october 2011

The young Aretha: The future queen in search of her throne.

Gestation Stage

A 12-CD box set of her Columbia recordings charts the winding road Aretha Franklin took en route to the throne

By David McGee





In 1981 I was the editor of Record Magazine, Rolling Stone’s all-music monthly counterpart, published from 1981 through 1985. Early in our history, in a back page column, I wrote an effusive review of a double-vinyl collection, Aretha Franklin: The Legendary Queen of Soul. Issued by Columbia, the album was a 20-song overview of Aretha’s troubled but fascinating five-year tenure with the label.

Maybe this is the time to explain the “troubled” part of the previous sentence. Signed at age 18, the famously reticent Aretha did not adapt well to the Columbia system. As Russell Gersten noted in his entry on Aretha in The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, “She missed sessions and ran away from New York. A sort of depression oozes out of most of the Columbia sides. Often a song will start with an impressive opening, and then Aretha will seem to lose interest midstream; at other times, the lack of instrumental support creates a sort of stalemate. The precision of the phrasing and the honesty of her approach are impressive, but there’s nothing vital and nothing particularly black about these records.”

gospelFrom the start, Aretha and Columbia were mismatched. It didn’t have to be so--the R&B success of her first three singles would seem to have pointed to a profitable--aesthetically as well as commercially--direction, but the label’s head of A&R, Mitch Miller, in one of his more ignominious brainstorms, pushed Aretha to record with full orchestras, with strings, and dictated that she not accompany herself on piano. (He also urged her to take voice lessons, which has been another stick for critics to beat Miller with, but it's not a bad idea, for Aretha or any other artist. Advantage Mitch on that one.) Perhaps Miller had never heard the powerhouse gospel album, recorded live in church, on the independent JVB/Battle label (later picked up by Chess/Checker) showcasing the 14-year-old Aretha, accompanied only by her own piano, wrecking the congregation at New Bethel Baptist Church in her native Detroit in 1956, where her legendary minister father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, a beacon of the Civil Rights Movement, held forth every week. As Peter Guralnick observed in his liner note to Checker’s 1980 reissue of Aretha Gospel, “Aretha Franklin went on to make greater art, but she never made greater music than she does here, with just her naked voice and feelings exposed.”

Aretha Franklin, 1964, on The Steve Allen Show, ‘Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody,’ her first modest hit, #37 pop in 1961. Featured on her second Columbia album, The Electrifying Aretha Franklin.

Signed, championed and at first produced by the legendary A&R man John Hammond, Aretha teamed with five different producers at Columbia, all with solid track records, all conversant in a variety of musical styles. Commercially, nothing worked, but the results were not nearly as dire as Mr. Gersten describes above. Single after single emerged, year after year, but most of those failed even to crack the Top 100; at #37 pop in 1961, “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody” (which was actually the B-side to “Operation Heartbreak”) was Aretha’s highest charting pop single, and it would be another three years, 1964, before she even came close to that ranking, when the superb “Runnin’ Out of Fools” peaked at #57. (To be fair, she did score some early success on the R&B charts, with three of her first four singles going Top 10, but a fallow three years ensued, when she charted nothing at all on the R&B side. When her Columbia tenure ended, she had charted only six R&B singles in seven years.) As for albums, not so good there either: while under contract to Columbia, she released nine long players, five of which did not even chart, two of which reached the lower rungs of the Top 100, and two peaking at #101 and #132 (six of these album got no action at all on the R&B side, but she gathered some steam in the last two-years-plus on the R&B charts, with three albums in succession making the Top 10, which in and of itself should have told Columbia something). Finally, in 1967, another legendary music man, Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, got word from a Philadelphia disc jockey that Aretha’s Columbia contract was up and “she digs Atlantic.” You know the rest of the story.

When the double-disc Columbia retrospective emerged in 1981, Aretha’s Columbia years were the subject of near-universal critical disdain (Gersten’s above-cited piece was the most balanced account of those years that had been published to that time). I had heard a few of the Columbia sides, but not nearly as many as were on the double album. Setting aside all reservations and experiencing the music as I might have back when it was new, as best as I could, I found myself recognizing, yes, something a little tepid or awkward here or there, but also an undeniable life force in Aretha’s performances--the call-and-response chorus, pumping horns and nasty, spiky guitar on “Can’t You Just See Me” elicited gospel fervor from Aretha as she ripped and roared through the track; the tension in her voice in “Every Little Bit Hurts” was exquisitely aching, not overshadowing what Brenda Holloway did with the song later, but effective on its own terms; the wistful, heartbroken detachment she struggled purposely to affect in Bacharach-David’s great “Walk On By” was searing in its abject loneliness; with a surging horn section and bluesy piano at her service in “I Won’t Cry Anymore,” she let loose with a full-throated gospel shout worthy of one of her idols, Mahalia Jackson; if “I’ll Keep On Smiling” had been unburdened of a plodding orchestral arrangement, Aretha’s self-affirming strut through the sadness the song documents, otherwise aided by a tight, stomping combo and aggressive female backup vocalist, might have yielded something remarkably close to what she did at Atlantic.

