“Hammond’s folly” was what some critics called Bob Dylan when he was signed to Columbia Records by the legendary talent scout John Hammond, who’d previously brought the likes of Count Basie, Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman to the label. Dylan, they said, would never sell, and they were right-for a while. The icon-to-be’s 1962 debut moved only a few thousand copies.
Dylan ultimately did OK for Columbia, but perhaps Hammond’s real folly was the singer he had signed just a year earlier, Aretha Franklin. In what has become a textbook case of right artist/wrong time, Columbia never quite understood that the Queen of Soul was in their midst, just waiting to be molded into such. Applying her hurricane-strength pipes to middle-of-the-road jazz and pop tunes, too few blues and more than a little schmaltz, Columbia’s producers missed the boat on Franklin. She sold moderately well but never attained the level of success Columbia had hoped for, and we all know what happened once she left the label for Atlantic Records in 1967.
Or at least that’s how the story is usually told. Take a Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia, via 11 CDs and a DVD, attempts to frame Franklin’s early career in a different light, and it does a commendable job given the mixed bag there is to work with. The revised version goes something like this: No, it never did occur to Columbia to groom Franklin as an R&B belter, and that was a big mistake. But that doesn’t mean her output for the label was worthless.
This box is staggeringly comprehensive. It includes the seven original LPs Franklin cut for the label, newly compiled sets assembled from master tapes, previously shelved material, alternate takes and mono mixes, obligatory bonus tracks and, on the DVD, video clips of five tunes performed on The Steve Allen Show. Despite the label’s frequent and obvious lapses in judgment, Take a Look provides ample evidence that Columbia did indeed sign an artist who was destined for greatness. And she was, in many ways, already great.
The voice is there from the start, at age 19, on “Won’t Be Long,” the uptempo opening track on 1961’s Aretha (With the Ray Bryant Combo) . It’s a gospel voice-Aretha’s father was the Baptist minister C.L. Franklin-diving headlong into secular music, one of several songs on the debut penned by arranger J. Leslie McFarland. The dynamic delivery, the shouts and hollers, the unanticipated punctuated syllables, the drama-it’s all in place, pushed by Bryant’s bluesy piano and a tack-sharp orchestra including, among others, Milt Hinton on bass and Al Sears playing tenor saxophone. The tune rocks: It’s soul, pure and simple.
And then comes the first misfire. It’s not that Franklin can’t sing “Over the Rainbow,” it’s that she shouldn’t have to. It ain’t necessarily that she falls flat on “It Ain’t Necessarily So”-Aretha Franklin can sing Gershwin as well as anyone-it’s simply not her forte. Nor is the cabaret material that so often finds its way into this early work, particularly on Tiny Sparrow: The Bobby Scott Sessions, largely unreleased 1963 material newly compiled for this box. The over-orchestrated takes on such familiar tunes as “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home,” “Harbor Lights” and “Moon River” (the latter given a finger-snapping, uptempo arrangement), helmed by producer Scott, are technically stellar, but knowing what we know now about Aretha Franklin, they feel wrong. Franklin was perfectly equipped to play the torch singer, but time would prove she wasn’t about that.
The DVD portion is top-grade time-capsule material. Following her performance of “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody,” Steve Allen pays Franklin a very well-deserved compliment: “A very exciting performance,” he says. “Got the joint really jumping there.” Still, do we really want to hear Aretha Franklin, of all people, doing a song most often associated with Al Jolson (a decision repeated later on, when she gives us “Swanee”)? We don’t. Nor do we really want to hear her, toward the end of her run with Columbia, singing covers of recent AM radio chart hits such as “My Guy” and “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss).”
Therein lies our dilemma as listeners. It’s virtually impossible to separate our understanding of who Aretha Franklin is from what these recordings tell us she once was.
Columbia, and Hammond in particular, envisioned Franklin as a jazz and pop singer. They groomed her to follow in the footsteps of the great divas, and undeniably, 1964’s Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington contains some of the most impressive performances here. And when she digs into a solid blues number, say, “Muddy Water” or “Trouble in Mind” on 1965’s Yeah!!! Aretha Franklin in Person with Her Quartet, we can understand retrospectively that she is finding her way.
What Take a Look asks us to consider is this: What if Aretha Franklin had never signed to Atlantic and had left behind only these Columbia sides? Would her gift have been recognized eventually? It’s a fair question to ask and an impossible one to answer. The body of work she cut for the label was certainly hit and miss, but the best of it is worthy of more r-e-s-p-e-c-t than it’s been given.