You know the Aretha Franklin classics, the hits and the chestnuts, perhaps even the deeper album cuts from her soul years with Atlantic Records and pop period with Arista.
But unless you’re a diehard Franklin devotee, odds are you haven’t spent much time amid the nooks and crannies of her earliest work, the six years at Columbia Records that have taken on almost mythical status.
That can now be remedied in one fell swoop: Arriving to accompany Franklin’s 50th anniversary on the national scene — and her 69th birthday this week — is “Take a Look” (4 stars, Sony Legacy), a magnificent, often exhilarating boxed set that chronicles her early 1960s tenure at Columbia.
It’s one of the most significant Franklin projects of the past two decades. To fully understand Aretha, it’s critical to understand those early years, and “Take a Look” offers a comprehensive exploration. Before she was a soul icon, a symbol of black female triumph, Franklin was the precocious singer tabbed for jazz-pop greatness by legendary mogul John Hammond. The 11-disc, one-DVD set shows a poised young woman getting her legs, quickly and confidently navigating her way through an eclectic array of styles, and asserting her creative voice in sometimes surprising ways.
Columbia’s stream of reissues and vault material in recent years already helped pull back the shades on what had been a murky period in the Aretha story. “Take a Look” throws the window wide open: With her seven official Columbia albums as the backbone, the set assembles hundreds of singles, alternate mixes, studio outtakes and other previously unreleased fare, along with a DVD featuring performances from “The Steve Allen Show.” (The set’s list price is $170, though it is considerably less at several online retailers, including $125 at Amazon.)
The conventional Franklin story line goes like this: Gifted teen gospel singer lands her big break with Columbia. Winds up constrained by the stuffy, upscale inclinations of her producers. Breaks loose to find liberation via Atlantic Records. Becomes Queen of Soul.
But as this boxed set makes clear — and as a liner-notes essay by Princeton scholar Daphne Brooks convincingly fleshes out — the real tale isn’t so trim and tidy. “Take a Look” is a testimonial to the truth that Aretha was embodying empowerment long before she wrangled “Respect.”
It’s not just the raw assertiveness on display in the ear-opening studio outtakes, where the teen singer-pianist can be heard emphatically dictating commands to veteran jazz players. It’s the natural, seamless ease with which she inhabits these songs, her gospel background never far from the scene as she takes on pop standards, cosmopolitan jazz and Broadway fare with technical skill, glamour and, yes, soul.
The Columbia period, then, was less a separate room in Aretha’s musical house than part of the same grand hallway. The familiar traits that would go on to define her signature sound — the stylish sensibility, the emotional push-and-pull, the organic passion undergirding it all — can be found here in varying degrees.
While the diversity of material can certainly augment a variety of moods, “Take a Look” isn’t a just-press-play experience for casual listeners. This is a package for the collectors and completists, a deep journey that demands a rethinking of Franklin and her music.
That’s not to say that Aretha and Columbia were always a seamless match. There are clunkers here, particularly when Franklin is saddled with vanilla old pop songs and ill-fitting show tunes, which she seems to wear uncomfortably with a smile. But it does drive home that Franklin’s Columbia tenure was no monotone affair. Alongside the sophisticated, simmering “How Deep Is the Ocean” and captivating “Skylark” sits an album such as “Runnin’ Out of Fools,” which finds her making a bid for the teen market and a rare foray into Motown with a cotton-candy cover of “My Guy.” Included in full are long-buried recording sessions with Clyde Otis and Bobby Scott, along with 1964’s great lost album “A Bit of Soul,” whose shimmying title track foreshadows the history-shaping music she’d be making a couple of years later.