“Aretha, then, was really the first gospel star to switch fields without switching styles.”
— Anthony Heilbut, The Fan Who Knew Too Much
Most folks were stopped in their tracks by the sound of her voice, and many assumed that it was some preternatural gift from the gods that allowed her to sound like that. But just as no overnight sensation happens overnight, Aretha Franklin didn’t just open her mouth one day and change the world. She did, but first, she put in the work.
Behold her first recordings, as a 14-year-old in 1956, recorded live in her father’s church in Detroit. That church was New Bethel Baptist Church, and her father was the Reverend C.L. Franklin, a rock star of a preacher in more ways than one. He had made successful preaching records in the early ’50s, and had become famous on the black gospel circuit, known for his flamboyant sartorial style. He toured with the Famous Ward Singers, a legendary gospel quartet, and eventually struck up a longtime dalliance with the favored daughter of the troupe, Clara Ward. She would become a major influence on young Aretha.
Most black performers back then had to go on the chitlin’ circuit of black nightclubs and showplaces to hone their craft. Not Aretha; thanks to her father’s notoriety, the chitlin’ circuit came to her. Among the many who would stop by the Franklin home on their way through town were not only Ward but also Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke, two performers with gospel roots who would go on to far greater success in the secular world, thus planting additional seeds in young Aretha’s fertile mind.
That said, it was evident from the earliest days that Aretha was not simply mimicking her idols. Listen to her “Precious Lord” from that first album: gospel historian Anthony Heilbut notes that it is highly indebted to Ward’s influence, but there is no mistaking that, already, she was sounding like Aretha Franklin. Also recorded for that album was “Never Grow Old”, which reveals the teenaged Aretha as, if not already an old soul, then at least one who knew how to conjure them. Even as her youth comes through at times in the lightness of her voice, you can hear what she was doing to audiences well before she was old enough to drive, drink or vote.
She hit the road soon after that album was made, wowing gospel audiences for the next several years and finding more of her own voice but thinking of broader pastures. So was her father. Not only did Rev. Franklin have no problem with her seeking a career in secular music, he helped make it happen. He worked his music business contacts (and he had more than a few, thanks to the popularity of his own recordings), and managed to introduce Aretha to the legendary John Hammond at Columbia Records.
And thus in 1960 did Aretha Franklin, a teenaged mother of two who never finished high school, become a pet project of the largest record label in the world.
The six years she spent with Columbia, generally, are either ignored or belittled. They produced no major hits and nothing remotely close to the canon she forged at Atlantic Records after leaving Columbia. But consider those years, compiled in the 2011 boxed set Take a Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia, as her finishing school, where she developed a musical foundation and refined skills she’d deploy time and again the rest of her life.
Start with the piano. It can’t be said enough that Aretha did her best work leading the band from the piano. In fact, she was basically a leader on her very first Columbia sessions in 1960. Under the guidance of Ray Bryant, a jazz pianist with gospel roots (a wonderfully appropriate combination for her first producer), the young teenager making her debut in the big city sounds right at home among old-school jazz cats like Al Sears on sax and, on a couple of tracks, legendary bassist Milt Hinton (the bassist the rest of the time was Bill Lee, Spike’s dad). She seems confident and assured from day one, fronting the combo through bluesy numbers like “Won’t Be Long” and “Sweet Lover” and handling the piano herself on tracks including “Are You Sure” and “Maybe I’m a Fool”.
The point isn’t whether she’s a better piano player than others at the time, like Bill Evans or McCoy Tyner, in her ability to unravel a solo. It’s that she set the tone for both her singing and the rest of the band from the piano bench. The tunes where she sings with Bryant at the piano aren’t bad, but when she’s playing, there’s a different sense of propulsion, both rhythmic and emotional, happening in the song. (The many Tate a Look liner booklet photos of her in the studio indicate she was no novice; “musician” seems to be the word least often used to categorize her.)
Take “It’s So Heartbreaking”, from her second Columbia album, recorded in 1961. The boxed set’s liner notes don’t specify that she’s playing the piano on this track, but I don’t see how it possibly could be anyone else. That introductory vamp sounds like something she learned or developed on the gospel circuit, but she saw exactly how it could be repurposed as the perfect launch vehicle for a light-hearted 32-bar ditty about unfaithful love. What’s even more remarkable is how she lets her voice take flight in the back half of the song, fitting in perfectly with the flow (of all the mighty-voiced wailers who came along after Aretha, only she could wail with a jazz musician’s sense of place). But here’s the thing: nine years later, she’d pull that same piano riff out of her pocket for her rendition of “Don’t Play That Song”; again it was the perfect launch vehicle, only this time she took off into orbit.
