Portrait of the artist as a young woman

The should-have-been hits and misses of Aretha's years at Columbia Records

Jun 22, 2011 at 12:00 am

In 1964, the Beatles shifted culture with "I Want to Hold Your Hand," the Civil Rights Act passed, but creepy Klansman Byron De La Beckwith got off twice for the murder of Medgar Evers. The same year Aretha Franklin wrote and recorded "I'll Keep on Smiling," one of the most overlooked songs in her canon, a stunning, pissed-off ode to empowerment — foreshadowing her career-defining "Respect" three years down the road — whose opening salvo was a witty, pre-feminist call-to-arms: "I'm gonna smile and take it baby/ Until I get tired of you/ When I've had enough of this business/ You'll be the first one to know we're through." Powerful, self-assured, in a voice that rolls and rumbles like balls in lanes at a bowling alley, it's easy to forget those are words of a drop-dead beautiful 21-year-old girl-woman, daughter of a fiery Detroit minister, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, a single mother who three years earlier had left two small children behind and boarded a New York-bound bus to make it in the music business.

The scampy jazz-shuffle of "Smiling" could've sidled up on Sam Cooke's contemporaneous album Night Beat, except that Aretha's lyrics work in opposition to male dominance if you consider Cooke's wily take of "Shake Rattle and Roll": "Get into that kitchen/ Make some noise with the pots and pans ..." Aretha was not here to make any noise with pots and pans. She was here for a very different kind of noise.

In another context, the "Smiling" lyrics tell of Aretha's frustration in her final years at Columbia Records.

That's not to say that all of her time at Columbia was frustrating; she did record seven official albums and dozens of other songs, singles and experiments, all of which became the fascinating foundation of her legacy and the genesis of Take a Look: Complete on Columbia, a recent collection of her entire Columbia output. Because she recently overcame an illness and cancer scare and she's performing back in Detroit in late summer, and because her debut album dropped 50 years ago, her early work and sometimes rocky early stages as a recording artist are worth considering now more than ever.

But let's cut back to 1960. That was when the bouffant-headed 18-year-old got signed to the world's biggest, most prestigious record company by John Hammond, the producer-talent scout renowned for owning the sweetest set of ears in the biz. Hammond had nearly three decades' worth of music biz experience, and he'd already found Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Charlie Christian, Count Basie and would soon discover Bob Dylan and later Bruce Springsteen. More, Hammond was a bit of a perfectionist and a big reason why Columbia albums sounded so good, going lengths to capture the music's authenticity, dynamics and human intent. Music today would look and sound a lot different had Hammond not existed.

For a young African-American singer-pianist in those days, to collaborate with Hammond at Columbia Records was akin to winning American Idol and working with Polow da Don and other top biz brass — there's no way the Franklin-Hammond hookup could not strike commercial gold, even if white America wasn't ready for it. Or so went conventional thinking at the time.

In his 1977 autobiography, Hammond writes that he first heard Aretha accompanying herself on piano via a roughly recorded demo tape intended to showcase the work of songwriter Curtis Lewis. Curtis merits no further mention, but in Aretha, Hammond realized he'd found the most "dynamic jazz voice" since Billie Holiday. He called his latest discovery an "untutored genius."

Well, that "untutored" genius had already wowed legions with her 14-year-old voice in front of thousands at her dad's celebrated 4,500-member New Bethel Baptist Church on Linwood at West Philadelphia in Detroit. Aretha and her singing sisters, Erma and Carolyn, were local celebs, particularly Aretha, such was her vocal power and the influence of her dad's church.

She'd learned road-life unpleasantness and witnessed Southern racism firsthand on Dad's gospel caravan, a scorching evangelist show that toured the country (Aretha's performances were collected on Songs of Faith and released by Chess Records, which also licensed dozens of Dad's sermons on LP.)

Her influences extended beyond the church doors too, into the Motor City's North End neighborhood, that superstar breeding ground where Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Smokey Robinson, Bettye LaVette and others grew up in the '50s. Detroit was its own living, breathing life form; music infused the city and ghettos with true personality; teen crooners and harmonizers populated schoolyards and street corners.