Such were the revelations informing my 1981 Record appraisal of Aretha on Columbia offered at a time when little of her catalogue on the label remained in print. To be charitable, my colleagues in the music press accused me of having taken leave of my senses--or perhaps having been bought off by Columbia--so great was their contempt for Aretha’s Columbia tenure, so exalted was their opinion of the Atlantic monuments. Mind you, I brooked no objection to--indeed, I shared--their spirited hosannas to the Atlantic years. But, I insisted, The Legendary Queen of Soul compelled us to consider a revisionist history of the Columbia years, a suggestion met with, as they say, deafening silence. I’m not sure anyone else even reviewed the album.

As featured on the DVD accompanying the new box set, Aretha on The Steve Allen Show, 1964, performs ‘Won’t Be Long,’ a song featured on her first Columbia album, Aretha: With the Ray Bryant Trio (1961).

As this is written it is, I believe, 2011, and the world seems ready to spin off its axis, but I am finally feeling redeemed, as if I had assumed the stance of the editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, being “a lone voice thundering in the night.” Those good folks at Columbia/Legacy have set the record straight in a well-annotated box set, Take a Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia. Containing expanded editions of seven of Aretha’s nine Columbia albums (absent are two 1966 LPs: Soul Sister, an anthology--greatest hits, if she had had any hits--and Take It Like You Give It, a long-player with ardent devotees among Aretha-philes and the absence of which is unexplained), the box also contains two albums of sessions with producers Bobby Scott and Clyde Otis that that were either shelved or released as non-LP singles, plus two new compilations, the previously unreleased 1965 album A Bit of Soul and The Queen in Waiting, an album featuring Aretha’s final seven Columbia recordings, produced by Bob Johnston of Dylan and Johnny Cash fame, supplemented by the recordings Columbia sweetened and released after Aretha signed with Atlantic. Also in the package is a DVD of Aretha’s 1964 appearance on The Steve Allen Show. The CD jackets replicate the original album jackets, including the liner notes penned by some of the day’s most prominent jazz and blues critics and, when it was included on the original releases, sessionography (and when the players are not listed on the albums, you can find the info produced in the liner booklet). Finally, an Aretha history lesson to rival Atlantic’s Queen of Soul box set. (Those of you who feel a dozen long players from Aretha on Columbia is a bit much to swallow might opt for the single-disc, 18-track overview released at the same time as the box set. Aretha Franklin: The Great American Songbook.)

Say amen, brother! Vindication is sweet.

Aretha Franklin, ‘Skylark,’ on The Steve Allen Show, 1964

Under Hammond’s production aegis, Aretha started strong with the first of her two 1961 albums, Aretha: With the Ray Bryant Trio, although the artistic schizophrenia that ultimately held her back was there from the beginning: following the gospel-infused raveup of the album opening “Won’t Be Long,” she slides into a bluesy, Billie Holiday-ish rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” even adopting Ms. Holiday’s reedy tone in stark contrast to the full-throated shouting we heard on the first cut. On the third cut, “Love Is the Only Thing,” she adopts a pouty, coquettish, Dinah Washington phrasing and timbre, even as she gracefully swings the sultry vocal while guitarist Lord Westbrook punctuates the performance with brittle blues trills. Yet--yet--some terrific music is being made by singer and band. Accompanying herself on piano on “Maybe I’m a Fool,” with Big Al Sears adding warm, empathetic tenor sax, Aretha cut loose with the kind of spiritually driven ferocity that flowered on Atlantic but had been there all along, as far back as the gospel songs we heard the 14-year-old artist scorch on the aforementioned live album, and she practically duplicated this virtuoso performance on the next track, the more restrained “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Hammond’s biographer, Dunstan Prial, had the proper take on the album in The Producer: John Hammond and The Soul of American Music when he opined: “…each of the twelve songs on her first album for Columbia…serves as a powerful indicator of what would follow later in the decade. Taken individually, each performance reflects maturity beyond the singer’s years. ‘Won’t Be Long’ has a raucous brazenness to it that would have fit hand in glove on any of Franklin’s late-1960s albums at Atlantic. ‘Love Is the Only Thing’ is pure pop but memorable for its spare yet sophisticated arrangement. On ‘Over the Rainbow,’ Franklin’s vocals glide easily over the gorgeous spare arrangement, highlighted by Ray Bryant’s gently elegant piano. Franklin’s version of this classic show tune holds its own against any of the countless others recorded over the years. It’s pure jazz and pure Hammond. ‘Are You Sure?’ takes Franklin straight back to her father’s church in Detroit.

