By Peter Lindblad
The voice is unmistakably Aretha. Deeply soulful, defiant and proud, at times tender and full of longing and desire, but also wracked with pain — hers is the sound of a woman actually roaring.
What’s largely forgotten in conversations about the music of Aretha Franklin, though, is her piano chops.
Smokey Robinson once talked with writer David Ritz about growing up with Aretha Franklin in Detroit for a book Ritz was doing with the Motown star. Robinson remembered Franklin as a young girl who could make a piano come alive.
“He grew up with Aretha, and he was best friends with Aretha’s brother, and he was over there [at the Franklin house] all the time, and he said, in those days, everybody was singing on the corner and fooling with guitars and piano, and picking out little notes, but when Aretha sat down at the piano as a little girl, she played these fully voiced gospel chords that were almost orchestral — heavy, weighty, magnificent, full-blown gospel stuff,” says Ritz. “And it was totally intuitive. I don’t know how a kid starts to play chords without being taught them.”
The very definition of a child prodigy, Franklin’s relationship with the
instrument defied logic. In the studio, she came up with rich grooves and vocal arrangements. In doing so, she received co-producer credits, something artists of the time rarely ever got.
Working in tandem, her vocal stylings and her remarkable ability to wring bruised, raw emotion from the piano made her soul royalty.
Her rule is explored in a new two-CD, 35-track release from Rhino titled Aretha Franklin: Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul that opens the vaults and lets the world discover lost gems Franklin recorded between 1966 and 1973, a time — she had switched to Atlantic Records and partnered with producer Jerry Wexler — when she could do no wrong.
“Going back to her initial releases on Columbia, where she’s not playing piano other than one or two instances, you hear a great, great vocalist who is singing some interesting songs — some Streisand songs, some Broadway songs, some jazz, some things poppy. And she does that for the first half of the 1960s, and then she comes to Jerry in 1966, and he goes, ‘Hmmm … let’s give this some thought. I don’t know, these kinds of Broadway songs might not be right. You do them well, but we want all of you musically, and I think the most interesting thing is going to be to see what happens when you sit down at the piano,’” recalls Ritz. “And so you get the organic whole, you get these incredible palettes. I mean, when you listen to ‘Dr. Feelgood’ … it’s evident throughout this album that when you hear the Aretha that’s connected to the piano, you hear a stronger vocalist and a more emotionally forthcoming [artist]. It’s almost like when she touches the keyboard, something opens up in her voice.”
“Dr. Feelgood” is one of three beautifully roughed-out demos that open Disc 1 of the new Rhino collection. The other two are affecting renditions of “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” (her first Atlantic single) and the heartbreaking Van McCoy composition “Sweet Bitter Love” that reveal, in stark relief, the immense artistry of Aretha.
Culled mainly from recordings made in 1967-1971, Aretha’s blast-off period at Atlantic, Disc 1 includes a brace of outtakes from lauded albums such as Aretha Arrives (“It Was You,” “The Letter” and “So Soon”), Aretha Now (“Mr. Big”), Soul ’69 (Talk To Me, Talk To Me”), This Girl’s In Love With You (the Beatles cover of “The Fool On The Hill”), Spirit In The Dark (“You’re Taking Up Another Man’s Place” and “My Way,” written by Paul Anka and, of course, made popular by Frank Sinatra) and Young, Gifted and Black (“My Cup Runneth
More outtakes from 1971’s Young, Gifted and Black are found on Disc 2, including “Rock Steady,” “I Need A Strong Man” and “Heavenly Father,” along with similarly cast-aside recordings from 1973’s Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky) — “Sweetest Smile and Funkiest Style,” “This Is,” “Tree Of Life,” “Do You Know,” “Can You Love Again,” “I Want To Be With You” and “Suzanne” — and Let Me In Your Life, represented here by the jazzy “At Last,” the funky drive of “The Happy Blues,” the quiet serenity of “Love Letters” and “I’m In Love,” which has an alternate vocal take.
Wexler was the point man for the excavation project and produced the album. Ritz, an Aretha biographer, wrote the liner notes for it and was in on the search.
Ritz was stunned by the quality of the lost recordings, especially “My Way,” which he feels is the “ … best version ever done by anybody. I mean, as much as I like Frank, I never want to listen to his version again, because she takes out the arrogance and puts you in such a soulful place.”
Orphaned until now, it’s a mystery to Ritz why these outtakes ended up on the editing room floor.
“It was mainly the outtakes from the golden period, and my main impression was, my God, Aretha in her prime … the outtakes, I couldn’t believe they were outtakes,” says Ritz. “It was just so good, and, of course, in that period, you just put her in the studio, put her down at the piano [and] let her play with a great rhythm section.”
An inspired bit of matchmaking married Franklin to the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section of Barry Beckett on keyboards, Jimmy Johnson on guitar, Roger Hawkins on drums and David Hood on bass. Together, they made magic.
“[They had] great sensitivity to a powerful vocalist,” says Ritz. “They knew how to kick back — as modesty and humility allowed … It was kind of like if you had a portrait painter who was painting Christ, but then you had others do the crown and the angels, [and] you didn’t have to tell them to do the angels. [The painter doing Christ] was the show, and that’s like it was with these guys. They had a great sensitivity, a subtlety, about not getting in her way and giving her a great cushion.”
Working on this collection gave Ritz a new appreciation of Aretha’s staggering genius. He remains “intoxicated” by her recordings.
“I think what happened on the Aretha [project] was, I never had a period where I questioned my initial taste [regarding Franklin’s music], but I hadn’t really jumped in the pool, like I did with this,” says Ritz. “‘Ain’t But The One’ (Aretha’s smokey gospel duet with Ray Charles that’s included on this set) or ‘Talk To Me, Talk To Me,’ the Little Willie John I love so much — it began all over again.”