With a couple of exceptions, Aretha Franklin - or as a poet once deftly described her, “aretha/crystal jukebox queen of hymn and him” - is like many of the other great pop, soul and jazz artists of the late `60s and early `70s. The music she made in that cultural flowering was so transcendent, so ethereal, so defining, that everything she has done since is compared, usually unfavorably, against it.
I personally would trade every Aretha record I own released after 1973’s “Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky)” - and, loyalist that I am, I’ve acquired most of them - for just one more listen to “Ain’t No Way.”
This is undoubtedly maddening to an artist, though often Franklin has been less concerned about it than many of her most ardent fans. She has made efforts, if not altogether convincing, to remain contemporary. She recorded rock with Keith Richards and Annie Lennox, synthesized soul with Clarence Clemons and the late Luther Vandross, and even faux disco, to which she seemed as unsuited as she might have if asked to do a bluegrass album.
But if her soul has been in it, it’s been buried beneath production gloss and mediocre material. Better to see her live on a good night.
So I, like millions of other fans, could not be more grateful for “Aretha Franklin: Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul” ($19.95). The two-disc set due out Tuesday contains 35 tracks recorded during Franklin’s stay at Atlantic Records from 1966-1973, an era when she rarely sang a false or even unnecessary note. It’s almost impossible that most of them weren’t liberated from the vaults before now.
Included are demos, rare B-sides and even some serious repertoire misjudgments, like outtakes from Atlantic swan song, “Let Me in Your Life.” But I would rather have those than almost any of the so-called neo soul that has been R&B fans’ only alternative to hip-hop for the last 10 years.
Aretha’s ardent fans know the story as well as they know the origin of the once-mysterious “TCB” bridge in “Respect.” Though Franklin had spent the early `60s working for Columbia Records, and had enjoyed some minor success singing sultry standards, the label never really knew what they wanted her to do, or to be. As hard as it might be to imagine, she imposed her now-legendary will only by recording an album of songs associated with one of her own favorite singers, Dinah Washington.
But in 1966, she switched affiliations to Atlantic, the house that Ruth Brown and Ray Charles built. Through her then-husband and de-facto manager Ted White, she presented her new producer, Jerry Wexler, with a gift: a demo, possibly recorded in Detroit, of “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You.”
That became the title of the new album.
Franklin accompanied herself on the song, written by Ronnie Shannon, with her own stately yet deeply soulful piano-playing steeped in the righteous, testifying gospel of her father the Rev. C.L. Franklin’s Baptist church. The subsequent studio version, recorded with a band of good ol’ boys from the Muscle Shoals studio in Sheffield, Ala., was, in a year of classic singles, one of the greatest of them all.
The band also recorded full-blown versions of another demo now released for the first time: “Dr. Feelgood.”
Finally issued now is a demo of Van McCoy’s “Sweet Bitter Love”; the fact that it was left off the 1967 LP only attests to the strength of a track list that included Aretha’s blistering cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” and the ballad “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” penned by Muscle Shoals keyboard man Dan Penn with studio owner Chips Moman.
Equally impressive are the outtakes from the 1967 follow-up, “Aretha Arrives”: a cover of the Box Tops pop hit “The Letter”; another McCoy ballad, “So Soon,” and a song cowritten by Aretha’s sister Carolyn and Ted White, “Mr. Big.”
Though there’s nothing here from 1968’s seemingly perfect “Lady Soul,” the subsequent “Soul `69” left off a fine cover version of the yearning “Talk to Me, Talk to Me” and a superb medley of Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love.” A little-known song, “The Clock,” was relegated to a rare 45 rpm single B-side.
“Rare and Unreleased” also unearths outtakes from 1971’s “Young, Gifted & Black,” and an amazing, extended vocal workout of the Erskine Hawkins’ standard, “After Hours,” from the Quincy Jones-produced “Hey Now Hey.”
The magic made by Franklin and Wexler was revived for a 1974 version of “At Last,” left off “Let Me in Your Life.” It was released shortly before Sister Re left the dock of Atlantic, after its attention turned from deep soul to the FM-rock of Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. She sailed into the AM-friendly, smooth, commercial waters of Arista.
The imprints of Atlantic and Arista exist only as old-school brands, but Franklin and Wexler (who turned 80 this year) are still here to look back on and listen to the remarkable music they decided was not up to their standards of the time.
I only hope they’re as proud as I am impressed and thankful that I have it now.