“The Electrifying Aretha Franklin” Reviewed
One thing is entirely clear on her second album The Electrifying Aretha Franklin on Columbia and with John Hammond in charge, and that is Hammond couldn’t think through Aretha’s voice far enough. Steeped in the black crossover world of 1962 US Charts, keeping Aretha off the chitlin circuit and positioning her as a dominant mainstream singer for the second half of the 20th Century, he essentially put a jazz band behind her and… well, Aretha sang better as a fourteen year old at her father’s Church (that isn’t a guess, recorded in 1956. the Checker label -subsidiary of Chess- Records, and released in 1965, Songs Of Faith was her best release till she moved to Atlantic Records).
However, it takes an impossible leap from the best to not good, Aretha Franklin is astonishing here, singing songs she shouldn’t have been forced to sing, she embedded her indomitable spirit, and skillfully, to every one of these songs even as you shake your head in amazement that somebody thought it was a good idea for Aretha to cover “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody “. Aretha didn’t need me or Hammond to teach her about the South and racism, her father was close with Martin Luther King, but it takes a special level of ignorance to have her singing an ode to a place where the only swinging people of color did was at the end of a rope. Like the “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” that ends the album, Aretha is gentle and sturdy with songs that were not right for her, that didn’t showcase her power. Couldn’t Hammond have, at least, given her “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”? If he wanted to aim the twenty year old woman at the pop chart he should have aimed well.
It isn’t depressing to hear Aretha tackle Judy Garland (for the second time in two albums) with “You Made Me Love You” but it isn’t revealing, as beyond a couple of bars where she scrapes em up, she doesn’t need this material at all. “I Told You So” is a blues swinger, and she sings it fine, but it is bland and lacks an emotional center. “It’s So Heartbreaking,” which ends side one, is by John McFarland, the man who wrote “Stuck On You” for Presley, and it is a pop rock ballad that Hammond has swung a little and one of the best songs here, Aretha is completely comfortable and gives it some oomph the last time round. It closes side one, and another McFarland song, “Rough Leader” opens side two, it is a sexy romp and a lost gem. Luther Dixon (who co-wrote “Sixteen Candles”), co-wrote the little less than it should been “Blue Holiday”.
The instrumentation is jazz and swing smoothness that veers into the blues (but not soul). Aretha is playing piano though it is hard to notice one way or the other, Richard Wess arranged the songs which could have been arranged for anyone, and Hammond produced, throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.
So, yeah, this isn’t what Aretha should have been doing and it didn’t even sell out well, never reaching the charts. It is like she is being held up because Hammond doesn’t know what to do with her except what everybody else has. But there is an exception, “That Lucky Old Sun” sounds like a spiritual the way “Old Man River” sounds like a spiritual. If Louis Armstrong’s version is the gold standard, Aretha’s patient, building, uplifting version is the second best. Not helped by a soupy arrangement, she jumps right above the strings in the back and finds God in the words, and two thirds through she gets her reward: segueing between verses Aretha takes us there. “Lift me to paradise, show me that river, take me across wash my troubles away” she scats and soars heavenward.
There is no doubt that Aretha is a major force on The Electrifying, no possibility something won’t click, she is already a tremendous voice that faces up to everything put in front of her. It is a mediocre album of business as usual crossover black artistry, built to make whitey comfortable in his own skin. But Aretha is indomitable and all these years later it sounds like more than what it is.