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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Aretha


1) Won't Be Long; 2) Over The Rainbow; 3) Love Is The Only Thing; 4) Sweet Lover; 5) All Night Long; 6) Who Needs You?; 7) Right Now; 8) Are You Sure; 9) Maybe I'm A Fool; 10) It Ain't Necessarily So; 11) (Blue) By My­self; 12) Today I Sing The Blues.

Columbia's legendary talent scout John Hammond discovered the yet-to-be legendary Aretha in 1960. He made the right decision to put her under contract, but whether he made the right deci­sion in giving her the kind of material he gave her remains debatable. That said, what kind of ma­terial was there in 1960? He could have made her a legitimate gospel star along the lines of Mahalia Jackson, but she did not really want to be a gospel star. He could have made her a legi­timate blues queen along the lines of Big Mama Thornton, but Columbia was not the kind of label to have had much experience with blues queens. He could have made her a great sweeping R'n'B shouter — the problem is, great sweeping R'n'B did not yet exist at the time.

In the end, she just sings a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Show tunes, ballads, Gershwin arias, a little gospel, a little urban blues, and a couple new compositions by J. Leslie McFarland (the guy who wrote 'Stuck On You' — the fun song that almost single-handedly ruined Elvis' re­putation as a rocker after his homecoming). In the process, she is being backed by the Ray Bryant combo, a big band with a big style, but no memorable face of its own.

Still, whenever the songs are at least semi-decent on their own, Aretha's fresh, full, and finally well-recorded 19-year old voice injects them with power-a-plenty. McFarland's modest pop ro­cker 'Won't Be Long', opening the record on a particularly energetic note, is easily the best of the bunch, but her take on 'It Ain't Necessarily So' is not far behind, and I must say that this is the first time ever I have not cringed at somebody singing 'Over The Rainbow', simply because Are­tha never knew the meaning of cheap sentimentality, and, although there is a down side to her shrillness and tenseness — if you breathe it long enough, it may start drilling your skull from the inner side — fairly often, it takes the corn right out of the cornball, replacing it with ass-kicking.

There is a frequent tendency to put down Aretha's entire Columbia period; for many, the real Franklin does not even begin until she makes the switch to Atlantic in 1967. But, in a way, this is akin to saying that the Beatles do not begin until Rubber Soul or Revolver; the true fan will al­ways find a way to work around the obvious shortcomings — generic nature of the material, lack of interesting musical backing, etc. — and highlight the high points. As to what concerns Aretha, I have little memory of the individual songs, but I have plenty of memory of youthful exuberance and excitement. At this point, Hammond could have given her a bluegrass arrangement of 'Little Jack Horner', and she would still sing it with the inspiration fit for an 'Amazing Grace' — so ob­viously thrilled is she to find herself in a recording studio. For this matter, no less than a definite thumbs up is in order.

For the record, the album is, in general, more easily found as The Great Aretha Franklin: The First 12 Sides, under which title it was re-released by Columbia a decade later. The message of the new title is quite transparent: you, the listener, cannot really understand the great Aretha Fran­klin of Atlantic fame to perfection without peeling off a dozen bucks for her first dozen of sides, recorded on our label. Laughable? Pre­sumptuous? Stupid? But who really knows these guys at Columbia? In some way, they might even have been right.

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