Before she was the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin was merely a fabulous singer.
In 1967 Franklin made her Atlantic Records debut with I Never Loved a Man Like I Love You, the first track of which was her timeless reimagining of Otis Redding’s “Respect”. But before then, she was singing on gospel tours, went on the road with Martin Luther King, Jr., and was mentored by talents like Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke, who were friendly with her father, a celebrity preacher.
The bulk of her early career was the six years she spent recording for Columbia Records, during which she made ten albums that are largely forgotten today. Those recordings, however, remain riveting. They’re not the classics she would make in the future, but they exposed her incredible talent in ways that should be better appreciated. Columbia’s pop sensibility reflected that of star producer and arranger Mitch Miller—no fan of the upstart rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s—and its best singers were Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, and Barbra Streisand. Although the label had a hip line-up of jazz artists like Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus by 1960 when it came to singers, the approach was: hit songs, strings, keep it middle of the road.
As a result, listening to the first six years of Franklin’s adult recording career is an exercise in analysis. We can hear the jazz singer that Franklin never became, the song stylist she certainly was, and the soul star who was still trying to find the right setting for her passion.
Aretha Franklin, a Genuinely Original (Jazz?) Singer of Standards
At first, Columbia seemed to see Franklin as either a jazz singer in the Sarah Vaughan mold or possibly an artist like Nina Simone, who straddled categories. They started her with a small band led by a jazz pianist, and Aretha Franklin with the Ray Bryant Combo is positioned neither as a real jazz date nor as rhythm and blues. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” sounds awkwardly in the middle, with a guitar twanging behind her even though she never really lets go with the emotion that is her strong suit. “Love Is the Only Thing” is a Sam Cooke-styled soft R&B ditty, with a harmony vocal on the lead and growling tailgate trombone around the edges. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from Porgy and Bess is a cleaner fit, and it’s really cool to hear Franklin on piano on “Who Needs You”, where her singing sounds more truly at home.
Franklin’s production budgets would rise for the following Columbia recordings. But the label would continue to position her between jazz/pop singing and something more soulful. On 1963’s Laughing on the Outside, she starts off with the Hoagy Carmichael classic “Skylark”, for example. As always, it’s taken at ballad tempo, and the arrangement ladles on strings and the “ooh”s of a wordless choir. But even smothered under this formula, two things emerge. First, the arrangement here features not tinkling jazz-style piano but a keyboard approach plainly influenced by the gospel sound that Franklin knows best—very likely by Leon Russell. Second, Franklin is straight-up good at singing tunes like these—and at finding ways to imprint her sound on them. As she comes out of the bridge on “Skylark”, for example, she reaches up for a genuine gospel run at the top of her range, twisting the tune’s title in a strained cry that gives the song its plain, delicious climax.
To hear Franklin’s potential as a real jazz singer, check out her version of “Misty” from 1965’s Yeah!!!. Backed only by a quartet (guitar by the great Kenny Burrell, piano, bass, drums—and, oddly, fake audiences sounds that make it sound like a live recording), Franklin is in total control of the tune. On the same record, she rides over an uptempo swing on Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” in a truly supple jazz performance, proving that she has the rhythmic sophistication of an Ella Fitzgerald when she needs it. The telling irony, however, is that on the same album she sounds better on “If I Had a Hammer”, a repertoire choice, presumably, that reflects Columbia’s success at the time with more old-timey folk music and to which Aretha applies a killer gospel approach. She could sing jazz, no doubt, but it never felt like her true calling.
A less dramatic but equally “Aretha” performance is her 1963 “Make Someone Happy”, the only song to emerge from the 1960 Broadway show Do, Re, Mi. The arrangement is soporific again, but Franklin’s vocal is utterly distinctive. With perhaps a nod or two to how Nancy Wilson would have done the song, Franklin finds a score of ways to bend a note, to glide up a word with subtle vibrato, to rush a phrase then, deliciously, slow it down as well. On the same date, label-mate Duke Ellington gets Franklin’s treatment on his “Solitude”. And, again here, while it starts as a fairly standard jazz ballad, the drums soon kick into a 12/8 pattern and Franklin digs into some soul phrasing, sounding more like Ray Charles than like Nancy Wilson.
A more integrated performance, perhaps, is “Until the Real Thing Comes Along”, where you can hear not so much the future soul singer but the jazz singer who never quite was. Franklin uses her gospel edge but keeps it very much under control, and she does it beautifully. At the very end, she gets a brief unaccompanied moment, and she is all control and subtlety. “If Ever I Would Leave You” gets an even more nuanced reading, devoid of the singer’s gutsy moments but not without an intensity. Had she been backed by a great small band rather than the Columbia schmaltz of that day, it would have had a chance at being jazz. Listen, for example, to the end of “Where Are You?” at the moment when the strings and singers butt out and Franklin is backed only by jazz guitar. The intimacy suits her.
Could Aretha Franklin have been a jazz vocalist? She had the tools and artistry, and the evidence suggests that she understood the jazz repertoire and history. If “Exactly Like You” from 1962’s The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin came out today, with the band swinging and a low brass horn section playing hip counterpoint to Franklin’s loose-as-a-goose vocal, I’d review it ecstatically. She sounds like a new kind of jazz singer. In the end, of course, that wouldn’t be Franklin’s legacy, but it’s interesting to imagine it.
Aretha Franklin, a Playful R&B Stylist
The Columbia albums also give voice to a different Franklin—a soft but still soulful rhythm and blues stylist who brings gospel grit to music for the masses. Right around the time Franklin joined Columbia, another young singer was making her debut on Chess Records. Etta James, just 22 when Franklin was 18, had her hit early with “At Last”, setting up another possible path for a young singer with gospel chops.
The second Columbia LP had a modest hit with “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody”—a swing arrangement with a sock cymbal groove. Franklin prances above it all and gets in a few moments of soul shouting. “I Told You So” is a sassy blues with an R&B shake. Franklin doesn’t much sound like herself here—more girlish like she’s doing an impression of a lesser singer. Way better is “Rough Lover”, a boogie-woogie tune that uses its horns to box with the soulful vocals and adds a wailing tenor saxophone solo.
In her later records, there would be more of this. “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)” from 1964’s Running Out of Fools provides some sharp 1960s pop, but it’s a bit undone by some xylophone in the arrangement (yes, xylophone). On that disc, Franklin covers “My Guy” fairly anonymously, a strategy Columbia also tried with one of the Dione Warwick hits written by Burt Bacharach. A 1964 version of “Walk on By” sounds great but serves more to demonstrate Franklin’s adaptability than her brilliance. (Also, compare it to her version of Bacharach’s “I Say a Little Prayer for You” from the 1968 Aretha Now on Atlantic, and you can see the little ways that Columbia’s conservatism held the singer back.) Better by far is “Evil Gal Blues” from Unforgettable, a 1964 tribute to Dinah Washington—piano and Hammond organ mixing it up with guitar and a muscular horn section, and Franklin wailing.
There are plenty of slow R&B winners Etta James would have been proud to cut. “Drinking Again” (1964) is a slow swell of feeling, “Why Was I Born?” (released in 1967 as Columbia started to realize what they’d had—and lost— in Aretha) takes a Rogers and Hammerstein tune and makes it soulful. “You Made Me Love You” has those Columbia strings, but it’s a good arrangement, and Franklin has plenty of room to put the whiskey into this old standard, and in the last eight bars she takes it up to pure soul. “Trouble in Mind” from Yeah!!! finds a sweet spot between R&B, jazz, and gospel and wouldn’t sound out of place at a contemporary Tedeschi Trucks Band show—except that TTB doesn’t have a singer who can touch the vocal that Franklin delivers here, each chorus building in intensity on the last until you feel completely satisfied.
In “Trouble in Mind”, you can hear where this incredible talent needs to go. The tropes of jazz and adult “easy listening” music had been swamped by Motown, rock, and the beginning of soul music—and Franklin cuts ties with Columbia knowing very much the music she was ready to make.
Early Aretha Franklin, Like Early Ray Charles
Franklin had a long career after the Atlantic explosion of 1967-68. Her timing was impeccable, of course, with her soul anthems being both the music she was always destined to make and music that seemed to perfectly reflect the moment, as the 1960s climaxed in a combination of culture, black power, feminism, youth, and possibility. Her voice described it better than the Beatles or the Byrds.
But over time, even as she would continue to make great dance music, Franklin would mature and return to jazz here and there, go back to her ballad styles. She was ready and relevant. She was tutored some by Jackie Wilson, but her career would overshadow his because she had seven gears in her musical engine compared to his four. Did she wind up more important, musically, than Sam Cooke? Comparisons are odious, but we all know the answer. Her jazz vocal idols are a Mount Rushmore of first names (Ella, Billie, Sarah), but she is known just as distinctively by one name, and she surely sold more records.
In range and breadth of influence, she’s probably matched only by a couple of American singers. The most obvious is Ray Charles who, like Aretha Franklin, really changed the way Americans heard their music, who brought the sacred and the secular into a thrilling collision, and who had a career that didn’t fade over time. I think it’s no coincidence that Brother Ray, just like the Queen of Soul, started his career recording a kind of jazz under the influence of Nat “King” Cole, honing his sense of time and melody and interpretation. When his time came, he was ready, and he had discovered his voice the old-fashioned way, through practice and trial and error.
Aretha Franklin earned her respect as much as she had a gift. And her early years still ring today.