She was playing out in New York City nightclubs back then; one 1961 gig at the Village Gate had her alternating sets with John Coltrane’s quartet (oh, to have been there!) While gospel was her wellspring, jazz and standard pop was the bulk of her early repertoire. We’re not talking the rock or R&B sound of the era, at least not yet. Columbia was always oriented towards an older crowd, and the songs Aretha recorded on her first few albums reflect that.
But they also gave her a chance to develop her muscles as an interpreter of songs, always finding a way to run it through her unclassifiable prism. Here’s a sampling of some of the classic songs she performed on her first three albums: “Over the Rainbow”; “It Ain’t Necessarily So”; “I Surrender, Dear”; “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive”; “How Deep is the Ocean”; “God Bless the Child”. This ability to work through anything the Great American Songbook could throw at her undoubtedly contributed to her radical recastings of Otis Redding’s “Respect” and Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”, to say nothing of her work covering rock-era songwriters during the Atlantic years, including Lennon/McCartney, Elton John/Bennie Taupin, and Robbie Robertson.
Aretha also tried on new looks for size back then. Well used to the grand presentation of her gospel idols (including her father), she found a sweet spot between flashy and stylish. For those aware of her body image and weight issues in her middle-aged years, there’s a photo in the Take a Look package of Aretha in a leotard, impossibly slender. She was young and on her own (her children were back in Detroit), cycling through visual and musical styles, and hoping one of them would help her get a hit.
You can see on the below 1964 clip from The Steve Allen Show that the basics of Aretha Franklin were already in place — the look, the command of her instruments (aside from the underwhelming piano solo), her confidence as a bandleader, her joy of performing. By now, she’d learned how to use her gospel roots to get down into the blues, and swing it with a grounded moral authority. This was territory most of her gospel idols never touched, and her main secular idol, Dinah Washington, only hinted at. And she made it look so effortless. And was only in her mid-20s.
The one thing she didn’t accomplish at Columbia was a hit record. They threw a lot of pasta at the wall in the back half of 1964 in search of one, and none of it stuck. Producer Clyde Otis did a series of poppier sessions with her, including one which gave us the heavy-handed racial justice anthem “Take a Look,”, which sounds more like Broadway musical-meets-After School Special than the truly anthemic music she’d make just a few years later (one of several songs from those years one might wonder how’d she’d have handled post-“Respect”). Here again, that period is instructive as prologue to history: always possessed of a musical omnivore’s “big ears”, she’s now moved up the timeline from Tin Pan Alley to sing Smokey Robinson, Burt Bacharach and Ashford and Simpson.
And it’s not as if all those sessions were worthless. For starters, it was during this period that her backing singers, the Sweet Inspirations (a name straight outta gospel showbiz) took shape; one of them was Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mom, and a lifelong friend. The grouping of songs A Bit of Soul, never released as a proper album until Take A Look, contains some of her best pre-Atlantic forays into modern pop. None of it would make a major dent on the charts, but its highlights show that the seeds of her later success had long been sown:
- “Follow Your Heart” shows how she could take a simple song and elevate it into a grand, sweeping statement, with just emotion behind the lyrics and no acrobatic vocal tricks;
- “Only The One You Love” shows how she could elevate a song’s emotional pitch by seamlessly shifting into another key (and also how important those background singers would be to her music, the response to her call);
- “One Step Ahead” is an ahead-of-its-time song about balancing female ambition and relationship realities, a theme she’d explore much more forcefully just a few years later (it would later be sampled by Mos Def for “Ms. Fat Booty”);
- “Can’t You Just See Me”, with its hint of second-line swagger, shows that she could strut whenever she felt like it (indeed, she would do a lot of swaggering and strutting during her glory days);
- “Cry Like a Baby”, from the Ashford and Simpson pen; shows she could work through the architecture of modern pop with the technical precision of a longtime jazz singer (which, by then, she was);
- “Take It Like You Give It” represents a musical and emotional mindset that would shortly thereafter give us “Respect”.
Yet — and this may be where Columbia screwed up for good with her — instead of doubling down on pop, the label insisted on making her the next great lounge singer. In February 1965, Aretha recorded a fake live album of jazz standards, Yeah!!! In Person with Her Quartet. It is far and away her most accomplished work in this vein while with Columbia (and that’s saying something), which is especially evident on the mix with the studio-concocted nightclub applause stripped out (issued in Take a Look). Aretha had all the tools she’d need for pop success — a great voice, sharp musical instincts, and the confidence that she could make a song, any song, her own. But the label could not or would not commit to casting Aretha in a context connected to the music young people (especially young black people) were actually listening to in 1965.
