Monday, March 25, 2013

The Queen Ascends

"She doesn't knock at the door -- she breaks it down!" Aretha Franklin's debut Columbia album, 1961
If you asked most people what their favorite Aretha Franklin song was, you'd very likely hear a fairly predictable list of the usual suspects: "Respect," of course. "A Natural Woman." "Chain of Fools." "Think." "Rock Steady," maybe. "I Never Loved a Man," perhaps, and someone might even throw in a curveball like "Dr. Feelgood" or "Call Me." All classics, certainly. And all from the golden age of Aretha at Atlantic, the heyday of which -- 1967 through 1971 -- found her arguably the most famous female singer on the planet.

Aretha arrives: June 22, 1968 cover of Time magazine
Sam Cooke
But, as some know, the story does not begin with Aretha's arrival at Atlantic in '66; her recording career dates back to 1956, when the Baptist minister's daughter recorded a gospel album entitled Songs of Faith. Following the lead of her childhood idol and family friend, Sam Cooke, Aretha risked the disapproval of the gospel community by opting to revert to secular music. Her background was steeped in the church, and it would never leave her; but her musical hunger expanded to the blues, jazz, and what was only beginning to be known as "soul music." Recognizing his daughter's extraordinary talents, the formidable (and feared) Reverend Clarence Franklin encouraged Aretha's ambitions; although he turned down an offer from Motown Records, based in the Franklins' hometown of Detroit, deeming the fledgling label too localized to launch Aretha to true stardom. (Another Detroiter with a firm-minded parent was also denied the chance to launch their career at Hitsville: Freda Payne.) Cooke offered to get Aretha a deal at RCA, for whom he was having such crossover hits as the #1 pop smash, "You Send Me" (1957), but ultimately, a two song demo landed on the desk of Columbia Records' Artists and Repertoire executive, John Hammond, who knew a good thing when he heard it.

Billie Holiday
Aretha was excitedly hailed by Hammond as the greatest singer he had heard since Billie Holiday. As one who had been instrumental in ushering Holiday from the bandstand into the recording studio in the 1930's, and who had guided Lady Day through some of her most revered recordings for Columbia, this was no short praise. And although Aretha's run at Columbia proved, in hindsight, to be somewhat unsatisfactory, this is largely because we can only view it through the glittering prism of her later, all-encompassing success at Atlantic. She recorded enough material for 10 albums at Columbia (two of which were issued only after she had already left the label, with the others recycled and reissued constantly to cash in on her later success), and if none of them scaled the heights of, say, Lady Soul (1968), they cannot be completely disregarded, either.

Aretha in the Columbia Records studios, early 1960's
Revisionists tend to paint Aretha's Columbia years in broad strokes, leading the uninitiated to believe that she recorded nothing but dross, uncomfortably shoehorned into being a black Doris Day, or, worse, a female Robert Goulet (both of whom were her label mates). The truth, of course, is more nuanced than that. Witness the opening track of Aretha's debut Columbia disc, recorded with the Ray Bryant Combo (studio version followed by a live performance):


Dinah Washington
We propose that this tight little slice of proto-funk -- which, incidentally, is what we would name as our favorite Aretha tune -- is as good, as soulful, as anything that Aretha ever cut at Muscle Shoals. Another criticism leveled at Aretha's Columbia years is that her repertoire was too heavily based on show tunes and standards. In fact, nearly all of Aretha's albums contained a mix of that type of material as well as rhythm and blues/pop originals;  and this format was most likely no accident. When Aretha came to Columbia in 1960, her closest role model and contemporary, respectively, were Dinah Washington and Etta James. Both were blues-and-gospel-steeped vocalists, proudly and defiantly African-American; if Dinah and Etta liked fancy dresses and blonde wigs, that was one thing, but they certainly didn't fit the sleek, soignée mold of another emerging talent, Nancy Wilson, who was being groomed for supper club stardom over at the glossiest of all labels, Capitol. But, crucially, Dinah Washington and Etta James had both just exploded over the pop barrier with pretty, string-drenched renditions of older pop standards: Dinah's "What a Difference a Day Makes" (1959) and Etta's "At Last" (1960). It's not a stretch to imagine that the powers-that-be at Columbia saw Aretha's similarities to Washington and James, and mapped her career accordingly. For contrast here are those two classics by Washington and James, along with Aretha's version of "Unforgettable" (1964), recorded as a tribute to Washington, who died in 1963. String-laden standards they may be; soul-less, they are not.

It's undeniably true that Columbia really didn't know what to do with Aretha in the long run; their one major black star, Johnny Mathis, could hardly be held up as an example for Aretha, and the business model they had followed from Washington and James ended abruptly with the former's early death and the latter's sharp left turn from pop standards to gutbucket rhythm and blues. Of course, that's exactly what Aretha would end up doing to perfection in a few years, but Columbia was ill-equipped to deliver or even understand that kind of material, their biggest-selling stars being Mathis, Doris Day, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, and The Ray Conniff Singers.

