Aretha Franklin’s “The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin” Reviewed
Album # 3, recorded in April and released in August, 1962, The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin, was her best album to date, produced and arranged by Robert Mercy, Columbia in house guy, who worked with some of the top pop performers of the time: Andy Williams, Barbra Streisand, Bobby Vinton, Dion, Johnny Mathis, Julie Andrews, Mel Tormé,and many more mainstream middle of the road guys, soon to be shunted aside by modern pop. Yes, we were in the early 1960s, and yes this wasn’t where things were developing towards but for sure ot is where things were. Curtis and the Impressions were doing something very similar: a little blues, a little Americana standards, a proto-soul song -like that.
However, despite Aretha’s unparalleled singing, even this early in her career, these are not the right songs. As Susan Whitall of Detroit News noted, Aretha was not married to soul, she could sing anything (listen to her 1998 “Nessun Dorma” if you want further proof) and in the early years she did that. But listen to her “Try A Little tenderness” here and compare it to her friend Sam Cooke’s version, she seems to miss it, the sound is good but the feel is blank, the strings are too soupy, and she doesn’t make it her own. Worse still, “God Bless The Child” is not much compared to Billie Holiday: any other singer you might think, well, what do you expect? There is a softly, creeping melancholy to the original, it was a blues at a whisper her voice an undertow of understanding and inner strength. Aretha gives it a Gospel strength but it doesn’t play off her note perfect delivery, the backing isn’t the blues, it is all small band strings, and Aretha is caught between going for it and restraining herself.
So what is happening on The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin, is overplayed versions with arrangements that don’t suit her. The “How Deep Is The Ocean,” the “Lover Come Back To me,” the “I’m Sitting On Top Of The World” seem to be at loggerheads with Aretha, she sings their guts, swings “Sitting’ perfectly -her phrasing on the verses (a thrown in “Halleluiah” is the album’s highlight in one word) but the attention is misplaced.
If that’s all there was we could move on, but there are much better things on the album. Aretha herself wrote “Without The One You Love,” the first of her compositions to be recorded, and while I still don’t buy the arrangement entirely, this is a true roots of soul song, “Don’t Cry, Baby” opens the album with cascading piano before Aretha sings a better blues than she does on “Child” -it is a blues scorcher of the first. “Look For The Silver Lining” is her most successful Great American Songbook song to date, The less she swings, the deeper her feelings come through. Is Louis Armstrong’s wife Lil Hardin Armstrong lost to us, now? She certainly helped him enough in the 1920s. If so, listen to second side opener “Just For A Thrill,” co-written by Hardin, it isn’t quite jazz and it isn’t blues, maybe nascent r&b
TMS isn’t a great album, it is half a great album, if you don’t know your Columbia years then some of these songs may surprise as they would fit at nearly any period of her career till the mid-1970s. The arrangements are iffy, the song choices disappointing at times, but it is still very, very good far more often than it should. Berry Gordy Jr’s “I’m Wandering” is so great, and the trumpets such a strong underlining, it makes you wonder why Gordy didn’t hear it and beg her to join Motown.
The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin frustrates because Hammond and Robert Mercy threw everything they had, it was obvious that Aretha was a once in a generation singer, and yet they couldn’t click it into place. Even the album cover, Aretha wearing a half smirk, isn’t quite right. The template for soul wasn’t in place and the lack of a strong template for black mainstream music, in 1962 they added a little blues and jazz to some r&b and over orchestrated them, didn’t work for Aretha.