ARETHA FRANKLIN – Take a Look: Aretha Franklin on Columbia – Columbia Records/Legacy 88697 792792. Boxed set of 11 CDs + 1 DVD ***:
Don’t go looking for “Respect” when you open this deluxe 12-disc boxed set. You won’t find it, nor will you find “Think” or “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” These golden anthemic songs from Aretha’s remarkable career were all from her post-1967 Atlantic Records years. So what will you find?
You will find a mind-boggling anthology of everything Aretha recorded from 1960 to 1966. You’ll find a tasty morsel of a DVD of her performing in 1964 on the Steven Allen Show. You’ll find hits, soaring standards, sensitive tributes, and unique interpretations of songs of the day. And you’ll also find clunkers, near misses, miscalculations, and poorly-comprised arrangements. Everything’s there: beauty marks and moles alike. For black women performers of the day like Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald, it was the era of “evening gown jazz,” arrangements of jazz standards and jazzy pop tailored to appeal to white audiences. In many cases, the bands were made up of competent imports from the big band era instructed to “jazz it up” (but not too much).
Producers freely threw in backup singers, often superfluously (unlike “Respect’s” “sock-it-to-me” backup of Aretha’s sisters, Carol & Erma, and Cissy Houston). This is apparent in some of Aretha’s early songs like “Follow Your Heart” in "A Bit of Soul" and “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow” and “I May Never Get to Heaven” in Tiny Sparrow: The Bobby Scott Sessions. Some songs overdid the brass accompaniment like “Moon River” and “Harbor Lights.” It was as if Columbia didn’t believe Aretha could fully carry the songs with subtle instrumentation. (This reminds me of the way Paramount Pictures inserted sentimental tunes in the Marx Brothers’ first comedy, The Cocoanuts.) But carry them she did and often her inherent soulfullness pops out. In many cases she waits almost until the end of the song to belt out what’s in her heart, like “Tiny Sparrow” and “Johnny.” Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington is the most consistently compelling of her early albums, coming out as it did shortly after Washington’s untimely death in December of 1963. But for a glimpse of the real soulful Aretha, you have to wait for 1965’s The Queen in Waiting, with its lively renditions of “Mockingbird” and “Evil Gal Blues.” There are even songs from the failed “girl-group sound” packaging of Aretha: Call me corny, but I still like “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)” and “My Guy.” Mono track duplicates of many songs released as 45s are also included.
Slightly disappointing is the included DVD of her 1964 appearance on The Steve Allen Show. While it’s great to see her accompany herself on the piano in “Rockabye Your Baby” and “Skylark,” it lasts only fifteen minutes! Couldn’t they have included a few more live performances? A cursory spin on YouTube reveals scrumptious videos of “The Shoop Shoop Song” and “Mockingbird.”
This set, while not perfect, is a must have for the Aretha completists, for those who matured musically in that era, and all who love the Queen of Soul no matter what she sang.
— Peter Bates