Theories abound. Otis claimed Columbia still saw Aretha as a multi-talented vocalist across all genres, while her (often abusive) husband/manager, Ted White, claimed Columbia had no interest in doing what it would take to make her a pop star. Aretha herself was silent about it at the time, a choice perhaps best explained by her longtime deference to male authority figures (which might make “Respect”, in retrospect, something of a personal statement as well as a global one).
It’s true that Columbia was woefully ill-equipped to compete in the pop marketplace; White claimed that the label didn’t even send promo copies of Aretha’s poppier sides to R&B radio stations, and they were historically nowhere near nimble when it came to contemporary black pop until they struck a deal in 1971 with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records. But Aretha was probably ready; she was way more clued into soul music than the label ever would be. A longtime friend of Cooke, she covered his “A Change Is Gonna Come” for the final track on her Atlantic debut album, I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You). And she’d been performing “Respect” as part of her live set in 1966; only an uncovered recording of one of those shows would tell us whether she’d already reinvented the song by then (with the help of her sister Carolyn) or stayed closer to Redding’s original version.
Still hitless after all those years, she made her final Columbia recordings in the fall of 1965 and signed with Atlantic in late 1966. But it’s not as if she left all that music in the dustbin: in the out chorus of “Respect”, she references her most successful Columbia single, “Runnin’ Out of Fools”.
Shortly after landing at Atlantic, she recorded the iconic version of “Respect”, and nothing would be the same after that. But there’s no way in the world “Respect”, and all that followed it, could have happened without the foundation she built for herself during her Columbia years. It’s been said that the difference between the Columbia non-hits and the Atlantic mega-hits was Aretha bringing her church roots more prominently for the latter than the former, and that Columbia would have been far better off letting her chart her own course according to her own artistic vision. Perhaps, but those years weren’t wasted time: that’s when she learned how to be the artist who became Aretha Franklin.
(A coda to those years: after “Respect” blew up, Columbia engaged in the time-honored record industry practice of raiding its back catalog to cash in on the fame of a former signee. In this case, the label’s The-One-That-Got-Away response took two tracks. Columbia repackaged some of her sides as after-the-fact singles — my mother bought the “Take a Look/Follow Your Heart” 45, which charted in the pop Top 40 on the coattails of “Respect”. Columbia would still be trying to run that trick as late as 1969, long after she’d been gone. More egregiously, it took some of her tracks and tried to graft some funk onto them in the form of overdubs by studio hacks. Aretha sued the label, believing it constituted a breach of contract by altering the original arrangements, and received an out-of-court settlement. Of course, today such a practice would be called “remixes”, but that’s another story.)
In the pantheon of great blues women, Aretha’s name is not always mentioned. Perhaps that’s because she’s so associated with gospel, and the feeling exists (at least for some) that blues and gospel are two separate things that really have nothing in common, and the sacred word of salvation should never be tainted with the filthiness of everyday life.
But gospel came from the blues, at least structurally, and there has always been crosstalk between the two. Before the personal spiritual crisis that led Thomas A. Dorsey to write “Take My Hand Precious Lord”, the mother of all gospel songs, he went by the stage name Georgia Tom and had a hit called “Tight Like That”.
Indeed, while Aretha was never a blues singer per se, her music is infused with the spirit of the blues. Those dark piano chords, those moans that say more than words ever could: they may have come from her gospel background, but they live on the fine line between pleasure and pain, and that’s a place blues music knows quite well.
At the end of her very first album, recorded when she was just 18, there’s a track called “Today I Sing the Blues”. She begins it slowly, clearly, carefully, stringing out the words for maximum effect. Ray Bryant’s piano echoes churchy tones, but Aretha stretches out “in every love affair” sounding much like a female B.B. King. It ends demurely, suddenly; one wishes she’d sing some more. She revisits the song at the height of her Atlantic fame, ten years later, this time backed by a horn section playing jazzy charts behind her. Older and wiser now, she’s getting more out of each note, not by singing more notes but finding more ways to expand the dramatic range of her vocals. When she gets to the “in every love affair” line now, she sounds like no one on earth but Aretha. This time around, the ending is not abrupt, but measuredly elongated, wringing every ounce of emotion from the song without adding one extraneous note.
Nowhere does she sing the blues with more feeling than on “Dr. Feelgood”, from her breakthrough Atlantic debut. On the rest of the album, there are horns a-plenty and her background singers in the mix, but here, it’s just Aretha and her piano front and center, with an organ adding dramatic tension as coloring and a horn section merely filling in the few available spaces.
As with “Today”, Aretha starts out taking her time. This is an elongated 12-bar blues architecture, but what really makes this blues music is the way Aretha tells the simple story of how much she enjoys the good love she gets from her man. This is neither crass nor raunchy, no need for double entendre because Aretha’s making it clear what she’s talking about.
