The gospel-truth, if you believe most of the history books: Aretha Franklin didn’t really find her true voice until she began working with producer Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records in 1967.
“My idea was to make good tracks, use the best players, put Aretha back on piano and let the lady wail,” Wexler wrote in his autobiography, “Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music” (1994). Indeed, Franklin’s 1967 Atlantic debut album, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Loved You),” is considered a soul masterpiece.
But the Aretha before and after her soul golden age often gets short shrift. Anthony Heilbut offers, among other things, a reassessment of her pre-Atlantic era in a fascinating chapter, “Aretha: How She Got Over,” from his latest book, “The Fan Who Knew Too Much” (Knopf). Heilbut knows his stuff; his 1971 book, “The Gospel
Sound: Good News and Bad Times,” is among the best ever written on the musical genre that is the foundation of Franklin’s career. And “How She Got Over” outdoes Franklin’s 1999 autobiography with David Ritz, “Aretha: From These Roots,” for insight into the Queen of Soul’s accomplishments. Heilbut argues persuasively that even before Aretha walked into a studio to record with Wexler, she had already begun to change the game for women, African-Americans and music culture.
Franklin‘s “role was such that a history of black America could well be divided into pre- and post-Aretha,” he writes.
As the daughter of one of the most powerful ministers in America, Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha already had a platform at Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church to showcase her extraordinary multi-octave, multi-hued voice.
At 14, she was not just recording gospel, but in harrowing testimonials such as “There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood” imbuing it with drama and depth of feeling that were miles behind her years. Still, in her late teens she was touring the gospel circuit alongside the Staple Singers and Sammie Bryant second-billed to her father, the star preacher.
Franklin was raised in the church, and her voice embodied its passions, but the gospel world of the ’50s was also bedeviled by infighting, jealousy and hypocrisy, Heilbut writes. The world that raised and shaped Franklin, he asserts, was also one “she had to escape.”
She signed to Columbia Records in 1960, a move widely interpreted as her leaving gospel to pursue wealth and fame on the wider stage of pop. But unlike other gospel performers who “crossed over” into the “devil’s music,” such as Sam Cooke and Bobby Womack, Franklin got a pass.
Her father approved of the changeover, and his voice carried immense weight with his numerous followers. Franklin herself made a persuasive case in 1961, when she framed her transition in the context of the emerging civil-rights movement, a viable means of expression that didn’t repudiate her gospel roots so much as expand them.
Sag during Columbia years
Decades of received thinking have told us that Franklin’s Columbia years were something of a bust.
None of the recordings she made at Columbia had the commercial impact of her later Atlantic soul singles and albums.
But the Franklin who would soar at Atlantic was already fully formed at Columbia, Heilbut insists.
Her first Columbia session, documented on the 2011 box set, “Take a Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia” (Columbia/Legacy), produced “Today I Sing the Blues.” Franklin’s agile phrasing and relaxed-yet-intense delivery over gospel-soaked piano chords (played by Ray Bryant) points a straight line toward her breakthrough song with Wexler a few years later, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Love You).”
That virtuosity — the “spirit feel,” as Heilbut calls it — imbued a number of her Columbia sessions, as she transformed standards into deeply personal statements.
Her spontaneity was channeled into pop hits at Atlantic by the “head arrangements” favored by Wexler and the Southern rhythm section he imported to New York.
Gospel undergirded her biggest hits, from the call and response of Otis Redding’s “Respect” to the hymn-like depth she brought to her interpretation of the Dusty Springfield hit “Son of a Preacher Man.”
article courtesy of TheBelleReport.com