Listening to Aretha Franklin

The standard narrative of her career overlooks an important dimension of her artistic accomplishment.

By Prof. Mark Burford | October 4, 2018

On Tuesday, August 15, I woke up to the story that Aretha Franklin was gravely ill and that family and friends were gathering at her Detroit bedside. The next day she was dead at the age of 76. I found myself unexpectedly affected by Franklin’s death and was surprised by how moved I was by the news. My almost visceral sense that the world was a diminished place without Franklin and her remarkable voice in it was apparently widespread, judging from the immediate torrent of impassioned testimonies of grief issued online and through social media. As might be expected, coverage of her passing recounted her best known songs, hits from the sixties like “Chain of Fools,” “Say a Little Prayer,” “Think,” and “A Natural Woman” that, as one writer after another rightly noted, constituted a “soundtrack” for an era and for multiple progressive movements. Hearing Franklin’s most famous songs played throughout the day of her death allowed me to truly savor again the bolt upright call to arms “What you want…” from “Respect,” the agonizing ecstasy of Dr. Feelgood’s sexual healing, and inimitable moments on so many other Atlantic tracks. At the same time, it was a curious thing to process feelings of loss of someone I never knew, making the deep intimacy summoned by her voice feel oddly illicit. My initial instinct was, therefore, to defamiliarize her voice, as if to hold it at a distance from how I knew it best.

Franklin was signed by Atlantic Records in 1967, though she had been a commercial recording artist since August 1960, her first session for Columbia Records. The standard narrative for Franklin’s recording career has been that her Columbia output represented something of a false start, a first pancake that served its purpose until the griddle really got cooking at Atlantic. Eminent music critic Nelson George succinctly summarized this reception in his ruminations on Franklin’s death. “Her first run of secular recordings, largely made for Columbia, now sound like struggling attempts to harness volcanic energy,” George explained in Billboard magazine. “Jazz standards, Broadway show tunes, and pop are heard throughout these recordings, many of which have merit, but failed to fully work artistically or commercially.” I very much like George’s music criticism. But as a music historian who researches and teaches African American music, it seems perplexing, even slightly incoherent, to leapfrog nine albums made over a six-year period—114 tracks (plus some unreleased material) by an artist of Franklin’s colossal stature—with such pithy shorthand. Because her Columbia sides were so easily glossed over by media tributes in a rush to get to the good stuff—the records that form the cornerstone of Franklin’s legacy—I felt an impulse to dive headlong into these early recordings, representing, the story goes, Franklin before she became “Aretha.”

In very un-Reed-professor-like fashion, I closed my office door and spent a few days listening to these Columbia albums one by one. In doing so, it became clear that Franklin’s producers at Columbia, above all John Hammond, were trying to find a winning formula through which to showcase their extraordinary find. True, some songs “worked” better than others—as was the case at Atlantic. But taking the time to listen unveiled to me, perhaps for the first time, how many of these tracks not only worked, but soared, conveying what Franklin the singer, not the icon, had to say in contexts from which she, and so many black vocalists before her and since, have been almost ritually sequestered.                                                             

Listening to Aretha Franklin in this spirit, remaining as open as I could to what I might hear, I found myself continuously surprised and thus repeatedly enriched. The streetwise flirtiness, not the least bit cloying, on “Sweet Lover” from her first LP In Person (1960) sounds nothing like the Atlantic Franklin, but is no less satisfying. Such a track demonstrates her capacity for in-the-pocket swing of the highest order. “Broadway show tunes,” as skeptics often refer to them, are usually a proxy for white-coded Tin Pan Alley fare, but it is easy to forget the pride and pleasure that black vocalists like Franklin took in singing this repertory. To my ears, her irresistible swing and elastic phrasing, here and there taking on the cadence of her preacher father C. L. Franklin, makes “Exactly Like You” from The Electrifying Aretha Franklin (1962) one of her very best records, certainly a hidden gem, despite being a chestnut from 1930s musical theater. Settling for a narrative of Columbia “struggles” will likely result in one overlooking the marvel of a barely 23-year-old singer producing as rapturous a performance as Franklin delivers in her reading of Erroll Garner’s sentimental number “Misty,” released on the stylized “live” (but actually studio recorded) album Yeah!!! (1965). I’ll go out on a limb and say that this is as good as Franklin the singer gets—or pretty close. Her ability to transform familiar songs—through gospel vocality, though a jazz musician’s sense of time, through a great performer’s ability to sell a song—comes through repeatedly during her Columbia years. Hank Williams’s country classic “Cold, Cold Heart,” and even Dinah Washington’s already metamorphic cover to which Franklin pays homage on her 1964 tribute album Unforgettable, seem like hazy memories by the time Franklin gets her hands on the song, making it something entirely new.

In a 1999 Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, Franklin acknowledged that her “career really took a drastic, 180 degree turnaround” when she signed with Atlantic, in large part, she believed, because she was able to accompany herself on piano, “the factor that made the difference” in the sound of her records. We already get hints of this Atlantic sound at Columbia on tracks like “Soulville” and “Lee Cross,” both recorded at the Unforgettable session. But when Gross asked Franklin if she felt “comfortable” recording with “strings and voices” behind her at Columbia, she was animated in her response: “Oh, I loved that! I loved it! Bob Mersey was, in my opinion, the best string arranger of the day.” The luminous “For All We Know” from Laughing on the Outside (1963), is one of the more extraordinary products of the Franklin-Mersey collaboration, a performance that perhaps also reveals the influence of jazz chanteuse Nancy Wilson. Other Columbia tracks place her in proximity with different contemporaries. It’s difficult not to hear Franklin’s brooding performance of “(No No) I’m Losing You” from the obscure Soul Sister (1966) as close kin to Nina Simone’s “I Put a Spell on You,” released just the year before.

The implications of listening to Aretha Franklin, I believe, extend beyond this playlist or that. Franklin’s Columbia output is hardly in need of rescue. It is notable, however, that tributes tended to emphasize the meanings that Franklin enabled us to make for ourselves. Writers rhapsodized eloquently about performances full of history, truth, and power, about a singer who encompassed the whole spectrum of black musical expression with “a voice that contains the spiritual and the field holler, the blues moan, gospel shout, and jazz improvisation.” Franklin’s contributions to a hermeneutics of blackness that has prevailed for over a half-century are inescapable. Still, at a traumatic moment in history marked perhaps above all by a diminished capacity to consider alternatives without predetermined preferences, to engage the voices of others with empathy, humility, and vulnerability in the face of what we may hear, the simple act of taking the time to listen—selflessly—may be the most profound tribute we can pay to Franklin and the worlds of possibility that her voice disclosed.

Prof. Mark Burford  is a music historian with expertise in 20th-century African American popular music and 19th-century Austro-German concert music. He is the author of Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field.

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