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Aretha’s Roots: The Gospel and Jazz Years

Aretha Franklin

Everyone knows that Aretha Franklin will forever occupy an unchallenged position in history as The Queen of Soul. A significantly smaller number of Aretha fans are aware that the Detroit Dynamo spent her teens and early twenties delivering not R&B but gospel and jazz, among other things. Judging from the sonic evidence, it’s easy to imagine that if Aretha had stuck with one of these styles, she could have become a sovereign of those too. Of course in hindsight it’s impossible to imagine any other course than the one that made her R&B royalty, but that doesn’t diminish the impact of those early sides, evidencing a fully-formed talent at an age when most other singers are just finding their feet.

“Yield Not to Temptation” (1956)

Aretha’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, was a nationally renowned Baptist Preacher, and he brought his daughter with him as a gospel performer on his road shows at an early age. In 1956, at the age of 14, she released her first album, a collection of hymns featuring just her vocal and piano. Recorded in her father’s Detroit church, it’s somewhat wanting in fidelity but fully stocked with precocious powerhouse performances like this one.

“Today I Sing the Blues” (1960)

When Aretha wanted to follow former gospel crooner Sam Cooke’s move to secular sounds, C.L. didn’t try to hold her back. But jazz and blues were more on the menu than anything else on her earliest recorded efforts outside the church. On this track from her first non-Gospel LP (released earlier as a single), she shows off a knack for cool, classy, Charles Brown-style piano blues.

“All Night Long” (1961)

Even when Aretha jumped into jazz, she still had boatloads of bluesy moves and soulful grit in her delivery. This mournful, minor-key tune shows the finesse she was capable of in a jazz context as well as the visceral qualities that would serve her so well when she became the Queen of Soul.

“Try a Little Tenderness” (1962)

Before it was transformed into a soul tour de force by Otis Redding, this tune was a 1930s standard cut by Bing Crosby and others. Singing it in ’62, Aretha lent some soulful touches that hinted at the song’s Stax/Volt future while remaining largely in the orchestrated pop realm. In the process, she showed that she could have handiliy gone the route of a classic pop crooner if she was so inclined.

“Cold, Cold Heart” (1964)

Ironically, this detour into the Hank Williams catalog comes within the context of Aretha’s jazz period. This track comes from a tribute album she recorded in homage to jazz legend Dinah Washington. But Washington’s own version of the song was actually much more in the jazz/pop vein, while Aretha’s take on the tune is full of R&B grooves and soulful swoops. Of course it also shows that she could settle right into country music as easily as anything else.

– Jim Allen

Photo Credit: Musician Aretha Franklin recording at the piano at Columbia Studios in 1962 in New York. (Photo by Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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Jim Allen's night job is fronting country band The Ramblin' Kind, rock band Lazy Lions, and working as a solo singer/songwriter. His day job is writing about other people's music. He has contributed to NPR, Billboard, RollingStone.com, and many more, and written liner notes for reissues of everyone from OMD to Bob Seger, but his proudest achievement is crafting a completely acceptable egg cream armed only with milk, Bosco, and a SodaStream seltzer maker.

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