For many pop-music historians, perhaps no recordings top those Aretha Franklin made for Atlantic Records in the late ’60s. Backed primarily by the musicians of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, produced by Jerry Wexler, engineered by Tom Dowd and with assistance by Arif Mardin, the recordings defined the sound of soul music.
Franklin learned about music by singing gospel at her father’s church in Detroit. Oddly enough, she did not sign with her native city’s Motown, or with a label that was primarily known for jazz or blues, her other two influences. Instead she signed with John Hammond and Columbia. Hammond was no stranger to jazz, but for all his gifts, he never really found the right sound for Franklin.
She was eventually signed to Atlantic by Wexler, and right from the start, they achieved her special soul sound. Her first album for Atlantic, 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, included “Respect.” Her third Atlantic release, 1968’s Lady Soul, was the most consistent and defining effort of that crucial period. Those two are arguably the best albums she ever put out, but Franklin recorded many different kinds of records for Atlantic. This two-disc set includes music recorded between 1966 and 1973 — produced, thankfully, by Wexler — focusing mostly on post-Lady Soul output.
Surprisingly, most of the entire first disc has the sweet, easygoing piano-based soul that exhibits the best of Franklin’s Atlantic soul sound. Three demos from the earlier period are bit rough, but the rest of the disc is primarily made up of outtakes from Aretha Arrives (1967) and This Girl’s in Love with You (1970). The real treat is listening to the recordings where the tape was left rolling, when we can hear the interaction between Franklin and Wexler as they shape the recordings.
Listening to these previously unreleased takes makes it clear that much of the sessions were recorded while everyone was playing together live. The disc also includes such seemingly unlikely covers as Lennon and McCartney’s “Fool on the Hill” and “My Way,” written by Paul Anka but best known as Frank Sinatra’s signature tune. Franklin had attempted to record the music of the ’60s rock crowd at the time — in fact, she was to record “Let It Be” before the Beatles.
There is also an example of how Franklin might have fared as a Motown artist: the cover of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” The second disc doesn’t let up the consistency. It consists of eight outtakes from 1973’s Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky), which Franklin co-produced with Quincy Jones and which was recorded in Los Angeles. A performance of “Ain’t But the One” with Ray Charles from a 1973 CBS-TV special, “Duke Ellington . . . We Love You Madly,” shows Franklin putting her soul stamp on a jazz evergreen. There’s also a crunchy alternate mix of “Rock Steady” without the horns that appeared on the released hit track that shows Franklin’s funk side.
Of the thirty-five tracks here, only four have ever been released before. It’s almost too obvious to state that other than the four demos, any of this music could have been released earlier and would have only enhanced Franklin’s stature as a major artist. It’s surprising that they have taken so long to surface.