Aretha's girlhood crush on boxer Ray Robinson matched her love of roller skates; she taught herself piano at a tender age. Her personality could be described as mostly withdrawn and timid, but self-possessed and driven while singing, which she learned in her family's Boston Boulevard living room watching gospel greats such as Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward roar and shout during one of many all-night parties. Flesh-and-blood blues informed her life and voice too; her mother, Barbara, died of heart complications when Aretha was 10, and she quit Northern high school after becoming pregnant at 14 with Clarence (named after dad) who, she said, was fathered by a local teen. A couple years later, Aretha gave birth to Eddie, named after another teenage local daddy.

In Nick Salvatore's biography of C.L. Franklin, Singing in a Strange Land, Dad's reaction to Aretha's pregnancies is unknown, but Aretha is quoted as saying her father's "concern and participation in the lives of his children were exemplary."

But Aretha was inspired. Hip to her wise-beyond-its-years voice, pre-Motown Berry Gordy (with Billy Davis) attempted to sign her in 1958 to a production deal, but Dad nixed it. She was too young. (Older sister Erma demoed for Gordy with Aretha backing on piano. Erma later quit college and eventually signed to Epic Records, getting a hit with the original "Piece of My Heart." Who knows what would've gone down had the sisters Franklin stuck with Gordy.)

Sam Cooke had been a frequent guest at the Franklins', and Aretha was enamored with him. He'd drive in from Chicago to sing in the reverend's choir and perform in his road shows. Aretha's eyes opened to the possibilities of singing in a pop context when Cooke switched to secular music in 1956.

In his biography Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul, Mark Bego explains that Dad supported Aretha's desire to explore musical genres — and, eventually, her switch to secular music — but he wasn't exactly keen on her leaving Detroit for New York City. But he relented. Had to. How else would the world hear her voice? Salvatore writes that church traditionalists, both in the South and Detroit, criticized Rev. Franklin for "allowing her to record rhythm and blues." The reverend retorted by saying good Christians can cross over, that Aretha left gospel but not the church, not her religious upbringing.

Imagine how few opportunities were afforded young black women in 1960, not just in pop; the Jim Crow South was as much alive as JFK's promise. Aretha would be singing for much more than the airwaves, or self-belief; she was part of a new generation already turned on by Ray Charles, interpreting American jazz and white pop music transcendently, beautifully, with the emotional and expressive appeal of gospel blues.

But no one could've guessed that Columbia Records would have no idea what to do with Aretha Franklin.

Sam Cooke
was a star at RCA by 1960, and he lobbied to get Aretha signed to the label. Hammond found out and insisted Columbia offer her a contract first, which they did, one with an unusually high royalty rate for an unknown signee. Dad, who was said to be very, very protective of his daughter then, flew to New York City and oversaw the Columbia signing alongside her new manager Jo King.

Her skillfully recorded Columbia debut reveals a singer hardly depending on training wheels. She's suddenly a schooled sophisticate wearing couture, able to smolder and croon like Sam Cooke and Dinah Washington. She's empathetically backed by five of the best jazz cats in the city, led by pianist and Hammond signee Ray Bryant. (Aretha was once quoted as saying she loved everything Ray did, that "he had a church background which made us perfectly compatible.")

Recording began Aug. 1, 1960, at Manhattan's Columbia Studios on Seventh Avenue. Hammond's idea wasn't to create a pop sensation but to see his young singer win a jazz audience while maintaining her gospel integrity. (R&B, he admitted, held little interest for him.)

If you're only familiar with Aretha's Atlantic work, Aretha (With the Ray Bryant Combo) — released in early 1961— is an essential sonic curio, often showing a girl-woman strutting a kind of sullied sassafras and unspoken sexuality, but with a defiant, childlike innocence, atop a mix of downtown jazz, Broadway show, slow-burn blues and a kind of R&B lite. Some Detroit grit and straight-up gospel shouting had been exorcised, but that's not to say her voice wasn't capable of enough inhuman depths and heights to justify Hammond's "genius" adjective.

"Somewhere Over the Rainbow" was Aretha's choice, which, in her teen hands, sounds like a late-bar torch tune from someone twice her age, and less histrionic, but less memorable, than Judy Garland's signature take. The Gershwin brothers' 1935 oddball hit from Porgy and Bess, "It Ain't Necessarily So," gets auditory winks from Aretha, who could very well be mocking the tune, perhaps because of its sardonic biblical references or, maybe, that its writers were a couple of Jewish guys from New York, a million miles away from black life in South Carolina: "To get into heaven don' snap for a seven/ Live clean, don' have no fault/ Oh, I takes de gospel whenever it's pos'ble/ But wid a grain of salt."

