10:22am

Wed February 27, 2013
Music Reviews

Aretha Franklin Before Atlantic: The Columbia Years

Originally published on Wed February 27, 2013 3:01 pm

Aretha Franklin made her first record when she was 14, singing some gospel standards in the church of her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, an easygoing Detroit pastor who was friends with Martin Luther King and just about every gospel singer you could name. One of the stars who visited a lot was Sam Cooke, who convinced Aretha that she could be a hit singing popular music. So in 1960, at 18, she dropped out of school and, eventually, was signed to Columbia Records by its top talent scout, John Hammond. Hammond, who had discovered Count Basie and Billie Holiday, among others, saw her as a potential jazz star, and recorded her with a jazz trio led by Ray Bryant. Franklin recorded jazz standards like "Rock a Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody," which was a minor pop hit in late 1961.

It's likely that she knew she'd be doing other kinds of material, and apparently Columbia agreed, because the label followed it up with "Rough Lover."

It's hard to know where to start with this song. A lot of the elements that were popular in the day's black pop are there, from the up-tempo rhythm to Franklin's soul-tinged delivery, but even in 1962, a song about wanting a "rough lover" was taboo. This came out at approximately the same time as Phil Spector hurriedly withdrew The Crystals' "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)," after all. "Rough Lover" actually got to No. 94 on the pop charts for one week before vanishing.

Columbia went back to recording albums of jazzier stuff, while occasionally trying to cross her over. Part of the problem, though, was the label's insistence on using its own producers and engineers and studios, and apparently nobody at Columbia understood what they had in Franklin. In 1963, for instance, someone named Robert Mersey tried for a hit with "You've Got Her."

A little restraint in the arrangement might have saved the song, but clearly someone thought "You've Got Her" sounded a bit like gospel music. Franklin does her best, but too much goes wrong too soon. By 1964, Columbia was desperate with her record "The Shoop-Shoop Song."

For once, it's an inspired choice, a pared-down arrangement and a spirited vocal from Franklin. But Betty Everett had just had a hit with the song, her version was every bit as good, and this wasn't a single, but a track on an album that also had Aretha Franklin doing songs made famous by Dionne Warwick, Inez Foxx and Barbara Lynn. Something was still trying to break out, though, as the 1965 single "Hands Off" shows.

By 1966, Columbia had lost $90,000 on Franklin and was offering her a deal she didn't like to re-sign. Across town, the folks at Atlantic Records were paying attention. What if they offered her the opportunity to write her own material, to play her piano with a little more gospel in it, use her sisters for backup vocalists and to record at funkier studios? In January 1967, they went into the studio and began to find out.

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

The music that came to be known as soul took a while to develop with performers like Ray Charles, Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, and Etta James all making contributions. One of the great mysteries of soul, though, is why it took Aretha Franklin so long to claim the spotlight. Rock historian Ed Ward has this look back at her hitless years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, 'I TOLD YOU SO')

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) I hate to say I told you so, though you deserve it because you know you left me crying for someone new and all the heartache came back to you. Now you're begging me to take you back. I told you so. I told you. You were king...

ED WARD, BYLINE: Aretha Franklin made her first record when she was 14, singing some gospel standards in the church of her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, an easygoing Detroit pastor who was friends with Martin Luther King and just about every gospel singer you could name. One of the stars who visited a lot was Sam Cooke, who convinced Aretha that she could be a hit singing popular music.

So in 1960, at the age of 18, she dropped out of school and, eventually, was signed to Columbia Records by its top talent scout, John Hammond. Hammond, who had discovered Count Basie and Billie Holiday, among others, saw her as a potential jazz star, and recorded her with a jazz trio led by Ray Bryant. She recorded jazz standards like "Rock a Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody," which was a minor pop hit in late 1961.

It's likely that she knew she should be doing other kinds of material, and apparently Columbia agreed, because they followed it up with this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROUGH LOVER")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Now, listen here, girls. I'm going to tell you what I want right now. I want a rough lover. I want a man. I want a rough, tough lover and I'll find him if I can. He's got to bite nails, fight bears, and if I get sassy be a man who dares to shut me up and kiss me so I know he cares. I want a man.

WARD: It's hard to know where to start with this. A lot of the elements that were popular in the day's black pop are here, from the up-tempo rhythm to Franklin's soul-tinged delivery, but even in 1962, a song about wanting a rough lover was taboo.

This came out at approximately the same time as Phil Spector hurriedly withdrew The Crystals' "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)," after all. "Rough Lover" actually got to No. 94 on the pop charts for one week before vanishing. Columbia went back to recording albums of jazzier stuff, while occasionally trying to cross her over.

Part of the problem, though, was the label's insistence on using its own producers and engineers and studios, and apparently nobody at Columbia understood what they had in her. In 1963, for instance, someone named Robert Mersey tried for a hit with this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'VE GOT HER")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) You've got her. So why not let me be? Let me be. You said she means nothing to you. Yet she's always by your side. Now, just what do you expect me to do? Just ignore it and be satisfied? Well, you've got her. So why not let me be? Let me be. I know, I know...

WARD: A little restraint in the arrangement might have saved this, but clearly somebody thought "You've Got Her" sounded a bit like gospel music. Aretha does her best, but too much goes wrong too soon. By 1964, Columbia was desperate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SHOOP-SHOOP SONG")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Does he love me? I wanna know. How can I tell if he loves me so?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) Is it in his eyes?

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Oh, no. You'll be deceived.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) Is it in his sighs?

FRANKLIN: (Singing) No, no. He'll make believe. If you want to know if he loves you so, it's in his kiss.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) That's where it is. Oh, yeah. Oh, is it in his face?

FRANKLIN: (Singing) No, girls, that's just his charms.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) In his warm embrace?

FRANKLIN: (Singing) No, girls. That's just his arms. If you want to know if he loves you so, it's in his kiss.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) That's where it is.

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Yeah. It's in his kiss.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) That's where it is.

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Yeah. It's in his kiss.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) That's where it is. Oh...

WARD: For once, an inspired choice, a pared-down arrangement and a spirited vocal from Aretha, but Betty Everett had just had a hit with this song. Her version was every bit as good, and this wasn't a single but a track on an album that also had Aretha doing songs made famous by Dionne Warwick, Inez Foxx and Barbara Lynn. Something was still trying to break out, though, as this 1965 single shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANDS OFF")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Yeah. You better keep your hands off. You don't belong here. No. Keep your hands off of him. He don't belong to you. Say it, no. He's mine, all mine, no matter what you say you're gonna do. It don't mean a thing. Kind of tall and lanky, about six-foot-two. What he does for me, sweetie, he ain't gonna do for you. Keep your hands off...

WARD: By 1966, Columbia had lost $90,000 on Aretha and was offering her a deal she didn't like to re-sign. Across town, the folks at Atlantic Records were paying attention. What if they offered her the opportunity to write her own material, to play her piano with a little more gospel in it, use her sisters for backup vocalists and record at funkier studios? In January 1967, they went into the studio and began to find out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I NEVER LOVED A MAN")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) You're no good, heartbreaker. You're a liar and you're a cheat. And I don't know why I let you do these things to me. My friends keep telling me that you ain't no good. Oh, but they don't know that I'd leave you if I could. I guess I'm uptight and I'm stuck like glue. 'Cause I ain't, I ain't never, I ain't never loved a man the way that I, I love you.

DAVIES: Ed Ward is FRESH AIR's rock historian. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. Follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.