In the second verse, she punctuates a line about occasional girlfriend company with a “yes it is” that either came from the church or Alabama, or both. But a few seconds later, she brags about “when me and that man get to lovin'”, letting a wide, escalating moan fill in the blanks for us, and then declares to the audience, her jazz-honed sense of syncopation kicking in,”I tell you girls/ I dig you but I just don’t have time /To sit and chit and sit and chit-chat and smile.”
What follows is almost as resonant a cultural moment as was “Respect”, especially for the women who invariably sang along (and still will whenever they hear it) at the top of their lungs:
Don’t send me no doctor
Filling me up with all those pills
Finally, we learn the name of her friend: Dr. Feelgood, or as she puts it, “Dr. Feeeeeeeeelgood in the morning.” This, then, is about a woman proclaiming the joy of sex years before a book by that title came out. But she is not cooing and purring demurely, she’s singing this full voice like the natural woman she is, wailing with both technical and emotional precision every step of the way.
Now, “Dr. Feelgood” wasn’t the first black pop song that celebrated a woman’s pleasure. Washington herself, in 1948, sounded all but orgasmic at the end of “Big Long Slidin’ Thing” (the object in question, by the way, belonged to the trombone player), and there were plenty of wild blues women before that. But “Big Long Slidin’ Thing” was a straight-up R&B song, with nothing in there to suggest a sanctified pedigree. And folks mixing pop and gospel wasn’t news any more anyway, not after the breakthroughs of Cooke and Ray Charles in the ’50s. “Dr. Feelgood” was different. Aretha’s church background was no secret back then and she was proud of it, thank you very much. She simply took the chords and hollers and vocal runs she’d done for years and applied them in a brand-new way. Just as blues and gospel are, in many ways, opposite sides of the same coin, she proclaimed her pleasure in “Dr. Feelgood” with the very same techniques she used to proclaim her faith.
People loved it, including a certain British pub band who took the song’s title for their name. As for Franklin, whenever she made a point to bring it from the blues, it always got routed through the pulpit. Be it the power of love or the power of the Lord; it was all a glorious testimony in her hands. And there is something to the fact that “Dr. Feelgood” was the B-side to “Respect”.
Aretha Franklin was no stranger to singing “The Star-Spangled Banner”. She’d done it numerous times, including at both sporting events and the 1992 Democratic National Convention. She’d performed it in her native, beloved Detroit for all the city’s sports teams. So it wasn’t really news when she sang it on November 24, 2016, before the Lions’ annual Thanksgiving Day football game, a perennial national telecast. At least, not before she sang.
This was not any old Thanksgiving Day game. This was barely three weeks after Donald Trump was elected president, and already the nation was reeling. A man who came into political prominence by questioning whether the black man occupying the White House at the time was an American citizen, a former reality TV carnival barker who launched his campaign with diatribes against Mexicans and Muslims, was about to become the leader of the free world. Those were anxious days; no one knew what to expect, but people either were supremely fearful or ecstatic for the future.
Wearing a mink stole and Lions skullcap, looking slightly gaunt and with a missing tooth but otherwise perfectly fine for a 74-year-old woman who’d seen and done it all three or four times, she takes a moment to adjust the mic, aligning her fingers to the piano – where she always sounded best – and moves into song. She is accompanied only by an organist, to her right, playing softly beneath her.
Her voice no longer reaches the stratosphere, but she is still Aretha Franklin, there is no mistaking that. She takes the song at a leisurely tempo — no, there is really no tempo at all. It is free-form, she gives each line all the space she feels appropriate for it. She confidently takes her time, stretching the spaces between lines with piano ad-libs, until she gets to the end, the “home of the brave”, when she works up the propulsion to celebrate those words with all the passion and command at her disposal, wringing every ounce of emotion from the song without a single superfluous note.
Imagine how her 1992 DNC rendition would have sounded stripped of its canned bombast, and you will get a glimpse of the power she could bring to that most daunting of songs to sing, and would do 24 years later. Her voice was no longer as visceral that Thanksgiving Day as it once had been, but her rendition might have been even more affecting for its starkness, its patience, its depth.
Commenters complained that she took too long, some wondered if she even remembered the words. They missed the point. First, in gospel music embellishment is the coin of the realm, the way you put your individual mark on songs everyone already knows. Further, for Franklin, this moment was not just another football game. It was a national spotlight game in her hometown, at a nervous time in America, and she rose to the occasion with perhaps the final memorable performance on a grand stage in her life, as if she knew we were in need of musical spirit work. Just like she’d done for the previous 60 years, Aretha Franklin sang us to a place we’d never imagined, and were happy beyond words to behold.