But "Maybe I'm a Fool," "All Night Long" and "Today I Sing the Blues" were showpieces of blues-jazz balladry, Hammond-picked songs that hold up as definers of Aretha's early career. "Today I Sing the Blues" went Top 10 on Detroit radio, and had moments of jubilation, moments of that voice whose origin can be traced back to field hollers. She got picked as the new star female vocalist of the year in DownBeat's International Jazz Critics Poll, and was dubbed "The New Queen of Blues" (after Bessie Smith) in certain circles.

That voice is the propulsive heart of the album, of all her Columbia albums, and one thing Hammond and the record company got absolutely right was capturing it in recording; its dry rich timbre in the thick warmth of magnetic tape; every breath and inhale, every tube-lighted nuance and string-stroked note. Hammond knew what he was doing; after all, he recorded both Holiday and Bessie Smith similarly. Aretha is an astonishing achievement for a teenager and an extraordinary debut for anyone of any age.

The Electrifying Aretha Franklin, released in 1962, shows rising confidence — a girl's passage into womanhood, and as a singer and translator of genres and standards. At times, the material chosen sounds absolutely foreign to her voice, but her pitch, timing and rhythm are scarily impeccable — her patented tic of slipping into a note, and pulling you up with it, that beastly power, was only beginning to inform her abilities. She goes from hard-charging ("Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody") to coy ("It's So Heartbreakin'") to both simultaneously ("I Told You So"). The latter song must see at least a 60 decibel lift in dynamic range, from soft to loud, with a sexy big-band horn punch, all of which is captured beautifully, a testament to the spectacular recording (and the CD mastering on this boxed set). Written by John Leslie McFarland (who'd co-written the huge Billy J. Kramer hit "Little Children," and arranged Aretha's debut and co-wrote some of the songs), "Rough Lovers" is the album's centerpiece, an anomalous near-novelty ditty driven by Aretha's Detroit teen 'tude, telling of a woman's declaration of what a true man should be. The Glenn Miller-like blast of horns bracket lyrics crammed with apple-cheeked innuendo: "He's got to bite nails/ Fight bears/ And if I get sassy/ Be a man who dares/ To shut me up and kiss me."

If anything, this album is an extension of her debut, Hammond casting Aretha as the first lady of jazz. But the label suits weren't having that. They wanted hits, figured Hammond knew jazz but not the pop charts. Hammond's role as Aretha's producer ended.

Aretha toured jazz and R&B clubs in 1961 with a combo and often traveled back and forth between New York and Detroit, where she met a hustler named Ted White at the 20 Grand club. In six months, White and Aretha were married (in Ohio), and, much to Dad's chagrin, White became Aretha's sometime co-songwriter and fulltime manager. The marriage lasted into the late '60s and produced another son.

In Bego's bio, White takes credit for Hammond's firing: "I came in and kind of upset the apple cart by not wanting John Hammond to produce another one of those Al Jolson-type albums, so he didn't carry a lot of good blessings toward me." Hardly fair, and the Jolson bit is ill-informed. By all accounts, Aretha's new hubby-manager didn't exactly help her relationship with Columbia Records either.

But think of it: At this point in her career, the future Queen of Soul was a headliner-intimidating show doll of jazz cognoscenti, and in '62 she co-headlined the Newport Jazz fest, telling the jazz world she'd arrived. But jazz didn't translate into pop hits.

Known for
his work with Columbia's housewife crooner-sensation Andy Williams and light pop maestro Johnny Mathis — and hitting pay dirt with Barbara Streisand after working with Aretha, Robert Mersey came aboard to produce, arrange and conduct Aretha's music, and wound up doing three of her albums.

The first, 1962's The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging is uptown and middle-of-the-road, with less horns, heavier strings and predictable arrangements; gospel for the martinis and tie clips set. The album was her best-seller at Columbia, hitting No. 69 on the pop charts, and it isn't without standouts, including Irving Berlin's lovely "How Deep is the Ocean." On "Don't Cry, Baby," Aretha sings like some saving angel with a glass of bourbon and a pack of Kent smokes. "Without the One You Love," marks her songwriting debut, and it conveys real loneliness, the kind that's both vast and claustrophobic and difficult to get out of. She had to be feeling it to sing it like that. Her interpretation of '20s jazz standard "Lover Come Back to Me," with its up-tempo, big-band up-roar, ranks with versions by Ella Fitzgerald, Nat "King" Cole and Billie Holiday. Aretha is evolving; you can hear her gently playing with the rhythm in new ways. She lazily, sexily pulls on the beat to thicken her tone and bestow melodic tension on the song. Sinatra was a master of this at young age, as was Aretha at an even younger one.

