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
If anything, this album is an extension of her debut, Hammond casting Aretha as the first lady of jazz. But the label suits weren't having that. They wanted hits, figured Hammond knew jazz but not the pop charts. Hammond's role as Aretha's producer ended.
Aretha toured jazz and R&B clubs in 1961 with a combo and often traveled back and forth between New York and Detroit, where she met a hustler named Ted White at the 20 Grand club. In six months, White and Aretha were married (in Ohio), and, much to Dad's chagrin, White became Aretha's sometime co-songwriter and fulltime manager. The marriage lasted into the late '60s and produced another son.
In Bego's bio, White takes credit for Hammond's firing: "I came in and kind of upset the apple cart by not wanting John Hammond to produce another one of those Al Jolson-type albums, so he didn't carry a lot of good blessings toward me." Hardly fair, and the Jolson bit is ill-informed. By all accounts, Aretha's new hubby-manager didn't exactly help her relationship with Columbia Records either.
But think of it: At this point in her career, the future Queen of Soul was a headliner-intimidating show doll of jazz cognoscenti, and in '62 she co-headlined the Newport Jazz fest, telling the jazz world she'd arrived. But jazz didn't translate into pop hits.
Known for his work with Columbia's housewife crooner-sensation Andy Williams and light pop maestro Johnny Mathis — and hitting pay dirt with Barbara Streisand after working with Aretha, Robert Mersey came aboard to produce, arrange and conduct Aretha's music, and wound up doing three of her albums.
The first, 1962's The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging is uptown and middle-of-the-road, with less horns, heavier strings and predictable arrangements; gospel for the martinis and tie clips set. The album was her best-seller at Columbia, hitting No. 69 on the pop charts, and it isn't without standouts, including Irving Berlin's lovely "How Deep is the Ocean." On "Don't Cry, Baby," Aretha sings like some saving angel with a glass of bourbon and a pack of Kent smokes. "Without the One You Love," marks her songwriting debut, and it conveys real loneliness, the kind that's both vast and claustrophobic and difficult to get out of. She had to be feeling it to sing it like that. Her interpretation of '20s jazz standard "Lover Come Back to Me," with its up-tempo, big-band up-roar, ranks with versions by Ella Fitzgerald, Nat "King" Cole and Billie Holiday. Aretha is evolving; you can hear her gently playing with the rhythm in new ways. She lazily, sexily pulls on the beat to thicken her tone and bestow melodic tension on the song. Sinatra was a master of this at young age, as was Aretha at an even younger one.
She tackles Holiday's "God Bless This Child" and the results are a fascinating juxtaposition; it's too smooth and less dynamic than the original, which is the producer's mind-boggling gaffe; imagine Aretha singing atop a piano-string backing worthy of Andy Williams!
A non-LP single, the blues standard from the 1920s, and a 1950s hit for Dinah Washington, "Trouble in Mind," was recorded after the album and spent five weeks on the pop charts (it's included as a bonus track on the CD), and here her delivery sounds like it's rising straight from some place of inner enlightenment. Columbia wanted Aretha to go completely modern and crack the youth market, hence her television debut on American Bandstand. She performed two songs from the album, "Try a Little Tenderness" and Don't Cry, Baby," which were, in all of their dated, MORness, anomalies on the show, and did nothing for her cred there.
Laughing on the Outside dropped in 1963. With jazz-hued ballads and standards and lots of lush strings, it could be her gentlest album ever (and that includes those made during her 23 years at Arista), and a polite counterpoint to her still-slender hips, arched eyebrows, and full-length designer dresses. You can hear the Dinah Washington in her voice, the sadness. At times, particularly on "Make Someone Happy," Duke Ellington's "Solitude" and "Looking Through a Tear," Aretha is wholly unrecognizable. Because these Columbia albums switch styles so often — from pop and show tunes to R&B, jazz and the blues — it's difficult to trust that it's Aretha on each song. But that's telling of how extraordinarily varied and boundless Aretha's voice could be, in its phrasing, volume and timbre, how it resonates beautifully on the right material, and the heart she affords each piece.
She was a master interpreter but not necessarily was she Aretha Franklin most of the time. This sound of her route to authenticity, to that true sense of self, is as entertaining — and as mind-tripping — as it is hearing her as the Queen of Soul a few years down the road, when she'd shed any shred of a persona or false self and allowed decades of gospel to propel her.
The backing band here is unmatched, from its graceful passages to its thunderous climaxes, and it varies little from The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging, which, like some of her recordings in this period, included Detroit Funk Brother pianist Earl Van Dyke, whose work is easily heard in the flickering of sighs and flourishes of counterpoint to Aretha's melodies.
Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington, was rush-recorded shortly after the Franklin family friend, and an Aretha idol, died. Washington was living in Detroit with her husband — Detroit Lions star defensive back Dick "Night Train" Lane — and died accidentally of a deadly pill-and-booze cocktail in December 1963. In February '64, Aretha and Mersey recorded 10 songs associated with Washington that, in all of the looseness and depth of feel, transcended genres.
Recorded at a session's end with lights dimmed, Johnny Mercer's "Drinking Again," sways in its melancholy and shuddering organ, a lovely elegy of Aretha's reminiscence, and it's hard to believe anyone bettered this version — not Ol' Blue Eyes, not Bette Midler, maybe not Dinah herself. Considering Washington's troubled life — which included six failed marriages — and how similar their lives were, having both been weaned on gospel, though Washington was 19 years Aretha's senior, the tune is an all-consuming testament to a fallen hero.
