Aretha Franklin: The Queen Turns 75
In celebration of Aretha Franklin’s 75th birthday, I dug into her catalog for some deep cuts. Everyone knows “Respect“, “Think”, and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, but what about the songs that didn’t receive single treatment/attention? Let me take you back…
Digesting Aretha Franklin’s catalog can be a daunting task for the new listener, but it’s actually pretty easy to break apart. By and large, there are 3 eras: Columbia Records (1960-1966), Atlantic Records (1967-1979) and Arista Records (1980-today). Of course, in the name of technicalities we can go further, but that’s the easiest way to start.
It’s important to take one step one step back before diving into her Columbia Records catalog. Aretha cut a series of gospel sides in 1956 when she was just 14. They’re incredible, to say the least. “Listen at her. Listen at her!” a member of the crowd testifies as 14 year old Aretha Franklin sings. Man does she sing. Listening, her voice is amazing beyond words. It’s like she’s been singing for 40 years.
Aretha’s Columbia years are contested in their content. The music is a mix of pop, jazz, early R&B, and standards, and while it’s a known fact that she didn’t find (read: create) her sound until she reached Atlantic Records, there are many demonstrations of her budding genius.
From her gospel-charged “Are You Sure” from The Unsinkable Molly Brown, to one of her earliest compositions as a songwriter “I Wonder (Where Are You Tonight)”, Aretha demonstrates a smooth sense of vocal control. Don’t mistake that control though, because she still shows off her ability to rip into a song like no other.
“Runnin’ Out Of Fools” was one of her only ‘hits’ on Columbia, I included it here because it’s not something you’ll hear her sing live, and doesn’t get enough of the attention it should. “Trouble In Mind” taken from the Yeah!!! LP, has a great groove, and of course she goes off at the end. “It’s So Heartbreakin'” off The Electrifying Aretha Franklin is unique, because it’s essentially a musical doppelgänger of her 1970 classic “Don’t Play That Song (For Me)“.
The early years of Aretha’s Atlantic catalog are, with few exceptions, masterclasses in soul. There are a more than a few gems that tend to go under the radar. Her own composition, “First Snow In Kokomo” from 1972’s Young, Gifted & Black is one such gem. It’s unlike any other Aretha Franklin song, because it has no rhythm.
Of course with Aretha, there are the covers, on which she always manages to upstage the original. Take her soulful covers of Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” and “My Way” (which remained in the vaults until the early 2000’s), her intense reading of Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears”, and of course her holy cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”. Then there’s her supercharged version of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and the gripping piano solo Aretha lets loose on the Quincy Jones-produced West Side Story cover “Somewhere”.
Don’t forget Amazing Grace, the greatest selling live gospel album of all time. Her reading of “Mary, Don’t You Weep” may be one of the most impactful vocal performances Aretha has ever given. Listen as she sings “Now Mary, went runnin’ to Jesus.” The “my-my-my” run she unleashes may be the greatest vocal run in history. It’s bone chilling, as is when she recalls Jesus resurrecting Lazarus and calls his name. On the third time, it’s fairly safe to say that she could have brought back Lazarus.
Arista… and beyond
From 1980 until now, Aretha has mainly been under the guidance of Clive Davis. He signed Aretha as soon as her Atlantic Records contract ended in 1979. Aretha needed a boost, and Clive knew how to make people hip, so hip they got. One of the best moves was linking Aretha up with then-budding singer Luther Vandross. “Love Me Right”, track 2 off Jump To It is a slick R&B mid-tempo with disco strings and Luther cooing “love me right” in the background.
Even into the 90’s and 2000’s, Aretha persevered. Listen as she rides Jermaine Dupri’s beat for “Here We Go Again” from 1998’s A Rose Is Still A Rose. It’s a slick cut with a clever hip hop edge, as is “Holdin’ On” from 2003’s So Damn Happy with Mary J. Blige covering the background vocals. Finally, there’s her Andre 3000-produced cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” from 2014’s Aretha Franklin Sings The Diva Classics. It’s a complete departure, and transforms the ballad into a Ella Fitzgerald-esque, scat-filled jazz cut. Aretha’s still transforming songs just as she did over 50 years ago.
Listen to my Aretha Franklin playlist, Aretha: Deep Cuts, and jump below for a few bonus cuts you won’t find streaming/on iTunes.
The Lost Albums
There are 5 albums Aretha Franklin cut on Atlantic Records in the 70’s that are largely unavailable in formats beyond vinyl and 8 track. Those are With Everything I Feel In Me, You, Sweet Passion, Almighty Fire, and La Diva. While much of this material didn’t generate much success for Aretha, there are still a few key cuts from these lost albums. I’ve included one from each album, and quite Aretha frankly, they’re all stellar songs.