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Aretha Franklin: Columbia Years

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Two weeks ago I wrote an advance review of Take a Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia for the Wall Street Journall (here). It's an 11-CD box plus one DVD from Sony/Legacy that covers Franklin's entire 1960-65 output for the Columbia label. The mega box tells two stories concurrently. One details the singer's development as a singer who combined the American Songbook with the thump of the Holy Bible. The other story is about a label that at the time didn't have a clue about how to produce the woman who would become the greatest hit-maker of her generation.

Both stories are equally fascinating. Franklin's material for Columbia ranges from “what were they thinking" to “out of the park." And all of it is remarkable. Signed by John Hammond in 1960 after Franklin's preacher-father brought her to New York to audition for the legendary a&r man, Franklin for some reason was mostly assigned to dowdy arrangers who were fast being eclipsed by a new generation of orchestrators.

As much as Columbia and its a&r men tried to squeeze Franklin into a Tin Pan Alley casing, she kept tearing her way out, belting gospel renditions of old and new standards such as Skylark, People and Only the Lonely.

The high point of the set for me is the album Laughing On the Outside (1963), arranged and produced by Robert Mersey. It's an entire LP of standards taken at the pace of your pulse with strings. What you have is Franklin in slow motion—the orchestra held at bay while she delivers one songbook classic after the next in that inimitable voice.

The other high point is A Bit of Soul (1965), produced by Clyde Otis with arrangements by Belford C. Hendricks. The album was never released but includes the stunning Only the One You Love and One Step Ahead. In these two songs, Franklin becomes Aretha. But it would take Jerry Wexler at Atlantic to finally figure out the secret soul recipe after Franklin left Columbia in 1965.

This is a box for Franklin fans who also happen to love Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae and Nancy Wilson—probably her closest pop-soul rival at Capitol during this period. The remastering of the material on this set is superb, and the colorful booklet and notes by Daphne A. Brooks of Princeton University are heart-felt and informative.

JazzWax tracks: Take a Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia is available here. All of the discs in the set appear in miniature LP sleeves. Sony/Legacy did this with two Brubeck boxes recently. It adds so much feel and heft to a collection like this. Also, the box cover is held shut by a magnetic strip, a nice touch. A fabulouly produced set.

JazzWax clip: Here's a rare clip of Aretha Franklin singing One Step Ahead. To me, this was the first soul-ballad breakout for Franklin that would establish her sound. Columbia didn't quite know what it had, and the single didn't do very well. But Jerry Wexler at Atlantic knew exactly how to leverage the magic.



And here's Only the One You Love. Clearly Aretha was ready for her soul-gospel closeup...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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