Take a Look: Aretha Franklin, Complete on Columbia

A lovely little box set with seven stereo albums - plus prime bonuses

The whole of Aretha Franklin's recorded work at Columbia Records — from 1960 to 1965 — is compartmentalized in this lovely little box: the seven stereo albums released during her tenure, all with bonuses including mono mixes, out-takes, vintage radio ads, some studio chatter, and non-LP sides. Three additional CDs see all the Clyde Otis (Columbia had Otis record dozens of songs by Aretha before her contract expired) and Bobby Scott sessions, some of which were cobbled together and released after Aretha left Columbia. Each is housed individually in mini-LP glossy-cardboard jackets with original art.

Another CD, The Queen in Waiting, is, in part, a collection of the Bob Johnston-produced singles. Its auspicious title matches the rock 'n' roll-R&B aplomb of opener "Tighten Up Your Tie, Button Up Your Jacket (Make It for the Door)" and the cheeky "Hands Off," two songs about personal territorialism find the singer as comfortable as she ever will be sweating out the R&B, star-style, while handling a microphone. Johnston was working on Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited around the time these seven songs were recorded (Johnston completed both projects before producing Simon & Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence.) The patched-together "album" is, in truth, the least confused collection of Franklin's Columbia work, and deserves a place alongside Aretha (and Johnston's) best. Aretha lets loose in a manner that almost explains her Atlantic years, and the songs' sparse arrangements and live-band feel resemble Dylan's Highway; it's a sprightly, spontaneous sound, live and authentic.

Also included on this disc are John Hammond-produced songs that Columbia went back and colored with horns and strings, after Aretha hit at Atlantic Records. Hammond wasn't happy, of course, and neither was Aretha, who sued the label to stop their release. Hammond says in his autobiography that an out-of-court settlement cost Columbia lots of money.

There's also a DVD included that shows Franklin performing songs on The Steve Allen Show in 1964, and a 62-page mini-book that features all recording info, record label images and photos of a young, svelte and elegant Aretha, quotes from producers and a thoughtful, well-researched essay by Daphne A. Brooks.

The 11-CD, 1-DVD set features sublime audiophile-quality remastering from the original two-, three- and four-track analog tapes by Mark Wilder that leaves all the dynamics, room sounds, and warmth intact.

It's an incredible collection that reveals a girl becoming a woman becoming the world's greatest voice.

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