“Hammond’s favorite of these first twelve is ‘Today I Sing the Blues,’ the song on which he first heard Franklin exercise her remarkable voice. The Columbia version is notable for the stinging blues guitar of Lord Westbrook, and the utter confidence with which Franklin mines territory once almost exclusively the terrain of Bessie Smith and Franklin’s idol, Dinah Washington.”

Aretha Franklin, ‘Over the Rainbow,’ from her first Columbia album, Aretha: With the Ray Bryant Trio (1961)

For her second album, The Electrifying Aretha Franklin, Hammond backed Aretha’s piano with a big band and strings, arranged and conducted by Richard Wess (save for two cuts steered by Robert Mersey, including the swinging, piano-driven “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody,” which would be her highest charting Columbia single at #37 pop, the listening public perhaps seduced by this old standard, first introduced by Al Jolson, being reimagined as an orchestrated gospel raveup--it was certainly not like any other version being heard on a regular basis in those days as performed by Eddie Fisher and Sammy Davis Jr.). Keyed by Aretha’s bluesy piano, “I Told You So” is a gentle, swinging, swaying blues that Aretha marches through with a saucy, sassy vocal, beautifully shaded for emotional punch, over a brassy backdrop; “Rough Lover,” on the other hand, is driving, feisty, no-nonsense blues, a little naughty in Aretha’s explicit descriptions of what she seeks in a man; on the other hand, “I Surrender, Dear,” a string-laden, emotional love ballad, must have been designed to be dreamy and romantic in a Dinah Washington way but becomes heated and visceral when Aretha breaks form and expresses her desire in blatantly carnal gospel shouts. Of special note here is a bonus track on the expanded box set edition, “Operation Heartbreak,” cut with producer Al Kasha in ’61. With an orchestral arrangement perfectly attuned to the song’s emotional upheaval, Aretha shows off a testifying style infused with pop sensitivity and gets help from a smooth, crying girl chorus in what was a quintessential pop-R&B ballad style of the time, but its ‘50s vibe likely doomed it as a single, despite the outstanding vocal. Instead, DJs flipped it and made the swinging B side, the aforementioned “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody," the near-hit track.

Aretha Franklin, ‘Operation Heartbreak,' produced by Al Kasha, 1961, the A side of a single that became a minor hit when DJs flipped it and began playing its swinging B side, 'Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody.'

Exactly what Columbia had in Aretha was summarized succinctly in the liner notes by blues authority Pete Welding in what was one of the first published commentaries comparing her to Ray Charles. Citing a Barbara Gardner review in Down Beat in which the writer called Aretha “the most important female vocalist to come along in some years,” Welding adds: “Miss Gardner points out that Miss Franklin’s success in the Gospel-rooted blues idiom (a recently developed form) could not have been possible without Ray Charles’s pioneering efforts in this area. In some respects, however, Miss Franklin would seem to have gone Charles one better. Anyone who has followed Charles’ career from his early King Cole-patterned trio work to his present eminence knows that the Gospel influence crept in slowly, almost cautiously.

“Miss Franklin, on the other hand, comes with a style fully shaped by Gospel music, for her approach to popular material is dictated almost entirely by her background in Gospel singing.

“She has not really had a chance to develop a conscious “pop” style; her manner of treating the blues-based material in her current repertoire is almost pure and simple the Gospel style, from which stems the ardor and conviction evident in her singing.

“In a real sense, then, her master of this material shows how intimately related are Negro secular and sacred song styles.”

Only two albums into her career, and Aretha’s album liner note writers are practically screaming at Columbia, “What are you thinking?”

Robert Mersey, who entered the Aretha story with his production of “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby To a Dixie Melody,” was enlisted to produce the next three Aretha projects: 1962’s The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin; and 1963’s pair of LPs, Laughing On the Outside and Unforgettable: A Tribute To Dinah Washington.

From the Robert Mersey-produced and -arranged The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin (1962), Aretha’s third Columbia album, ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ from the female perspective, a product of 13 takes.