The great "Evil Gal Blues," Washington's 1944 debut record, sways with camp gestures and wink-wink candor, and soars on its organ, mid-section harmonica solo and Aretha's holy howl. (Its interior insubordination is a likely antecedent to Amy Winehouse's "Rehab.") Aretha sings "Soulville" as if center stage at a tent revival, as if she's hinting to Washington where to meet her, and show-stopping dynamics underscore "The Bitter End" on which Aretha, echoed by strings and vibes, glides effortlessly from delicate vulnerability to graceful power.
Aretha and Ted White had by then moved into a house on Sorrento Avenue on Detroit's northwest side, and their home life and relationship weren't exactly grounded. White, who'd later rough her up in public, was the domineering one of the two.
More, Aretha's pop crossover hadn't happened as planned, meanwhile, some of Aretha's old friends — Mary Wilson in the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and others — were, and had been, selling millions of records at Motown, the label from which she might've launched her career. The time wasn't easy. And there were quickly recorded New York sessions with Bobby Scott that wound up getting shelved for a few years — most released after Aretha left the label. But things looked up. Mersey introduced Aretha and White to producer Clyde Otis.
The Mississippi-born producer was known for his work with soul singer Brook Benton, and producing and co-writing Benton's two 1960 Top 10 duets with Dinah Washington, "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)" and "A Rockin' Good Way (to Mess Around and Fall in Love)." Otis scored lots of hits during a stint at Mercury (including some with Washington). Otis had his finger on the national pop pulse, and stepped in to helm the next Aretha record, Runnin' Out of Fools, an obvious grab for pop appeal then, but an incredible album today. Aretha hadn't had a hit song aside from a few singles on the R&B charts, and her albums either hovered in the lower reaches of the pop charts, or didn't enter at all.
Both Otis and Aretha agreed that covers of contemporary songs would help her chances, even if the whole idea reeked of panic. He outfitted her in girl-group pop, such as "The Shoop Shoop Song" and "My Guy" (written by Aretha's pal Smokey Robinson and a No. 1 hit for Mary Wells that same year), all of which surprisingly won her a more mainstream audience.
She makes "Mockingbird" the definitive one; her words curl around what becomes, in Aretha's hands, a gospel treatise on life, love and parenthood, wrapped sweetly in '60s pop tones. It tops Dusty Springfield's version. (Franklin ripped a version of "Mockingbird" with Ray Johnson providing piano accompaniment and the counter-vocal on a March 1965 episode of Shindig, as seen on YouTube. The performance shows a woman reserved, confident in her singing and in complete control of her sexuality.)
Aretha pleads in Bacharach-David's "Walk on By" with uncanny gentleness as if she's gazing at her face rippling on a reflecting pool.
The album stalled at No. 84 on the pop charts, hardly a Supremes kind of number. (And Otis claimed in the Bego bio that Aretha refused to blast vocally and that she purposely "toned down her style.")
Aretha toured jazz and R&B clubs, appeared on shows in support of the album that made clear the 22-year-old was basically done with jazz standards and the kind of pop that was quickly becoming mom-and-dad music. In 1964, culture shifted hastily and Aretha was far, far from the burgeoning Motown-Memphis hit-making axis. And Columbia Records, with its soft-pop foundation, wasn't exactly hip at the moment (the ascension of Clive Davis to company president and the label's rock era was still a few years away). Few people were happy with the way things were going.
Aretha recorded another Otis album entitled A Bit of Soul, which had great moments — including "How to Murder Your Wife," and Ashford and Simpson's beautiful "Cry Like a Baby" among them. But the self-mockingly upbeat "A Little Bit of Soul" was most telling in its first verse: "If I don't get me a hit soon/ I won't be here long." The album itself was issued a catalog number and song running order and was promptly shelved. Not a good sign.
Then, in a cockeyed career move that absolutely confounded her new pop audience, Aretha and Otis recorded Yeah!!! In Person With Her Quartet (including Detroit pianist Teddy Harris), a studio effort with moments of greatness made to sound live with a dubbed-in audience. It's a return to nightclub jazz that, when compared to her earlier Columbia albums, shows Aretha often phoning it in, like some jazz-noir chanteuse emphasizing the vacancies at the end of the bar. Aretha fell under a pall of debilitating sadness in this period.
Her Columbia career fizzled by 1966 before the release Soul Sister, an unlikely, confusing and unfocused mix of show tunes, jazz and rock 'n' roll filled with tracks lifted from earlier sessions, mostly recorded with Otis. Aretha knew that Columbia Records and her repertory didn't really suit her. Columbia knew Aretha wouldn't re-sign once her deal expired in fall 1966.
By late 1966 Jerry Wexler and Atlantic had outbid the competition for Aretha. Then Wexler took her into Memphis' Fame studios and recorded I've Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You) for Atlantic Records. It was a much smaller label than Columbia, but it had already launched the career of Ray Charles and was then nursing the careers of soul singers Otis Redding and William Bell among others.
Wexler trumpeted the album as the one that'd reveal — in what must've been a slap in the face to Columbia — the "real Aretha Franklin." It wound up changing the label's trajectory and hers, making both true forces to be reckoned with. But those are different stories.
Brian Smith is managing editor of Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.
Take a Look: Aretha Franklin, Complete on Columbia
A lovely little box set with seven stereo albums - plus prime bonuses.
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