She tackles Holiday's "God Bless This Child" and the results are a fascinating juxtaposition; it's too smooth and less dynamic than the original, which is the producer's mind-boggling gaffe; imagine Aretha singing atop a piano-string backing worthy of Andy Williams!

A non-LP single, the blues standard from the 1920s, and a 1950s hit for Dinah Washington, "Trouble in Mind," was recorded after the album and spent five weeks on the pop charts (it's included as a bonus track on the CD), and here her delivery sounds like it's rising straight from some place of inner enlightenment. Columbia wanted Aretha to go completely modern and crack the youth market, hence her television debut on American Bandstand. She performed two songs from the album, "Try a Little Tenderness" and Don't Cry, Baby," which were, in all of their dated, MORness, anomalies on the show, and did nothing for her cred there.

Laughing on the Outside dropped in 1963. With jazz-hued ballads and standards and lots of lush strings, it could be her gentlest album ever (and that includes those made during her 23 years at Arista), and a polite counterpoint to her still-slender hips, arched eyebrows, and full-length designer dresses. You can hear the Dinah Washington in her voice, the sadness. At times, particularly on "Make Someone Happy," Duke Ellington's "Solitude" and "Looking Through a Tear," Aretha is wholly unrecognizable. Because these Columbia albums switch styles so often — from pop and show tunes to R&B, jazz and the blues — it's difficult to trust that it's Aretha on each song. But that's telling of how extraordinarily varied and boundless Aretha's voice could be, in its phrasing, volume and timbre, how it resonates beautifully on the right material, and the heart she affords each piece.

She was a master interpreter but not necessarily was she Aretha Franklin most of the time. This sound of her route to authenticity, to that true sense of self, is as entertaining — and as mind-tripping — as it is hearing her as the Queen of Soul a few years down the road, when she'd shed any shred of a persona or false self and allowed decades of gospel to propel her.

The backing band here is unmatched, from its graceful passages to its thunderous climaxes, and it varies little from The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging, which, like some of her recordings in this period, included Detroit Funk Brother pianist Earl Van Dyke, whose work is easily heard in the flickering of sighs and flourishes of counterpoint to Aretha's melodies.

Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington, was rush-recorded shortly after the Franklin family friend, and an Aretha idol, died. Washington was living in Detroit with her husband — Detroit Lions star defensive back Dick "Night Train" Lane — and died accidentally of a deadly pill-and-booze cocktail in December 1963. In February '64, Aretha and Mersey recorded 10 songs associated with Washington that, in all of the looseness and depth of feel, transcended genres.

Recorded at a session's end with lights dimmed, Johnny Mercer's "Drinking Again," sways in its melancholy and shuddering organ, a lovely elegy of Aretha's reminiscence, and it's hard to believe anyone bettered this version — not Ol' Blue Eyes, not Bette Midler, maybe not Dinah herself. Considering Washington's troubled life — which included six failed marriages — and how similar their lives were, having both been weaned on gospel, though Washington was 19 years Aretha's senior, the tune is an all-consuming testament to a fallen hero.

The great "Evil Gal Blues," Washington's 1944 debut record, sways with camp gestures and wink-wink candor, and soars on its organ, mid-section harmonica solo and Aretha's holy howl. (Its interior insubordination is a likely antecedent to Amy Winehouse's "Rehab.") Aretha sings "Soulville" as if center stage at a tent revival, as if she's hinting to Washington where to meet her, and show-stopping dynamics underscore "The Bitter End" on which Aretha, echoed by strings and vibes, glides effortlessly from delicate vulnerability to graceful power.

Aretha and Ted White had by then moved into a house on Sorrento Avenue on Detroit's northwest side, and their home life and relationship weren't exactly grounded. White, who'd later rough her up in public, was the domineering one of the two.

More, Aretha's pop crossover hadn't happened as planned, meanwhile, some of Aretha's old friends — Mary Wilson in the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and others — were, and had been, selling millions of records at Motown, the label from which she might've launched her career. The time wasn't easy. And there were quickly recorded New York sessions with Bobby Scott that wound up getting shelved for a few years — most released after Aretha left the label. But things looked up. Mersey introduced Aretha and White to producer Clyde Otis.