A staff arranger and composer for CBS television and Columbia Records, Mersey’s notable successes at the time he teamed up with Aretha had been in writing incidental music for TV shows such as Route 66, The New Breed, Manhunt and others (these bits were collected and released as an album, Great Jazz from Great TV, credited to Det Moor and His Orchestra); for Columbia Records his arrangement chores teamed him with the likes of Stubby Kaye and Frankie Avalon, but the same year he first worked with Aretha he also produced Andy Williams’s “Moon River,” which, though never a Williams single, became one of the artist’s signature songs, and three years later, in ’65, he was behind the board for Barbra Streisand’s gold-certified, #2 pop album, My Name is Barbra. Mersey was no hack--he had a way with strings, never overdid them as Mitch Miller was wont to do, and achieved a sublime balance of vocal virtuosity and instrumental empathy on his three Aretha projects. The appropriately titled The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging… is a tender-hearted classic, sustaining a level of intimacy from beginning to end unmatched on any other Aretha album, save, possibly, Aretha’s Mersey-produced Dinah Washington tribute a year later. But on their first collaboration, Aretha and Mersey seemed to have struck up a serious rapport. She sings with restrained heat--really sexy--and swings with an ease rarely heard up to this point. A special treat: her version of “Try a Little Tenderness,” which she sings from the female point of view--“I may get weary/women do get weary/wearing the same shabby dress/but to one who’s weary/try a little…try a little tenderness, ooohhhh…” The sumptuous strings cradle Aretha’s wounded, subdued but pleading vocal--you can practically hear her crying the second time she advises “try a little tenderness.” In the chorus, she treats the lyrics like a sermon, ascending the pulpit for a moment of truth telling with the congregation, then goes back inside herself for a final, introspective plea. Mersey must have known he was on to something with the artist, and Billy James’s liner notes offer a revealing anecdote about the teamwork that produced a hard-won definitive treatment of “Try a Little Tenderness.” James: “Recording provides a greater opportunity to achieve perfection. Unlike a live performance, a recorded performance can be improved upon before it reaches the public. ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ is a case in point. Counting false starts, the version you hear on this record took 13 takes. Some of the takes were rejected by producer-arranger Robert Mersey; most were rejected by Aretha. She felt she could do better. But each time Aretha sang that number, her performance was different. Each and every version was marked by Aretha’s characteristic freshness, vigor, melodic inventiveness and enthusiasm. These qualities are apparent in every performance on this record.”

The interesting Laughing On the Outside finds Aretha taking possession of a collection of bittersweet ballads new and old: moody takes on two songs of devastating loneliness and rejection, Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” and Irving Berlin’s “Say It Isn’t So,” so sad and beautiful, both in the way the strings cry their sorrow and Aretha walks the fine line between resentment and bruised resignation; a triumphant reading of the ultimate revenge fantasy, “I Wanna Be Around,” with its muted trumpet articulating the singer’s schadenfreude; and a touching, cushy love ballad, “Mr. Ugly,” with a sensitive, warm vocal by Aretha that calls for none of her gospel fireworks but depends almost completely on her heightening the song’s swoon factor with a measured yet impassioned reading, as she does in one of her finest Columbia ballad recordings. Of note, too, is “I Wonder (Where Are You Tonight),” the first song to bear Aretha’s writing credit (co-credited with her husband, Ted White). In keeping with the album concept, “I Wonder (Where Are You Tonight)” is a subdued contemplation of love going awry before the singer’s eyes, addressed to the lover who may have discarded her, with Aretha contemplating a communication breakdown with a compelling mix of puzzlement and pensive wonder that it could be happening to her--virtuoso mature balladry, this.

From the Robert Mersey-produced and -arranged Unforgettable: A Tribute To Dinah Washington, Aretha’s version of Hank Williams’s ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ (1963)

Mersey’s third Aretha project, Unforgettable: A Tribute To Dinah Washington, was as subtle and understated a beauty as his other two Aretha albums, with the big difference being that he dispensed with strings on many cuts and let Aretha work with a savvy, select group of versatile musicians in small combo alignments. Clearly, Aretha had bought into his concept and style: she responded with her own takes on a batch of Dinah’s signature songs, reigning in some of the gospel flourishes she had employed on the first two Mersey-produced album (but not all--she cuts loose on parts of the very first song, “Unforgettable,” wasting no time putting her stamp on the proceedings) in favor of a probing, measured, interior approach--even crooning at times. Aretha has visited country music on even fewer occasions than did Sinatra, but this time out she made a credible run at Hank Williams’s “Cold, Cold Heart,” which of course had been a #1 pop hit for Tony Bennett by way of his Mitch Miller-produced single of 1951. If Miller’s shadow looms over this version, let it be said Aretha and Mersey made the most of the moment, transforming Williams’s country heartbreaker and Bennett’s anguished pop masterpiece into a halting, somber hymn, part jazz, part gospel, heavily flavored by Ernie Hayes’s church organ and piano as Aretha roots around in the lyrics, bringing her gospel singer’s sensitivity to lyrics, symbolism and the unspoken but understood larger message.

