Most people have never heard Aretha Franklin’s sophomore album, 1962’s The Electrifying Aretha Franklin. The same goes for her debut album, 1961’s Aretha With The Ray Bryant Combo, and the half dozen albums that followed. Columbia Records did a knockout job of holding onto their recordings of Aretha Franklin, modestly re-issuing them piecemeal on compilations through the years. It wasn’t until 2011’s sweeping 12-CD box set Take A Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia, that The Electrifying Aretha Franklin was finally reissued and made available on CD.
Electrifying expanded Aretha’s sound, serving up big band arrangements and a few R&B arrangements, in hopes of expanding her reach while further solidifying her as a force to be reckoned with in jazz. That slight directional shift wasn’t a decision that everyone agreed on though, and it can’t be called a turning point because it didn’t lead to longstanding beneficial results. However, the album does mark a few noted changes in Aretha’s life, professionally and personally.
First of all, the album marked the end of her work with John Hammond as her producer. Hammond is the person who signed her to Columbia Records. Second, it marks the first album with her first husband Ted White in the picture. The two dated and married in the time between the release of her debut and the commencement of work on Electrifying. Ted wasn’t just her husband, he also assumed the role of her manager, a position he’d remain in until they separated in 1968.
The story goes that Aretha and Ted dated for around 6 months and were married during the second half of 1961 in Ohio. The exact date and location that they were married remains unknown. She was 19, he was 30. Those two events are significant because they explain what happened after The Electrifying Aretha Franklin was released. Different factions with varied degrees of clarity struggled to define who Aretha Franklin was, resulting in the patchwork of material that makes her Columbia material hard to confine to one musical direction or genre. That’s a story for another day. Back to album number two.
Recorded under the working title ‘The Incomparable Aretha Franklin,’ John Hammond is listed as the album’s sole producer. He disputed that credit, alleging that it was a credit in name only. He was told he could only produce her album cuts, and that their work together concluded in winter 1961. He remembered producing two cuts from the sessions: “Hard Times” and “That Lucky Old Sun.”
Hammond’s recollection was half right. He did only produce the album cuts. However, he produced all but four of the fifteen songs recorded for the album. Columbia quietly revealed this when they released the Take A Look box set, attributing the production of those four tracks to Al Kasha in the box set’s liner notes (“Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody,” “Ac-Cent-Tu-Ate The Positive,” “Operation Heartbreak,” and “When They Ask About You”). Kasha is best known for becoming a two-time Academy Award winner for Best Original Song in 1973 and 1975.
Hammond’s goal was to frame Aretha as the next big jazz star, so he was focused on producing formidable jazz records for her. As Mark Bego observed in The Queen Of Soul, Hammond wasn’t concerned with creating ‘Aretha the pop star.’ Aretha made a similar observation in Aretha: From These Roots, writing “Hammond saw me as a blues-jazz artist… (he didn’t seem interested in pop hits (Franklin, 87).” This was, after all, the man who discovered Billie Holiday. Holiday died in 1959, less than a year before Hammond signed Aretha to Columbia Records. John Hammond was out to create the next Billie.
Aretha’s debut on Columbia Aretha with the Ray Bryant Combo contained her first twelve professional recordings. She was accompanied by a combo led by Ray Bryant (and, fun fact, film legend Spike Lee’s father on the bass). It made for an intimate and jazzy body of work, accentuated with flourishes of blues and pop. Hammond was certainly off to a good start considering DownBeat magazine named her New Female Vocal Star of the Year in 1961.
Electrifying expands Aretha’s jazz profile and overall sonic profile. Hammond mixed in more sounds and styles, most notably big band. Aretha is heard in front of both an orchestra and a full horn section for the first time. The songs Hammond didn’t produce aimed to bring Aretha into the pop world, and burgeoning R&B realm as well.
None of the players from her first album reappear here except for Spike Lee’s father Bill Lee, who plays bass on four cuts. Writer/arranger John Leslie McFarland was also a returning contributor from Aretha’s debut. He’d written half of the songs on her debut, and this time around contributed four compositions.
McFarland was the only composer to bring multiple new songs to the album’s final tracklist (“I Told You So,” ”It’s So Heartbreakin,’” “Rough Lover,” and “Just For You”). The rest of the material was all interpretations of material claimed by other artists, largely part of the Great American Songbook. For those unaware, that encompasses a host of standards that exist in the jazz and pop canon, written in the teens, thirties, and forties. The one other new record was “Nobody Like You.” It was a unique pick. It was one of her mentors in gospel, Rev. James Cleveland.
From the album’s opening notes courtesy of a string section, the sonic profile of this record expands beyond her debut. The strings create a lush, plush landscape that yields as Aretha glides over her opening notes of “You Made Me Love You,” made popular by Judy Garland (it was the b-side to “Over The Rainbow”). She unapologetically bends the notes to fit where her impeccable ear sees fit, delivering a remarkably smooth and controlled performance; at first, that is. She gradually crescendos as the song meanders along, until she reaches her climax, cracking her voice as she surpasses the peak of her vocal register. She tackled the song a different way in 1966 when she recorded a second arrangement.
She’s unrelenting in her vocal expressiveness throughout the album, and unafraid to test the limits of her vocal range. There’s more electricity in Aretha’s performance here than on her debut, to give credence to the album’s title. She displays room to improve control as she goes for those runs and embellishments that approach the limits of her range, but she’s got the rest down pat.
The influence of Dinah Washington shines clearly through on McFarland’s “I Told You So,” one of the highlights of the album. It swings like a brassy big band record, but it also has a jazzy undertone in the groove, with a touch of blues in the percussion and piano. Aretha enjoys some sassy gloating after her man comes crawling back to her. She was stuck crying when he left her for someone new, but she told him he’d beg her to take him back. And there he is. She kisses him off brilliantly as the song crescendos, “When you were leaving I told you then, You needn’t ever come back again, So let me tell you with a last goodbye, I told you so, I told you so.”
