The Queen of Hearts

Today I sing the blues. Tomorrow, I duet with George Michael: Aretha Franklin

Today I sing the blues. Tomorrow, I duet with George Michael: Aretha Franklin

For most, the layman's knowledge of Aretha Franklin begins and ends with her string of hits on Atlantic Records. Beginning in 1967, Aretha began to assemble what is still regarded as one of the most seminal catalogs in soul history, including songs like "Respect," "Chain of Fools," and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." During her time on Atlantic, Aretha emerged as soul's first diva, not in attitude, but in impact--a strong, black, female icon who helped form a tenuous bridge between the Civil Rights and Black Power eras in America.

There's no question that Aretha went from singer to superstar on Atlantic. But her tenure there has become so dominant in the soulstress's audio biography that many aren't even aware that she recorded 130-plus songs for Columbia Records from 1960 to 1965. Like the wayward cousin no one wants to talk about at family reunions, Aretha's tenure at Columbia has often been politely ignored or outright dismissed. The popular perception is that Columbia hastily slapped her into one archetype or another (Was she the new Dinah Washington? No, wait, maybe the next Sarah Vaughn!) without ever allowing her to sing with her own stellar voice. In truth, Columbia made major errors in developing--or even simply recognizing--Aretha's talents. Listening to her music from that era, you can practically see the contours of the pigeonholes: Aretha as blues warbler, Aretha as jazz scatter, Aretha as R&B rocker. And in many cases, the fit is undeniably awkward. Yet despite these missteps, a new anthology The Queen in Waiting: The Columbia Years 1960-1965 offers some of Aretha's best material--much of it unheard.

The album's stylistic diversity over the course of 40 songs, including seven previously unreleased tracks, suggests the many different outfits Columbia tried to drape on Aretha. But it also hints at how tremendously versatile she was. Songs range from the stomping jump blues of "Soulville" to the silly, swinging, rock 'n' roll feel of "Mockingbird" to the whirling organ-powered blues of "Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning." But the heart of this anthology--and of Aretha's Columbia career--is the ballads. Some have claimed that Columbia, in trying to push Aretha to become more of a traditional jazz vocalist, sought to restrain her from belting with her full force. Yet, that accusation is hard to reconcile with a song like "Drinking Again," a cover from Dinah Washington's repertoire. On the opening note, Aretha transforms the simple elocution of "I'm" into a screaming, plunging dagger. She so well conveys the song's despairing tone that the lyrics almost become redundant.

Aretha's power lies in the way that she blends the solemnity of her gospel roots with the secular intimacy of rhythm and blues. On "Today I Sing the Blues," her first Columbia single from 1960, she starts out with a simple, subtle performance. But by the end, her growling, soaring hollers light up the otherwise subdued blues melody. The song is a cover of a 1948 Helen Humes original, but Aretha owns this version as surely as if she'd written it herself. "Today I Sing the Blues" and "Drinking Again" are part of a collection of ballads that bring the full weight of Aretha's devastating vocal pathos to bear. Aretha's cover of "God Bless the Child" uplifts the blues tinge that's so much a part of Billie Holiday's more famous original and creates a moment of near-spiritual transcendence. For vocal-philes, the most provocative tracks are the back-to-back versions of "Skylark" included on disc two. The original, album-released version is pleasant enough, but the alternate--recorded to simulate a live, club setting--subtly pulls you in so close that Aretha could have whispered the song and it would still have sounded sublime.

That's not to say that everything is perfect: Some songs make an ill fit with Aretha's abilities. "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home" is an unmitigated disaster as Aretha attempts a big-band scat song. Despite her later success with Otis Redding's "Respect," her cover of his "Try a Little Tenderness" is wilted and tepid. Still, considering that the anthology brings together nearly a third of her entire Columbia output, the amount of excellent material easily balances the lackluster.

Despite what the title of The Queen in Waiting suggests, it's not necessary to listen to this album as a precursor to Aretha's Atlantic years. The soul-powered selections on the anthology may connect Aretha's early and middle periods, but the Columbia material is easily self-contained. As good as the anthology is, though, it's well worth spending the time and money to pair The Queen in Waiting with its decade-old predecessor, Columbia's 1992 release, Jazz to Soul. While owning both might seem redundant--more than half the same songs appear on both compilations--the earlier anthology offers some stunning tracks curiously absent from The Queen in Waiting. (None is better than "If Ever I Would Leave You," a scorching, slow-burning ballad that ranks among her best work of this era.) Apart from the simple pleasure of just hearing Aretha sing, both Columbia anthologies also help illuminate how broad her talent and interests were. The material on The Queen in Waiting presents Aretha as a singer who has always existed across genre lines. For more than 40 years, the Once and Future Queen of Soul has helped reshape popular music. It might be fair to say that Aretha is her own genre.