Was Aretha's talent wasted before she went to Atlantic Records? You decide.
Conventional wisdom has it that Aretha Franklin never really hit her stride—her chart-topping, vocal-bursting, paradigm-shifting stride—until she left Columbia Records in the mid-1960s and signed on with Atlantic, where studio guru Ahmet Ertegun was responsible for recognizing a host of stars, including Aretha's unlikely labelmates Led Zeppelin. This particular point of view is probably right. Aretha's tenure at Atlantic produced a flurry of brilliant albums and songs, including such standards as "You Make me Feel Like a Natural Woman", "Respect", "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man", "Chain of Fools", "Son of a Preacher Man", "A Rose in Spanish Harlem", and dozens more.
Aretha's Columbia output isn't going down without a fight. Take a Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia gathers every cut from Aretha's ten original Columbia albums, plus compilation album The Queen in Waiting, alternate takes and mono mixes (nearly 50 altogether) and a brief DVD of TV appearances. Ever wanted a comprehensive package of Aretha's early years? Here it is.
From the very first track on this massive set, it's apparent that Aretha had the goods to be a superstar. While Columbia's arrangements for "Won't Be Long" or "Love Is the Only Thing" are certainly more conservative than Atlantic's funky, wah-wah pedal magic of "Rock Steady" or flashy horns of "The House That Jack Built", there is plenty here to savor.
The first disc, Aretha with the Ray Bryant Combo, features bluesy tracks like "Sweet Love" and "It Ain’t Necessarily So" alongside moody numbers like "All Night Long", all built on a bedrock of Bryant's piano playing, accented with snippets of horns and guitar. The vocals tend toward the coy and playful, until the record ramps up its intensity with the haunting gospel of "Are You Sure" and the full-throated wailing of "Maybe I’m a Fool". The disc's extensive extras—four alternate takes and a half-dozen mono mixes—provide something extra for the Arethaphile who's heard it all.
The next several albums follow along in the same vein, only not quite as good. Disc number 3 kicks off with the feisty "Don't Cry, Baby", but the rest of the album is reliant on slow ballads dripping with strings. The trend follows on discs 4 and 5, with a certain sonic monotony settling in—a shocking thing to say, considering the vocalist at the heart of it all. That voice is of course splendid, but the saccharine arrangements and languid tempos detract from a powerful singer. That said, there are standout tracks on every one of these discs: "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" from disc 4 features the singer at her most wistful, while "Bill Bailey Won't You Please Come Home", a snappy jazz-inflected tune from disc 5, shows plenty of vigor.
Then, halfway though disc 6—the Dinah Washington tribute album Unforgettable--the whole project ratchets up a notch in intensity with the electrifying organ/guitar of "Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning". Awash in gurgling keybards, scratchy guitars and insistent percussion, Aretha spins a classic tale of blues woe that is as visceral as it is reflective. It's certainly the higlight of the set so far, and the good news is that much of the rest of the record maintains the intensity. "Evil Gal Blues" oozes sass and attitude, and it's worth the price of the set just to hear Aretha rant, "I want caviar for breakfast, champagne every night/I want a midnight snack for every man that I invite." Uptempo, roof-raising numbers "Soulville" and "Lee Cross" close out the disc in style.
Unfortunately, follow-up album Take a Look: The Clyde Otis Sessions fails to capitalize on this new energy as much as one might hope. The good news is that Aretha's performaces remain consistently excellent, whether crooning the moody "Sweet Bitter Love" or the bouncy "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart". The bad news is that the cloying string arrangements haven't vanished, and overall the sonic pallette remains largely unchanged. Dynamics are sedate; it's difficult to point out a song that is especially noisy, for example, or one that expresses a noticeably wide dynamic range. Seven albums into this collection, the listener (this listener, anyway) is beginning to pine for something more daring.
That uniformity applies not only to the instrumentation and arrangements, but also to the songs' subject matter—which consists primarily of men, love, heartache, men, being done wrong, being treated right, and men. Occasional devotional songs break this pattern, and are often among the most heartfelt performances, but such songs are relatively few, and apart from them there is little of the variety that would characterize her later output at Atlantic. Partly this was a reaction to the times; Aretha's move to the other label would coincide with the increasing visibility of the civil rights movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and RFK, the Democratic convention in Chicago, anger at the Vietnam War, and the general unrest of the era. Partly, though, the increased sonic daring would be a reflection of producers like Jerry Wexler, who simply heard more possibilities in the music than Columbia ever would.
Her final releases at Columbia, Runnin' Out of Fools and A Bit of Soul, provide the most satisfying match of singer, arrangement and material. Highlights include the saucy "Mockingbird" with call-and-response vocals by Ray Johnson, and the sultry "Walk on By". "Can't You Just See Me" and "A Little Bit of Soul" provide doses of rock 'n' roll verve. These two discs are harbingers of a new direction for the singer, and as far as the albums in this set are concerned, they are the standouts.
The final two discs are curiosities. Yeah!!! In Person with Her Quartet was a phony "live" album recorded in the studio, with an audience track addded later. The box set provides two versions on one disc: the album as it was released, and an alternate version without the fake audience and with the tracks reconfigured in their original order. As far as the songs are concerned, this album is something of a step backward into lounge-music territory. The Queen In Waiting is an album compiled after Aretha left Columbia, with some of her best-known songs—"Skylark", "Walk on By", "Trouble in Mind"—remixed and "sweetened" with additional instrumentation (usually strings and horns). Individual tastes will vary, but it's tough to see how this meddling could have improved the original performances. Evidently Aretha couldn't see it either; she sued Columbia, eventually winning a substantial out-of-court settlement.
The DVD contains five performances on Steve Allen's TV variety show in 1964, a paltry enough selection at at 16 minutes, but fun to see nonethless. Aretha rips through smoking renditions of "Won’t Be Long", "Rock-A-By Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" and "Evil Gal Blues". For these songs she accompanies herself on piano, backed up by anonymous session musicians who, to their credit, keep up with the firebrand, adding accents without stepping on her voice. More sedate renditions of "Skylark" and "Lover Come Back to Me" bring Aretha to center stage sans piano. The disc is rather frustrating; fascinating enough, but too short to be satisfying.
Included is a 48-page book with notes from and photos that provides an illuminating peek at the young artist in her formative years in New York. Perhaps as interesting, to committed Aretha fans, is the alternative take on "Are You Sure," which features the band starting and stopping repeatedly, as producer and musicians try to work out their entrances until Aretha herself speaks up and straightens the whole thing out.
Take a Look is a powerful document, one that provides a compelling argument that Aretha's years at Columbia weren't as disposable as many believe. At the same time, though, it must be acknowledged that when she left the label in 1966, Aretha's best years still lay ahead of her. It is unlikely that any number of re-released Columbia nuggets could ever change that assessment.