Another of McFarland’s originals, “It’s So Heartbreakin’” might sound familiar at first. It confounded me when I heard it for the first time, because the piano introduction is nearly identical to that of Aretha’s smash 1970 cover of “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied).” Aretha might be the pianist on the song (the credits confirm that it’s either her or another musician), so it’s fair to assume that she’s behind those notes. The way that piano part comes off, especially during the brief piano solo, seems akin to Aretha’s unique style of playing. Vocally she’s unhinged, especially when she screams “the man really turns his back on ya!” right before the song fades out.
“It’s So Heartbreakin’” is one of the Hammond productions that leans more into the R&B realm than most of the album’s other jazzier cuts. She sings about two-timing lovers, specifically Janie, who had John enraptured but ran off Bill instead. It’s fodder that could play well with the teenage audience both musically and topically.
It’s always amused me that two songs with seemingly contrary titles appear one after the other on the LP’s first side. “Nobody Like You” and “Exactly Like You” may appear to be contradictory, but they’re actually complimentary messages. “Nobody Like You,” is one of the Rev. James Cleveland’s few decidedly secular compositions. Aretha looks everywhere but “can’t find nobody like you” on this bluesy ballad. It could almost pass for a gospel lyric, since the essence of the record revolves around the protagonist unable to find anyone like “you.” The idea of searching for someone and not finding anyone comparable could certainly be an allusion to God. But the lyrics “now it’s all so lonely, since you went away,” dispel that possibility because it would be unlikely for someone to sing about God abandoning them and them missing God. Complimentarily, the subject of “Exactly Like You” checks all the boxes of what the protagonist is looking for. Their waiting paid off, because they’ve found exactly what they’re looking for in this “you.”
On her debut, Aretha reflected on finding herself a “Sweet Lover.” Here, she was looking for a “Rough Lover,” which might have been seen as risky territory without giving the song a listen. “Rough” in this case meant a gruff, tough, “sweet and gentle day and night, but mean enough to make me want to treat him right” type of man. She “don’t want no cream puff, baby,” she ad-libs near the song’s conclusion. Speaking as what would have been considered a cream puff, that one didn’t exactly age well.
Aretha also waded into festive territory on the album. “Blue Holiday” is melancholic and jazzy, with holiday lyrics, produced by Hammond. Inversely, “Kissin’ By The Mistletoe” was recorded during the sessions but relegated to a compilation album and single, and produced by Kasha. It’s got a traditional pop holiday sound to it. They perhaps represent the best contrast between the directional differences intended for Aretha by Hammond and the brass at Columbia Records.
Al Kasha’s pop contributions were put front and center despite representing a minor portion of the album. They were also the label’s priority. Kasha’s sessions with Aretha took place before she even returned to the studio with Hammond. The recordings with Kasha took place in July and August of 1961, while Hammond’s took place from November 1961 through January 1962.
Two of the songs Kasha produced were well-known covers. “Ac-Cent-Tu-Ate The Positive” was a hit in 1945. Within two days of Bing Crosby’s version of the song hitting the Billboard charts (where it would peak at #2), it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.
Like the album’s opening cut, “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody” was another record associated with Judy Garland. Aretha takes it and bends and twists her delivery, respectfully blowing Judy out of the water with her incredible vocal performance. She also gave some staggering performances of it on the piano. They’re some of her earliest live performances that can be found online. The song was also The Electrifying Aretha Franklin’s lead single, though in a unique twist the b-side out-performed it on the charts, along with everything else Aretha did on Columbia Records.
That b-side was a song Kasha co-wrote called “Operation Heartbreak.” It was excluded from the album but released as “Rock-A-Bye”’s b-side. “Operation Heartbreak” managed to become Aretha’s highest charting recording on Columbia, peaking at number 6 on the R&B chart.
One of the strongest moments they recorded didn’t even make the final cut. A cover of Ray Charles’ instrumental “Hard Times,” is a glaring omission. The instrumental recording offers one of the earliest opportunities to hear Aretha’s brilliance as a pianist. And she doesn’t let the song go by without saying something. She issues a few runs in the last 30 seconds, most notably wailing “Ray Charles said it was hard times but I feel alright!” Alright! It’s the perfect garnish on this beautiful display of Aretha’s exceptional skills at the piano. It was finally unearthed and released on 2002’s The Queen In Waiting compilation. It’s fair to assume that the label heads didn’t want a mostly instrumental jazz number on an album for an artist they were trying to move into the pop world.
While Aretha drew from Ray on “Hard Times,” Ray returned the favor with “That Lucky Old Sun.” He heard Aretha’s melancholic version of the standard and was inspired to record his own grand, orchestral version, with an expansive chous behind him. Aretha’s version is intimate, accentuated by a smaller string section which sweetens the warmth of the bass and chords of the electric guitar. It wouldn’t be the first time she inspired one of her peers to take on a song, either. On her next album, released in the second half of 1962, Aretha covered “Try A Little Tenderness.” Her version would inspire Otis Redding to deliver the definitive version four years later in 1966.
That next album, The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin, marked a clear directional shift in Aretha’s music, moving further away from jazz and more into pop. What Electrifying represents, is the last clear-cut attempt at framing Aretha Franklin as the next big jazz star. Hammond never worked with Aretha again, though he praised the work Jerry Wexler did with her when she moved to Atlantic. Aretha left most of the album behind her in her Columbia days, though she did mention enjoying a number of the cuts on the album. She did mix “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody” into her live set a few times in later years, notably as part of an oldies medley she performed a number of times in the 1980’s.
Listen to The Electrifying Aretha Franklin: