Tuesday, July 5, 2011


Aretha Franklin's Columbia Recordings get a weird rap. You have rock critics who have dismissed her years with the label as a mere prelude to her Atlantic era, where she became "The Queen Of Soul." The thinking goes, on Columbia she was more of a product of a record label, and she became an artist (or artiste) with Atlantic.

And then, there's people who are mostly unaware of her time with Columbia, and may only know of Aretha from her Atlantic debut, 1967's I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You.

Sony Legacy's lavish new box set, Take A Look: Aretha Franklin Complete On Columbia presents a compelling argument to the former and schools the latter. (I should mention that I got the box set for free, but with no strings attached:  I decided to review it because I think it's an interesting release.)

First off, I'll say that I do agree with the prevailing opinion that Aretha's Atlantic recordings mark not only the highlight of her career, but one of the peaks of soul music, and even popular music.  I'm not suggesting that her Columbia records approach the stratosphere where I Never Loved A Man... and Lady Soul, and some of the other records of that era live. The Columbia Recordings aren't quite the Aretha you know and love, but it offers glimpses of her.  And anyway, the younger Aretha can still smoke most other singers.  Whether or not you like her choice of material, or the arrangements, that's another story. These recordings aren't as bluesy, they're more of Aretha the gospel singer doing jazz, and she also seems influenced by the music of the era's Broadway musicals and Hollywood scores.  There's big string sections, the material is more Dinah Washington than Otis Redding. Put another way, Columbia's sessions are very New York, and were done in the early '60s.  Atlantic's are more southern, more Memphis, and were in the mid-to-late '60s. Aretha was no label's toy: but the time and place was reflected in her various recordings.

The box set contains all of her albums for Columbia, as well as some compilations of singles and other recordings for the label. Some of the music of the era is a bit too string-section-y for me. But I really enjoyed some of it.  Her debut Columbia album, 1961's Aretha, has her first recording for the label, "Today I Sing The Blues," which is one of my favorites from this era. It's a bit stripped down in comparison to her early stuff. At the same time, the album has great versions of "Over The Rainbow" and "It Ain't Necessarily So." Even as a teenager, she could sing blues, jazz standards and pop.

To a lesser extent, I enjoyed the follow-up, 1962's The Electrifying Aretha Franklin, particularly her version of "That Lucky Old Son." 1964's Unforgettable: A Tribute To Dinah Washington has some really lovely, but lush, performances.  You may think that Aretha should only be rocking the Apollo, but she also wants to dazzle the supper clubs, and you really get that on this album.  The title track is great, but she does show another side on Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart."

Later in 1964, she released Runnin' Out Of Fools, which gave a bit more of a glimpse of what she'd be doing a few years later on Atlantic, with renditions of popular songs of the day like "Walk On By," "Mockingbird," "Every Little Bit Hurts," "The Shoop Shoop Song" and "My Guy." The box set also has a collection of singles that weren't on albums, A Bit Of Soul.

If you love box sets, and you love to actually learn from them, this box set is a great one. On the other hand, if you're on a budget, you can explore Aretha's Columbia era with Sony Legacy's 2002 The Queen In Waiting 2 CD set. But if you've got the money and the time, there's lots of jewels here, many of which deserve spots on the Queen's crown.

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