Aretha Franklin – Unforgettable – A Tribute To Dinah Washington – Columbia CS 8963 (1964)/Speakers Corner Records (2020) 180-gram stereo vinyl, 36:49 ****1/2:
(Aretha Franklin – vocals, piano; Robert Mersey – arrangements, conductor; Teddy Charles – vibraphone; Buddy Lucas – harmonica; Ernie Hayes – piano, organ; Ernie Royal – trumpet; Buddy Lucas – tenor saxophone; Gary Chester – drums; Bob Asher – trombone; George Duvivier – bass; Paul Griffin – organ)
Once Aretha Franklin started recording with Atlantic Records, her meteoric career was launched. She became a pop and r& b legend, dominating the music scene for decades. Like Ray Charles, she was able to take her gospel roots and transform them into artistic and commercial success. Her mesmerizing voice and emotional depth were unsurpassed. However, Franklin was originally signed to Columbia. From 1961-1967, Aretha released 9 albums that showcased her versatility in doo-wop, blues and jazz. Even with traditional material, she enjoyed some chart success. In 1964, Franklin recorded a tribute album (Unforgettable) to legendary singer Dinah Washington. In essence, this was handing off the torch from the recently deceased “Queen Of The Blues” to her inevitable successor, “The Queen Of Soul”.
Speakers Corner Records has released a 180-gram vinyl re-mastering of Unforgettable. This album is stylishly produced with veteran session musicians and meticulous arrangements of Washington covers. While not possessing the visceral impact of her powerhouse future soul catalog, her prodigious talent emerges. Side 1 opens with the eternal pop standard, “Unforgettable”. Nat “King” Cole initially popularized this song, but most agree that Dinah Washington’s 1959 version is historical. With a shading of tenor saxophone and Teddy Charles on vibes, strings add a tender counterpoint. Franklin glides into the first verse. While there is considerable subtlety in the vocals, the slow-burning intensity is there. Her deliberate phrasing with heart-aching, soulful accents build until a rousing finish. “Cold Cold Heart” (by one of the greatest American songwriters, Hank Williams) has always been a country/popular music crossover. This arrangement intermingles a country blues resonance with harmonica (Buddy Lucas), organ and piano-fueled gospel fervor. Aretha instinctively knows when to dial up the emotion, and the horns add some muscle. On another well-known song, “What A Diff’erence A Day Makes”, the singer’s precise elocution is timeless. Franklin channels the spirit of Washington on the jazz ballad, “Drinking Again”. It eventually transitions to soul testimony, reflecting the bitter melancholy of the context. A muted trumpet (Ernie Royal) and evocative saxophone (Buddy Lucas) complement the stellar vocals. In vintage 16-bar blues, “Nobody Knows The Way I Feel This Morning” is close to perfection. The listener can hear the visceral essence of “modern” Aretha Franklin as she brings this one home.
Side 2 is compelling. “Evil Gal Blues” is a gritty performance and rivals the greats of this genre. A bigger swagger is augmented by Chicago-type horns and harmonica. This song (as pointed out by Leonard Feather in the incisive liner notes) became a staple of Aretha Franklin live performances throughout her career. It mirrors her larger-than-life musical persona. Switching gears, “Don’t Say Your Sorry Again” is pure torch song. The singer’s deep sentiment is balanced with a mellifluous trombone (Bob Asher) and gentle organ (Ernie Hayes). Additionally, various technical vocal skills, including vibrato are on display. There is an overt jazziness with Gary Chester’s crashing cymbals initiating a tempo change. Franklin covers back-to-back ballads (“This Bitter Earth”, “If I Should Lose You”) with commitment. The former showcases crystallized gospel wailing in homage to Mahalia Jackson (no doubt an inspiration to Washington and Franklin). The latter is equally moving (arranged like a 1950’s slow-dance orchestration) as Aretha displays her innate sense of timing. The finale (“Soulsville”) is revelatory. Here is the glimpse into the future of perhaps the greatest singer of all time. It is quintessential “Memphis-style” soul that simply blows the roof off. She not only offers incendiary lead vocals, but provides tracked-backup and piano. Even at the age of 21, her impactful artistry is clearly evident.
Speakers Corner has done an excellent job in re-mastering Unforgettable to 180-gram vinyl. The state-of-the-art 60’s Columbia Records “360 Sound” has been faithfully captured with a vibrant, balanced mix. The vinyl pressing is flawless, with no hisses or pops. The aforementioned Leonard Feather liner notes are insightful regarding the making of this album.
Side 1: Unforgettable; Cold, Cold Heart; What A Diff’rence A Day Makes; Drinking Again; Nobody Knows The Way I Feel This Morning
Side 2: Evil Gal Blues; Don’t Say You’re Sorry Again; This Bitter Earth; If I Should Lose You; Soulville
For more information on this or other releases from Speakers Corner, please visit distributor Acoustic Sounds: