You can spend a lifetime hunting down soul music obscurities and championing the underdogs of R&B, but those dogged efforts will never change the fact that Aretha Franklin can sing circles around the lot of ’em. Sure, you can argue that Bettye LaVette’s voice is grittier, Candi Staton’s more honeyed, or that Bettye Swann’s country-soul is more lonesome, and, given the circumstances and the song, you’d likely be right. Franklin, however, with her impeccable phrasing and churchy fire, with her emotional investment in a vocal’s equivalent of mise en scène, will always be the trump suit in soul’s deck — there’s a reason, after all, why she’s the Queen.
It’s easy to locate Franklin’s influence amongst the younger generations of singers, but at the same time, it’s obvious how far the divas-in-training have strayed from her lead. (The effect of other genre-dominating divas, e.g. Whitney Houston, is partly to blame for this, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.) The torch-bearing soul sisters of the new millennium — those who pander calculated bombasts for the likes of corporate radio and American Idol — have swollen Franklin’s technical deftness into scale-molesting acrobatics of cold distance. Franklin’s phrasing and interpretive daring aren’t products of technique alone; hers is a style that mixes procedure with gut reaction, punctuated by an endless queue of exclamations (Ooh! Yeah!), repeated words, and impulsive melodic shifts that suggest well-worn narratives behind the lyrical front. It’s almost as if singers have been reprogrammed to bludgeon us with indubitable skill instead of appealing to the more discreet aspects of our communicative nature.
It’s fascinating to hear the genesis of Franklin’s musical dialogue on an early demo version of “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You”. The song is sparsely performed (Franklin, at the piano, is accompanied only by bass and drums) and not yet immaculately arranged; the refrain’s melody hasn’t been perfected, nor has the titular line’s vocal been isolated from the instrumentation. It’s a shuffling, gospel-infected rendition of a song we know by heart, and yet Franklin’s investigation of its possibilities turns it into a completely new experience. Likewise, the original demo recording of “Dr. Feelgood (Love is a Serious Business)” is less urgent than the album’s fully arranged version, allowing room for Franklin to mull the words around in her mouth in order to find out how the dialogue can best be conveyed to an audience.
Those demos are a few of the many rarities available on Rhino’s new Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul, a two-disc collection of demos, outtakes, alternate versions, and B-sides Franklin cut for Atlantic between the years of 1966-1974. Rare & Unreleased is an insightful addendum to Franklin’s greatest and most prolific period as an artist, and while its selections fail to outclass that period’s official releases, it offers some small gems and curiosities that underscore the strengths of their better-known counterparts.
Franklin’s ability to personalize and structurally transform the songs of others comes through on her interpretations of Paul Anka’s “My Way” (a display of passionate resolve without the sentimentality), Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (in which organ and a reconfigured melody turn a strict pop-march into a funky dish), and Paul McCartney’s “The Fool on the Hill”. The latter is an intriguing experiment gone awry; Franklin’s churched-up rhythms collide with the seasick movements of McCartney’s melody in a manner too awkward for pop music. (Franklin covered a lot of McCartney in the late ’60s, and fared better with more soul-friendly material like “Let It Be” and “Eleanor Rigby”.) Other highlights include “So Soon”, an outtake from the Aretha Arrives sessions with a near-breathless vocal take that speaks to the heartache of the lyric, “Talk to Me, Talk to Me”, a jazzy Soul ’69 outtake in which Franklin phrases her lines like her idol Sam Cooke, and “I Need a Strong Man”, an outtake from the Young, Gifted, and Black record that puts gospel stride in some wah-wah pants.
The surplus of ballads on Disc one is somewhat problematic — that’s not to say Franklin isn’t a great singer of ballads (listen to how she lets loose atop the simmering tempo of a song like “The Letter”), but the sequencing can make for a sluggish listening experience at times. Perhaps even more problematic, however, is Disc two’s abundance of later disco-adjacent material from albums like the 1973 Quincy Jones-produced Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) (represented by a whopping eight outtakes) and 1974’s Let Me in Your Life. The songs aren’t awful (though we could do without another cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”) and are quite nearly redeemed by “Ain’t but the One”, an extended gospel rave-up with Ray Charles, but their gloss and pop-world assimilation can’t match the sense of discovery sparked by the earlier recordings. In those better moments, she isn’t just playing the part of the best, she’s defining it.