Amidst the thousands of words attached to Columbia Records ‘massive overview or Aretha Franklin’s five years on the label is a quote from her 2000 autobiography: “I look at my entire Columbia experience in a positive light. I wouldn’t change anything.”
That a tepid, not-quite-double negative is the best evidence supporting evidence the set’s producers can dig up says a lot about the low regard in which Franklin’s pre-Atlantic period is typically held – that is, when it’s held in any regard at all. Most of Franklin’s seven previously issued Columbia-era albums have drifted out of print, and several have never been reissued in the digital age. When you can listen to Franklin sing “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” or “Chain of Fools,” why bother searching out her take on such creaky standards as “People” and “The Christmas Song”? They say great soul artists can sing the phone book, but who wants to listen to them try?
Beefed up with alternate takes and dual stereo and mono mixes, these reissues are geared to the Franklin obsessive. (Curiosity seekers will find the anthology The Great American Songbook less daunting.) But you don’t have to be a scholar, amateuror otherwise, to get sucked into contemplating what might have been had Franklin not quit the air-conditioned environs of Manhattan studios for the swampy atmosphere of Muscle Shoals.
Although she cut a gospel album at age 14, Franklin’s recording career began in earnest four years later, in 1960, with an introduction to producer John Hammond, whose extraordinary ear for nascent talent had put him onto Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Pete Seeger, and who would shortly discover the young Bob Dylan.
Hammond later wrote that he was determined to keep “as much of the gospel feel in her voice as possible, while using material which would attract jazz fans,” a blueprint that served her well on Aretha (With the Ray Bryant Combo), which ranks near the top of her Columbia recordings. The galvanizing left-hand thump of John McFarland’s piano instills “Won’t Be Long” with a sense of visceral excitement which Franklin’s vocal exponentially amplifies. Still a couple of years shy of her 20s, she already sounds like a seasoned veteran, her pop instincts sharp enough to sneak in a trace of Elvis’s throaty vibrato as she sings, “My knees were shaking.”
That this thrilling opening salvo is followed a game but unspectacular take on “Over the Rainbow” neatly sums up the ongoing push-pull of Franklin’s Columbia career. Album-by-album, and even song by song, each potential breakthrough is swallowed up by an egregious misstep – although even some of the latter have their redeeming qualities. One can only imagine the meeting at which A&R honcho Mitch Miller, or perhaps some unlucky flunky, suggested Franklin should cut the Al Jolson standard “Swanee.” (Not surprisingly, the song appears on The Queen in Waiting, which collects Franklin’s final recordings for the label.) But Franklin’s uptempo version pulls away from the song’s languorous view of the antebellum South, as if she’s trying to escape both its melody and its message.
The moments when Franklin’s genius shines through are many, and not always unpredictable. On “Try a Little Tenderness,” from The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin, she’s relatively subdued, taking her cues from the arioso strings behind her. But “Skylark,” a Johnny Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael tune as old as the singer herself, almost bursts with the longing she pours into it. (For a demonstration of how much Franklin, not withstanding her two-steps-forward-one-step back progress, grew during her Columbia years, compare the relatively compact version of “Skylark” from 1963′s Laughing on the Outside with The Queen in Waiting‘s soaring take, a leftover from the sessions for 1965′s faux-live Yeah!!! In Person With Her Quartet.)
Given a choice between these early records and the truly revolutionary sounds Franklin began to lay down on her home turf in 1967, no sane person would choose the former. But the distinction between the two is less a matter of category than degree, especially where Franklin herself is concerned. What’s missing is not her talent, but arrangements that push back rather than merely support her, the way the horns on “Respect” both challenge and ultimately reinforce her authority. Franklin was already there; it just took everyone else a few years to catch up.