Birth of the Queen
But I was just about to bust wide open. You talk about being moved . . . I say with pride that Aretha is not only my daughter, Aretha is just a stoned singa (hrumph!).
—Reverend C. L. Franklin
Aretha can sing anything . . . ‘Three Blind Mice’. Anything!”
—Reverend James Cleveland
When the late Reverend James Cleveland uttered the above words, it was on the occasion of the taping of Aretha Franklin’s now legendary live recording Amazing Grace. The recording was originally taped over two nights in January of 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles with the Southern California Community Choir, under the directorship of Reverend Cleveland, providing backing support. As Cleveland mentions through out the recording, which was initially released on 1 June 1972, it was indeed a homecoming. At the time that Franklin chose to record Amazing Grace, she had won six Grammy Awards and had 10 Top-10 pop and soul singles—she was unquestionably the most influential female vocalist of her generation (Streisand notwithstanding), and the most significant black women vocalist to emerge since Billie Holiday. It was representative of her influence and popularity at the time, that Franklin could indeed break from the conventions of her “Muscle Shoals in New York” style and record a live two-disc Gospel recording.
Arguably one of the most important recordings done by a black artists in the post-Civil Rights era, throughout Amazing Grace Franklin seamlessly weaves through traditional sacred recordings such as “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Amazing Grace” and the compositions of her black contemporaries such as Marvin Gaye (“Wholly Holy”) and the legendary lead-singer of the Caravans, Inez Andrews (“Mary, Don’t You Weep”). But Franklin also took on decidedly “mainstream” material, recording Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Walk Alone” and a brilliant rendition of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” (King wrote Franklin’s signature “Natural Woman”) interspersed with Thomas “the father of Gospel music” Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”.
In the liner notes to the original recording, legendary producer John Hammond wrote “This will be the album that I suspect will go down as . . . Aretha’s shining hour.” John Hammond knew exactly what he was talking about. Hammond had first heard Franklin, then 18 years old, 12 years earlier on a demo tape that was produced by Detroit bassist Major Holley. Word is that as soon as Hammond, who had produced Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman ,and Count Basie, heard Franklin’s version of “Today I Sing the Blues”, he signed her to the Columbia label in 1960. The Queen in Waiting: The Columbia Years (1960-1965) documents those early years that birthed the “Queen of Soul”.
Though much has been made of Franklin’s roots in the black church and the fact that as the daughter of the hugely popular and powerful preacher Reverend C.L. Franklin, folks like Mahailia Jackson, Sam Cooke, Clara Ward (who was Franklin’s most significant vocal influence), and Reverend Cleveland often made house calls to Aretha’s home when she was child, the reality is that Franklin had many influences outside of the church. In the city of Detroit, where Franklin grew up, there was a vibrant, though understated, be-bop community that can still be heard in the deep-blue sparsity of Jay Dee’s hip-hop production. Thus the good Reverend Franklin was also a host from time to time to some of his “secular” brethren. In the liner notes of The Queen in Waiting: the Columbia Years (1960-1965), Franklin recalls the first time that Dinah Washington came thru the house, and it is Washington who Franklin refers to as “The Queen” who was Franklin’s most significant influence in the early days of her recording career.
Franklin would, in fact, record a tribute, Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington (produced by Robert Mersey) shortly after Washington’s death. Franklin’s renditions of Washington’s “Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning”, “Evil Gal Blues”, and “Soulville” all evidence the still unleashed power of Franklin’s voice, rather than the upscale bluesy restraint that marked so many of Washington’s great recordings. Franklin’s debt to Washington is more pronounced on her performances of Washington’s signature songs “This Bitter Earth” and “What a Difference a Day Made”. So much of The Queen in Waiting finds Franklin distancing herself from Washington’s shadow and toying with the sound that would dominate soul music for almost a decade. Franklin established herself most successfully on hard bluesed and “ruff and tumble” R&B tracks.
