, which, in her teen hands, sounds like a late-bar torch tune from someone twice her age, and less histrionic, but less memorable, than Judy Garland's signature take. The Gershwin brothers' 1935 oddball hit from Porgy and Bess, "It Ain't Necessarily So," gets auditory winks from Aretha, who could very well be mocking the tune, perhaps because of its sardonic biblical references or, maybe, that its writers were a couple of Jewish guys from New York, a million miles away from black life in South Carolina: "To get into heaven don' snap for a seven/ Live clean, don' have no fault/ Oh, I takes de gospel whenever it's pos'ble/ But wid a grain of salt."
But "Maybe I'm a Fool," "All Night Long" and "Today I Sing the Blues" were showpieces of blues-jazz balladry, Hammond-picked songs that hold up as definers of Aretha's early career. "Today I Sing the Blues" went Top 10 on Detroit radio, and had moments of jubilation, moments of that voice whose origin can be traced back to field hollers. She got picked as the new star female vocalist of the year in DownBeat's International Jazz Critics Poll, and was dubbed "The New Queen of Blues" (after Bessie Smith) in certain circles.
That voice is the propulsive heart of the album, of all her Columbia albums, and one thing Hammond and the record company got absolutely right was capturing it in recording; its dry rich timbre in the thick warmth of magnetic tape; every breath and inhale, every tube-lighted nuance and string-stroked note. Hammond knew what he was doing; after all, he recorded both Holiday and Bessie Smith similarly. Aretha is an astonishing achievement for a teenager and an extraordinary debut for anyone of any age.
The Electrifying Aretha Franklin, released in 1962, shows rising confidence — a girl's passage into womanhood, and as a singer and translator of genres and standards. At times, the material chosen sounds absolutely foreign to her voice, but her pitch, timing and rhythm are scarily impeccable — her patented tic of slipping into a note, and pulling you up with it, that beastly power, was only beginning to inform her abilities. She goes from hard-charging ("Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody") to coy ("It's So Heartbreakin'") to both simultaneously ("I Told You So"). The latter song must see at least a 60 decibel lift in dynamic range, from soft to loud, with a sexy big-band horn punch, all of which is captured beautifully, a testament to the spectacular recording (and the CD mastering on this boxed set). Written by John Leslie McFarland (who'd co-written the huge Billy J. Kramer hit "Little Children," and arranged Aretha's debut and co-wrote some of the songs), "Rough Lovers" is the album's centerpiece, an anomalous near-novelty ditty driven by Aretha's Detroit teen 'tude, telling of a woman's declaration of what a true man should be. The Glenn Miller-like blast of horns bracket lyrics crammed with apple-cheeked innuendo: "He's got to bite nails/ Fight bears/ And if I get sassy/ Be a man who dares/ To shut me up and kiss me."
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