R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Otis Redding may have written the song, but Aretha Franklin owned it. The singer was only in her mid-20s when she left Columbia Records after five years and seven albums but she wasted no time in making music history when she signed with Atlantic Records in December 1966. By the middle of 1967, she’d had long-sought-after hits with “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Respect” and was proclaimed The Queen of Soul by a Chicago disk jockey. Some reports indicate the “crowning” as having happened in 1964, and others state 1968. But it’s most likely that Aretha ascended to her throne in 1967, the watershed year when “Respect” catapulted her to the forefront of American popular song. She remained there until her death in 2018 at the age of 76, thrilling fans until the very end. And of course, it wasn’t the end, for the music of Aretha Franklin is as visible, relevant, and powerful as at any time over the past 50+ years.
With the biopic Respect hitting cinema screens today in North America, Rhino has assembled a new box set that is the artist’s first-ever comprehensive career retrospective. With more than five hours of music, Aretha is old-fashioned in the best sense of the word. Produced by David Nathan and Patrick Milligan it’s a Rhino box in the venerable style of the label’s best, with cross-licensed tracks, copious annotation, 20 previously unreleased recordings, even more rarities, and a hardcover book-style package worthy of a Queen.
While the late icon has been anthologized numerous times in the past, this 4-CD collection takes a new approach. Its 81 tracks span the entirety of her career – from her first single on JBV Records (a primitive live-in-church recording of the precocious teenager credited as “Aretha Franklin, Daughter of Rev. C.L. Franklin, Pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, Detroit, Mich.”) through her years on Columbia, Atlantic, and Arista – via hits, rarities, live tracks, and many previously unreleased and new-to-CD cuts. There are many threads which recur throughout including an emphasis on the artist’s musicianship as a pianist and her frequent returns to the music of the church. This isn’t a strict hits survey, with some charting tracks represented in unique versions and others absent entirely. Instead, Aretha is an alternative history of one of music’s most extraordinary artists with surprises at every turn.
Those surprises are plentiful from the very first disc. A full ten tracks are culled from Franklin’s Columbia period, still misunderstood a decade after Legacy Recordings’ definitive Take a Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia box. It’s possible – likely, even – that without her early work at Columbia, Aretha wouldn’t have arrived so fully-formed at Atlantic Records. Here, one can reappraise the many disparate musical threads that she would bring together in 1967. The Columbia recordings are youthful, vibrant, and often rousing, with Franklin’s commanding voice and underrated piano placed in various settings from jazz trio to full orchestra under the aegis of producers John Hammond, Bob Johnston, Robert Mersey, and Clyde Otis. Her “Skylark” is as beautifully elegant as “Runnin’ Out of Fools” is deliciously confident. “One Step Ahead” is classy adult pop, and “Cry Like a Baby” a bellwether for the Atlantic soul period.
“Myths abound that [Columbia-era] Aretha is being pushed toward recording material far-removed from her gospel roots and rhythm and blues contemporaries,” writes David Nathan in his lengthy booklet essay. “Truth is, Aretha herself chose the torch songs, standards, and show tunes…[and] for most of these, she accompanies herself at the piano.” Nathan notes that the Columbia recording that most impressed Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler was her reinvention of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot showstopper “If Ever I Would Leave You,” making it a minor disappointment that it didn’t make the cut for inclusion here.
Two previously unreleased 1966 demos bridge the gap between Columbia and Atlantic, and Nathan tantalizingly offers that there may be more where those came from. The two demos originally sent to Wexler – a rewritten version of Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s swingin’ “My Kind of Town” re-themed to Detroit, and a sublime “Try a Little Tenderness” (which Aretha had previously cut at Columbia) – are intimate affairs with Aretha backing herself on piano and just a couple of musicians. Note that the material is redolent of her Columbia repertoire; Wexler and his collaborators Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin would work in tandem with Franklin to unlock the “natural woman” within. The Atlantic period is the one on which the legend has been built. The singer triumphantly exuded freedom at Atlantic – something that wasn’t easily accessible to a woman of the era, let alone an African-American woman. She was freed from the constraints of genre, blending gospel, jazz, pop, rhythm and blues, and soul into a potent whole. She also brought emotional authenticity and honesty to the material she selected, connecting with listeners of every age, gender, race, and background.
Once Aretha reaches the Atlantic period, it could have become a mere hits survey, and that approach wouldn’t likely have warranted much criticism. But the compilers have chosen instead to pepper rare and alternate versions alongside the familiar recordings of “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” (No. 9 Pop/No. 1 R&B), “Respect” (No. 1 Pop and R&B), “The House That Jack Built” (No. 6 Pop/No. 2 R&B), “Day Dreaming” (No. 5 Pop/No. 1 R&B), and other of Aretha’s chart entries.
These unexpected gems – most of which are previously unreleased – are the heart and soul of this box set. “Chain of Fools” is presented in a stereo fold-down of its quadraphonic mix which featured an extended vocal introduction. Aretha’s self-penned plea to “Call Me” is heard in an alternate version with Arif Mardin’s strings given a more prominent role, upping the drama. In contrast, the rough mix of “Spanish Harlem” has no strings, allowing for even greater emphasis on the funky, spirited arrangement cooked up by Aretha, Tom Dowd, and Arif Mardin and boasting Dr. John, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, and Chuck Rainey among the tight rhythm section.