On tracks like the John Hammond produced “Won’t Be Long” (which features Franklin on piano), the sanctified “Lee Cross” and the classic “Muddy Water”, Franklin swings like the best of the “big belters” like Big Joe Turner and Etta James. Franklin likely took as much inspiration from the “big belters” as she did the “hard” gospel singers she was exposed to in the music of the Soul Stirrers and Dixie Hummingbirds. This is clear on some of the Blues tracks that Franklin recorded very early in her career like “Nobody Like You” (ironically penned by a still unknown James Cleveland), “Today I Sing the Blues” (which she recorded again for Atlantic) and Ray Charles’s “Hard Times (No One Know Better Than I)”. It is perhaps on Franklin’s brilliant rendition of the classic “Trouble in Mind” where she best melds the “Blues and Gospel” style that she would perfect in the late ‘60s while recording for the Atlantic label.
Franklin led a rather schizophrenic artistic career during her days at Columbia, in large part, because the label and her various producers weren’t quite sure what to do with her gifts. This was particularly the case in an era when black and women artists were so easily pigeonholed. Franklin’s producers literally struggled to see if Franklin was going to be the next Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington or even Bessie Smith, while also being conscious of some of her contemporaries like Nancy Wilson and Dionne Warwick. None of these concerns ever translated into real commercial success while Franklin was with the label, though the work she did with Clyde Otis towards the end of her tenure consistently churned out “turntable hits”—those songs that rarely charted high, but where known to rock a house party from time to time. Tracks like “Runnin’ out of Fools” (Franklin’s biggest hit for the label), “Cry Like a Baby” (penned by a young Ashford and Simpson) and her covers of “Walk on By” (Dionne Warwick), “Mockingbird” (Inez Fox), and “You’ll Lose a Good Thing (Barbara Lynn) are examples of such songs.
Though Franklin has often been referred to as a “great” singer, much of her reputation has been generated by the power that she exudes as a singer. Though she has recorded some striking ballads and mid-temp tracks (“Natural Woman” and “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” come immediately to mind), Franklin rarely gets credit for her stunning interpretations of ballads. The real highlights of The Queen in Waiting are Franklin’s ballads, songs that likely got lost in the initial shuffle to get Franklin some hit records at Columbia. Franklin is simply stunning on tracks like “Just for a Thrill,” “Skylark” (the Otis produced alternative version is simply brilliant), “God Bless the Child”, and “Blue Holiday”. The same can be said for Franklin’s version of Otis’s “Take a Look” (inexplicably left off the earlier collection Jazz to Soul, which The Queen in Waiting replaces) that remains one of Franklin’s best performances.
The real gems of The Queen in Waiting are several previously unreleased tracks produced and arranged by Bobby Scott. Scott was behind the boards for Marvin Gaye’s now classic Vulnerable recordings and notes in the liner notes that Franklin’s “musicality knows no boundaries. Genres fell before her. The only other singer I worked with who had her feeling was Marvin Gaye . . . They each came out of that holy place in black music that breed genius.” Genius is not too strong a term to describe Franklin’s reading of Billy Strayhorn’s “Little Brown Book”, Babs Gonzales’s “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow”, and “Looking through a Tear”, which was co-written by Scott. In this regard, Franklin’s recording of Scott’s “Tiny Sparrow” ranks among her most accomplished performances, alongside “Oh Baby” from Let Me In Your Life (1973) and her Grammy night rendition of the aria “Nessun dorma” in 1999. Despite the fact that The Queen in Waiting collects tracks that Sony has aggressively re-issued on various single themed collections during the ‘90s, the unearthed Scott sessions are worth the price of admission alone.
In the rather polished 28-page booklet that accompanies The Queen in Waiting, second generation Aretha-ite Erykah Badu reflects “More than notes, I remember hearing primal wails and tribal mourns—and that voice always brought me back home” and there is little doubt that The Queen in Waiting takes us all back home to the “Birth of the Queen”.
// Notes from the Road
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