The Mississippi-born producer was known for his work with soul singer Brook Benton, and producing and co-writing Benton's two 1960 Top 10 duets with Dinah Washington, "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)" and "A Rockin' Good Way (to Mess Around and Fall in Love)." Otis scored lots of hits during a stint at Mercury (including some with Washington). Otis had his finger on the national pop pulse, and stepped in to helm the next Aretha record, Runnin' Out of Fools, an obvious grab for pop appeal then, but an incredible album today. Aretha hadn't had a hit song aside from a few singles on the R&B charts, and her albums either hovered in the lower reaches of the pop charts, or didn't enter at all.

Both Otis and Aretha agreed that covers of contemporary songs would help her chances, even if the whole idea reeked of panic. He outfitted her in girl-group pop, such as "The Shoop Shoop Song" and "My Guy" (written by Aretha's pal Smokey Robinson and a No. 1 hit for Mary Wells that same year), all of which surprisingly won her a more mainstream audience.

She makes "Mockingbird" the definitive one; her words curl around what becomes, in Aretha's hands, a gospel treatise on life, love and parenthood, wrapped sweetly in '60s pop tones. It tops Dusty Springfield's version. (Franklin ripped a version of "Mockingbird" with Ray Johnson providing piano accompaniment and the counter-vocal on a March 1965 episode of Shindig, as seen on YouTube. The performance shows a woman reserved, confident in her singing and in complete control of her sexuality.)

Aretha pleads in Bacharach-David's "Walk on By" with uncanny gentleness as if she's gazing at her face rippling on a reflecting pool.

The album stalled at No. 84 on the pop charts, hardly a Supremes kind of number. (And Otis claimed in the Bego bio that Aretha refused to blast vocally and that she purposely "toned down her style.")

Aretha toured jazz and R&B clubs, appeared on shows in support of the album that made clear the 22-year-old was basically done with jazz standards and the kind of pop that was quickly becoming mom-and-dad music. In 1964, culture shifted hastily and Aretha was far, far from the burgeoning Motown-Memphis hit-making axis. And Columbia Records, with its soft-pop foundation, wasn't exactly hip at the moment (the ascension of Clive Davis to company president and the label's rock era was still a few years away). Few people were happy with the way things were going.

Aretha recorded another Otis album entitled A Bit of Soul, which had great moments — including "How to Murder Your Wife," and Ashford and Simpson's beautiful "Cry Like a Baby" among them. But the self-mockingly upbeat "A Little Bit of Soul" was most telling in its first verse: "If I don't get me a hit soon/ I won't be here long." The album itself was issued a catalog number and song running order and was promptly shelved. Not a good sign.

Then, in a cockeyed career move that absolutely confounded her new pop audience, Aretha and Otis recorded Yeah!!! In Person With Her Quartet (including Detroit pianist Teddy Harris), a studio effort with moments of greatness made to sound live with a dubbed-in audience. It's a return to nightclub jazz that, when compared to her earlier Columbia albums, shows Aretha often phoning it in, like some jazz-noir chanteuse emphasizing the vacancies at the end of the bar. Aretha fell under a pall of debilitating sadness in this period.

Her Columbia career fizzled by 1966 before the release Soul Sister, an unlikely, confusing and unfocused mix of show tunes, jazz and rock 'n' roll filled with tracks lifted from earlier sessions, mostly recorded with Otis. Aretha knew that Columbia Records and her repertory didn't really suit her. Columbia knew Aretha wouldn't re-sign once her deal expired in fall 1966.

By late 1966 Jerry Wexler and Atlantic had outbid the competition for Aretha. Then Wexler took her into Memphis' Fame studios and recorded I've Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You) for Atlantic Records. It was a much smaller label than Columbia, but it had already launched the career of Ray Charles and was then nursing the careers of soul singers Otis Redding and William Bell among others.

Wexler trumpeted the album as the one that'd reveal — in what must've been a slap in the face to Columbia — the "real Aretha Franklin." It wound up changing the label's trajectory and hers, making both true forces to be reckoned with. But those are different stories.

Brian Smith is managing editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

See Also:

Take a Look: Aretha Franklin, Complete on Columbia
A lovely little box set with seven stereo albums - plus prime bonuses.