We get a handful of delicious duets: Ray Charles on “Spirit in the Dark” from Live at Fillmore West and previously unreleased outings with Tom Jones and Dionne Warwick from The Tom Jones Show and Solid Gold, respectively. On the former, Aretha takes on the big-voiced Welshman’s “It’s Not Unusual” before they trade lines on a throbbing “See Saw.” Just as much fun is the latter, where the two legendary ladies of song come together on Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” a song they both could call their own. (For the record, Dionne’s lush 1967 original reached No. 4 Pop and No. 8 R&B, while Aretha’s lean 1968 reinvention made No. 10 Pop and No. 3 R&B). Aretha’s hometown pal Smokey Robinson is here, too, with a 1979 Soul Train duet on his “Ooo Baby Baby” in which their mutual affection is evident.
The alternate versions, too, are revealing. Take 6 of Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff, and Jerry Butler’s “Brand New Me” (earlier recorded by Butler and then Dusty Springfield) has a different, even looser piano and vocal feel than the final version. Aretha’s gorgeous interpretation of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s “Somewhere” from West Side Story, co-produced by Quincy Jones, returned her to the Columbia milieu. On this alternate take without the overdubbed strings, she dazzles with a distinctive piano solo.
Three work tapes are among the most fascinating items here. Aretha can be heard working out her piano part in search of the perfect groove on Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson’s “You’re All I Need to Get By,” the 1968 hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Much as Franklin’s instrumental interpretations would differ from take to take in the manner of a jazz artist, so would her vocals. She’s tender and moving on the work tape version of the lithe “Angel,” co-written by her sister Carolyn and from the same sessions with Jones. The third work tape is of Stevie Wonder’s irresistible “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” sans the eventual background vocals and full instrumentation. Just try not “filling in the blanks” singing behind Aretha (“Tap on your window pane!”) as she rehearses her lead with “Pretty” Purdie’s killer drums in support.
There are even a few previously unheard songs. “The Boy from Bombay,” written by Aretha and co-produced with Jones, is charmingly gentle and light-as-a-feather. Solo demos of her compositions “Til It’s Over” and “Oh Baby (There’s Something Magic About You)” are sourced from the same 1973 tape as “Are You Leaving Me” which was issued in 2007. Note that “Oh Baby” is a different song than the one she premiered on her album Let Me in Your Life. It’s a rare treat to hear Franklin’s raw voice and piano in such a stripped-down setting yet with all of the vocal pyrotechnics one might expect.
The third disc of the box is also notable for premiering on CD tracks from the five Atlantic albums which reverted to the artist from the label and have, to date, never been officially reissued in any format: With Everything I Feel in Me (1974), You (1975), Sweet Passion (1977), Almighty Fire (1978), and La Diva (1979). Though one would be hard-pressed to argue that these LPs reach the artistic heights of their predecessors, every one has material worthy of the Queen and her illustrious collaborators including Van McCoy, Lamont Dozier, Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Wexler, and Marvin Hamlisch. They’ve been cherrypicked here for highlights including the sweetly grooving “Without Love,” boisterous “Mr. D.J. (5 for the D.J.),” richly emotional “You,” and floor-filling “Ladies Only” (in its short version). Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager’s “Break It to Me Gently” has appeared on CD before, but the R&B chart-topper makes a welcome reappearance. From this period, Aretha has also unearthed a truly majestic reinterpretation of the Debby Boone smash “You Light Up My Life” which adds gospel fire to the romantic ode. With any luck, a complete box of these albums (and perhaps more bonus material) will be forthcoming.
Disc Four is an abbreviated overview of Franklin’s Arista period and beyond, covering a whopping 35 years (1980-2015) – an era which feels compressed here and deserves a box set re-evaluation of its own. Clive Davis-approved hits such as “Jump to It” (No. 24 Pop/No. 1 R&B), “Freeway of Love” (No. 3 Pop/No. 1 R&B), and “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” with George Michael (No. 1 Pop/No. 5 R&B) are all represented, but other key tracks are missing (“Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” “Everchanging Times,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”). Still, the disc builds with power and intensity post-Arista, skipping through the highlights of Franklin’s later years (her live “Nessun Dorma,” touching duets with Lou Rawls and Ronald Isley, a digital single version of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”) before concluding with the jaw- (and fur coat-) dropping performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” honoring Carole King at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors. The visceral reading of the song made worldwide headlines, and even separated from the visual element, it’s not hard to hear why. It was the perfect cap to a career unlike any other, and makes a fitting finale for Aretha‘s thrilling five-plus hours of music.
The four discs are housed within a 52-page hardcover book featuring copious photos and memorabilia images. Rochelle Riley, Director of Arts and Culture for the City of Detroit, provided the introductory essay reflecting upon the local hero’s legacy. David Nathan penned the second, lengthy essay and selected track-by-track notes which add up to an essential guide for listening. Credits for each cut round out the book; only the chart positions are missing. For accuracy’s sake, one should note that “Brand New Me” is credited to Kenny Gamble, Jerry Butler, and Thom Bell, but the “T. Bell” is actually one “Theresa Bell,” a pen name for Leon Huff per this author’s 2017 interview with Kenny Gamble.
Every element of Aretha is wonderfully executed, from the curation by Nathan and Milligan to the remastering by Bill Inglot and Dan Hersch and design by Rory Wilson. After countless compilations, anthologies, and boxes over the years, a fan or collector could reasonably expect to have heard it all. This set has brought forth new and moreover, significant discoveries from the singer once accurately billed by Columbia Records as The Electrifying Aretha Franklin. It’s a tribute worthy of the Queen – and one that’s not to be missed.
Aretha is available as a 4-CD box set and in 1-CD and 2-LP highlights editions.