I don’t know how I missed this one.
In 2007, Rhino released Aretha Franklin, Rare and Unreleased Recordings. I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know it existed until I read this blog post last week. It’s out of print now, but I managed to find a used copy on Amazon. It showed up yesterday.
I haven’t been able to get past the first three cuts.
This collection of 35 songs from a six-year period begins with a brief intercom exchange between Wexler, supervising the session from the studio control room, and Franklin, who is at the piano, recording demos for her first Atlantic session with an unknown double bassist and drummer, probably the regular accompanists of her nightclub act. “Hey, it started to get good in there,” Wexler says. “Yes, it did,” Aretha replies. “It had that rockin’ thing.”
And then she resumes the slow-rocking triple-time gospel riff that underpins I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You), the first of the run of classic Atlantic hits with which Wexler succeeded in making her a fixture in the top 10, elevating her to the same commercial level as the products of Motown and Stax simply by emphasising the gospel roots that others had foolishly chosen to compromise.
In this demo, and in the similar treatment of Dr Feelgood that follows it, we can hear with perfect clarity the way Wexler and Atlantic’s gifted arranger, Arif Mardin, allowed Aretha’s own piano-playing to determine the style and pattern of each arrangement. By the time they added the marvellous session musicians from Muscle Shoals, Memphis or New York, a sense of relaxation allowed her to produce vocal performances of such majesty and impact.
In the last of the trio of demos with which this set opens, Franklin ruminates over a Van McCoy ballad called Sweet Bitter Love, which she had already recorded for Columbia and to which she would return many years later. On this dead-slow version, with its false start and its crude recording, Franklin achieves a degree of deep-soul intimacy remarkable even by her own unequalled standards. It is hardly fanciful, given the match between the lyric and the known facts of her troubled love life, to suggest that she was simply singing to herself.
The arrangements are stripped — her on piano, simply accompanied by bass and drums — and the recordings are indeed crude. All that serves to do is leave her entirely exposed to play and sing her heart out. And that’s exactly what she does. It’s utterly remarkable. Listening to these songs, I almost feel like I’m trespassing on an intimate, personal moment.
Listen to the second cut, “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business)”, which she went on to record on her 1967 record, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. Wexler and Mardin, as the quote above indicates, were fantastic arrangers for her, but this demo affects me in a way the finished product never has.
As good as that is, it’s eclipsed by the next track, “Sweet Bitter Love”, which is worth the price of admission all by itself.
That’s like mainlining the Queen of Soul straight into your veins. Absolutely mesmerizing.
In case you haven’t gotten the message, you need to listen to this album. I don’t know if it’ll change your life, but it’ll certainly move you.