At least John Hammond recognized something was not working. The Mersey-produced albums are a direct result of him acknowledging the feeling among younger staffers at Columbia that however sharp his talent scouting skills, he could no longer make commercially viable records with young artists. Thus began the experiments with a host of producers of varying backgrounds, which yielded varying results, none of them positive in terms of the bottom line. Two CDs of largely unproductive sessions with producers Clyde Otis and Bobby Scott (Tiny Sparrow: The Bobby Scott Sessions and Take a Look: The Clyde Otis Sessions)--ideas that seemed promising on paper--find Aretha doing her part, but not really advancing her art or finding that long-sought individuality consistently from cut to cut. Aretha’s Columbia tenure ended with a faux live album, 1965’s Yeah!!!, a studio recording with overdubbed applause that emphasized the pop side of her repertoire but with stops in folk (a swinging treatment of “If I Had a Hammer” that you wish had more of the song’s real urgency instead of its lighthearted attitude), blues (a terrific sassy, swinging “Muddy Water” and the gospel-flavored “Trouble In Mind”), a gospel-styled torch song (“Without the One You Love”), and standards such as “Misty” and “Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home.” This new CD release features the album in two incarnations, with and without applause. The true live album is not an album at all, but a DVD of Aretha’s 1964 appearance on The Steve Allen Show (Aretha ’64: Live On The Steve Allen Show). Allen displays her then-new LP, Unforgettable, and introduces Aretha, who stands shyly at the mic alone, backed by a small combo, but breaks into a lively “Lover Come Back to Me.” After that she takes to the piano, with trio backing, on a tentative “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody”--she even looks a bit uncomfortable performing the tune--but salvages the segment with a tough, sexy workout on “Won’t Be Long.” She returns later in a floor-length white gown to deliver a lilting, sweet take on “Skylark,” and concludes her appearance at the piano with a scorching “Evil Gal Blues,” making sure she goes out on a memorable high note, looking and sounding comfortable at last, her eyes bright, her delivery swinging and lowdown bluesy--you can see the Atlantic Aretha emerging as she soars into the end of the song with an intensity heretofore surfacing only sporadically.

The highlight of Aretha’s 1964 appearance on The Steve Allen Show, ‘Evil Gal Blues’

Then came the fateful call from Philly disc jockey Louise Bishop to Jerry Wexler revealing Aretha’s interest in Atlantic. At Columbia, Hammond had watched as the various producers failed to break Aretha--in his autobiography, John Hammond On Record, Hammond mentioned how “these lavish single records did little to increase her sales and nothing to enhance her career.” He knew she would flourish only with a new professional home. “When her five-year contract with Columbia ended, I was not unhappy to see her go to Atlantic. I knew Jerry Wexler, who would produce her records there, and was sure he would return her to the gospel-rooted material she should be recording.”

You can’t argue with what happened once Aretha was in the Atlantic fold--she did nothing less than make history as one of the greatest singers to emerge in the 20th Century. Did she waste five years at Columbia? Would she have made great records earlier had she been handled differently? Maybe she did get caught in a generational changing of the guard, but she could easily have been a great jazz singer, or a great classical pop singer (and was close to being that with Robert Mersey) and it might have worked out at Columbia if she had gone one route or the other. Some fans will never embrace the Columbia Aretha, but they will miss her gestation stage, when the artist was busy being born and little by little finding herself, preparing herself for a moment of opportunity, whenever and wherever it might arise. Inconsequential the Columbia years are not, but rather revelatory in their own stumbling way.

Upon hearing from Louise Bishop, Jerry Wexler knew what to do: “I called Aretha that minute and set up a meeting in New York,” he wrote in his liner notes for the Queen of Soul box set. “She, her husband Ted White, and I sat down in my office--no lawyers, managers or agents in sight--and worked out a deal on a handshake. It was beautiful.”

Yes, it was.

Take A Look: Aretha Franklin Complete On Columbia is available at www.amazon.com

Aretha Franklin: The Great American Songbook is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024