It's not that the times were necessarily stacked against her; within just a few years of Aretha's arrival, young, black, female vocalists like Mary Wells and Dionne Warwick were emerging as consistent pop hit makers -- a concept unthinkable in the 1950's; even Washington, James and other trailblazers like LaVern Baker and Ruth Brown were seen as strictly rhythm and blues performers who sometimes got lucky with a pop hit. But what these newly-minted, 1960's-model divas had that Aretha lacked was a partnership with a songwriter and producer in complete sympathy with her needs and qualities. Wells and Warwick both had their mentors, and to underscore the importance of these men to their enormous success, consider that, unlike Aretha, they were doing it on independent labels, rather than a mighty industry giant like Columbia. We mean no disrespect to the individual talents of Wells and Warwick when we say, with absolute certitude, that neither of them would have scaled the same heights without Smokey Robinson and Burt Bacharach, respectively, providing them with the best possible vehicles for those talents.

There was no Smokey or Burt at Columbia for Aretha, and it shows in the sometimes haphazard way in which she was recorded. But it does a disservice to Columbia (especially John Hammond, who truly did champion the budding genius he saw and heard in young Aretha) and, most especially, to Aretha herself, to completely negate those early years of trial and error and experimentation. On paper, Aretha Franklin singing "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody" sounds horrendous, and surely, there were countless better choices to be had: but just listen to how she manages to inject her own personality, her own soul into such a banal piece of material:


However, there were no big crossover successes for Aretha, perhaps because, as noted before, there was scant in-house songwriting to accommodate her unique talents; instead, she had to rely on Artists and Repertoire men like Hammond to bring her potential pop hits. It was here that Columbia was the most short-sighted; in her six years with the label, two dozen singles were released, only one ("Rock-a-Bye") making the Top 40, and most not even inching into the Top 75. And there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to them (unlike the albums, which were largely well-thought out); a good, original tune like "Runnin' Out of Fools" (1964), which fared much better than many of Aretha's singles, wasn't supported by a quality follow-up, but, rather, an album titled after the single, containing mainly cover versions of other popular hits of the day. The eventual choice for the next single? "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)."

Without any real connections with the rhythm and blues market, Columbia let potential hits like "No, No, I'm Losing You" (1965) and "Until You Were Gone" (1966) languish on the vine. Had there been a little more attention paid to getting a real hit out of Aretha Franklin at Columbia, who knows what might have been? She could certainly take even bubblegum girl group pop and make it sound dynamite, as evidenced by her fabulous cover of Betty Everett's "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's in His Kiss)," which she recorded for the Runnin' Out of Fools album, and performed on Shindig! Look for Darlene Love and the Blossoms giving 'Re a "Go on with your bad self, girl!" moment starting at the 1:40 mark:

She had been praised by the critics, seen her albums sell moderately well, and had received a not-inconsiderable amount of television coverage, given her status as a black, female singer without a major hit to her name. But someone like Aretha Franklin knew that her calling was greater, and she was frustrated by her relative lack of success at Columbia. "They know," she said in 1964, "and they know I know, that they haven't given me the same 'big build-up' that they've given...Barbra Streisand." And, unlike Streisand, who had an iron-clad clause in her contract which allowed her complete creative control over her own career, Aretha was relatively powerless. When her contract came up for renewal in 1966, she knew it was time for a change. And that's when Atlantic came calling.

Take that, Barbra: "People" from Soft and Beautiful (1969), eventually released after Aretha's departure from Columbia

So, what to make of Aretha's stay at Columbia? To our ears, there are many riches to be found. What marks it as ultimately less satisfying for many people is the fact that, unlike her subsequent work, Aretha had relatively little control or input as to what she was recording. There was less consistency, to be sure, in the quality of material -- or, more to the point, less suitability and consideration of what Aretha herself would have chosen to sing, given the chance. Her rendition of "You Made Me Love You," for instance, is almost certainly a less personal interpretation than "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." But the fact that Aretha Franklin could still imbue material which she may have felt less than a great affinity for with the same intensity and passion as anything else she recorded speaks to her professionalism and her genius. And her best work for Columbia stands with her best from Atlantic, albeit facing opposite directions. The world was a different place in 1967 than it was in 1960, and Aretha changed with it -- and made a few changes to it, along the way. To judge what she did prior by the same criteria misses the point, as well as the pleasure of hearing a young talent taking flight, and slowly making her way toward the throne.


March 25, 1942


  1. And what a throne she ended up taking...

    Brilliant blog, as always! Jx

  2. Not to take away from Aretha but I love Dinah Washington. One of my favorites!

  3. Terrific on those early Aretha years. My best pal Stan and I loved Aretha from when we first heard her - and those Columbia tracks like "Running out of Fools", "Sweet Lover, "Today I sing the blues" and "It Wont be Long" still sizzle on my ipod.

    Then of course once she moved to Atlantic ... luckily we saw her in her prime here in London (before she stopped flying) in 1968 and in 1970 when she went all Afro.

    It was good seeing her with Arista in the disco 80s and having some more hits with the likes of Michael Narada Walken and Luther Vandross - all together now "Whos Zooming Who?" and "Freeway of Love" ... that Live at Fillmore West" with Ray Charles was stupendous too. "Lady Soul" is barely half an hour long, but that "Good to me as I am to You" with Eric Clapton on guitar is one of my most played.

    But yes thank goodness her Columbia years are still available and still marvellous.

    1. I love her Dinah Washington album, and I'm very fond of some of her ballad performances from the period -- "Laughing on the Outside," "Without the One You Love," "Skylark," "Take a Look" -- all great. Frankly, once she became ARETHA FRANKLIN, I think she lost some of the freshness and spontaneity of these Columbia sides, and "hardened" into almost an Aretha caricature, giving people what they expected of "Lady Soul," and then some; and not always at the service of the song.

      Thanks for the comments and memories, as always!