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Music Review: Aretha Franklin – The Great American Songbook

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If all Aretha Franklin ever recorded were the sorts of songs represented on The Great American Songbook, which highlights her relatively brief tenure at Columbia Records prior to her groundbreaking run at Atlantic Records, she would still have etched her legend as one of the all-time greats.

Signed to Columbia in 1960 by John Hammond, Franklin was groomed in the mold of a jazz-disposed balladeer, interpreting standards and other comparably mainstream fare of the day, all of which called more for restraint and nuance than spontaneity or grit. Such secular material presented a marked contrast from the vibrant gospel roots of her upbringing. And yet throughout this newly released retrospective — a precursor to the forthcoming, twelve-disc set, Take A Look: Complete On Columbia (scheduled for release on March 22) — Aretha Franklin enlivens what are for the most part lush, orchestral arrangements with considerable verve, conviction and, yes, soul.

Highlights include soft, entrancing renditions of “Skylark” and “My Little Brown Book” as well as the zestful blues of “Trouble in Mind,” yet it’s Franklin’s versatility which most comes across. It’s what gives her performances credibility, whether she’s crooning all suave and sultry or bringing some back-to-church fervor to an otherwise innocuous tune. And though manifested in much different contexts, that same versatility has sustained and inspired her in the years and decades since.

Once at Atlantic Records, Aretha Franklin was well-served by gentleman like label president Ahmet Ertegun, producer Jerry Wexler, and engineer Tom Dowd, who recognized her potential and, more to the point, how to best accommodate her innate talent. That said, the recordings on The Great American Songbook reveal an emerging artist on the threshold of her sweet spot, engaging a variety of styles while, perhaps unwittingly, seeking out how to best express her creative voice.

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About Donald Gibson

Donald Gibson is the publisher of and a freelance music journalist whose byline has appeared in such publications as No Depression, Spinner, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, Cinema Sentries, Blinded by Sound, and Blogcritics, where he was the Senior Music Editor (2011-2012) and Assistant Music Editor (2008-2011). He has interviewed and profiled such artists as Tony Bennett, Lucinda Williams, Jakob Dylan, Allen Toussaint, Boz Scaggs, Charli XCX, Justin Hayward (The Moody Blues), Susanna Hoffs, Bruce Hornsby, Delbert McClinton, Jonny Lang, Alan Parsons, Bill Frisell, Joan Armatrading, Christina Perri, Don Felder (The Eagles), Jimmy Webb, Katie Melua, and Buddy Guy, among many others.
  • Jordan Richardson

    Nicely done, Donald. There will never be another Aretha.