CD Review “Aretha Franklin Complete On Columbia”

Might Not Be The Aretha You Know And Love

First, let me start with a few admissions. I believe that Aretha Franklin is among the half dozen finest voices of the second half of the 20th century. I also believe Jerry Wexler taking her to Muscle Shoals is a seminal moment in post war music history.

I also have to admit that her Columbia recordings, all made before the big hits of her time at Atlantic reveal a young voice of great quality and power.

That’s what really causes the pain. As I listen to these recordings I revel in the voice and cringe at the continual bad song choices, bad orchestrations and bad backing.

Let’s cover the physical. This collection of 11 CDs booklet and DVD, each housed in a facsimile of the original album art, contains the songs off each album and a few extras. The remastering performed this year is excellent. It lifts the quality of the recording without losing any of the original. Included in cardboard case is an excellent booklet. I also appreciated the extra takes and outtakes on each CD. My count is around 200 tracks if we include all the extras but not a couple of “advertising” tracks.

There are some good tracks and some real gems among it all. “Maybe I’m a Fool”, for example, stands out on the first album and two tracks later “By Myself” shows the young Aretha can sing Jazz. On the second album, “The Electrifying Aretha Franklin” you can almost forgive the terrible “I Told You So” and “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody” due to the quality of “Nobody Like You” where the band gets out of Aretha’s way and the jazzy “Exactly  Like You” that follows it. On the other hand both the albums produced, arranged and conducted by Robert Mersey are an over produced wash of sickly strings and total over the top kitsch, I’m sure even in the sixties producers knew better.

My personal take. I was given it for my birthday, ripped it to my computer and put 150 tracks on my car iPod – I’ll now see how many of those don’t get skipped but I’m thinking I’ll end up with about half the tracks worth keeping. As I write this “Bill Bailey” from “Tiny Sparrow: The Bobby Scott Sessions” is playing and getting me tapping my feet.

This then becomes a truly essential collection for the lover of Aretha’s voice. The problem is that I will, for one, never forgive Columbia for the wasting of that young voice. Listening to these recordings it seems clear that they never really knew what to do with Aretha. They seemed to be treating her as a new Ella Fitzgerald, a jazzy chanteuse or perhaps replicate the success the label has with Billie Holiday. Even when they gave her a gospel song they did it without choir and backed by a jazz orchestra; throwing in a tambourine doesn’t make it gospel. Don’t mistake my intent here, there are some hits and some great recordings in the five years she spent with Columbia and Aretha is capable of great jazz and blues singing. I also don’t want to discourage anyone from buying this collection. Just realize that it is not a collection by the woman that finally found her voice and her musical home in 1966 at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. If you are after more of the sound she quickly developed at Atlantic this is not it. However it is an excellent collection of songs by a superb woman. I wish I could give it five stars but it really only deserves the four.

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