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“Aretha Franklin with the Ray Bryant Combo” Reviewed

It is with some trepidation that you venture towards the entire recorded works of Aretha Franklin, the only person for whom “Queen Of Soul” sounds like an understatement, yes she was, but she was also one of the greatest singers of all time, either sex, any genre. Put her with Frank Sinatra, George Jones, Ella Fitzgerald. She can compete with all of them and whether she beats them on not is a matter of opinion (I claim yes, with a proviso: too often the songs aren’t up to the skills). As a prelude to reviewing her collected recordings (well, albums), I took a dip or two, just a lookie look at some albums to get a feel for them, and couldn’t get past Songs Of Faith, the 1965 release of a 1956 living recording at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, when Franklin was aged 14.She sounded absolutely sensational, this was black Gospel that, not unlike James Brown in this sense, had no interest in a white America: it was for people of color and people of faith, it was more organically about a culture different than white America than what would come after for Aretha. At the age of 14, Aretha already had two children so undoubtedly innocence in its original meaning was not on her mind, neither sin, but unity in Christ, they are, in an epic sense, songs of freedom.

But, as I noted, they would not be released for another four years because in 1961 Aretha Franklin was 18 years old and about  to be discovered by John Hammond of Columbia. Hammond did many great things, no doubt. But why put her with a jazz guy, pianist Ray Bryant on Aretha Franklin with the Ray Bryant Combo wasn’t one of the.? She was a soul woman, a Gospel singer whose sole and sense of self sounded secular, she was a female Ray Charles to a degree, so at ease testifying for her own rightness and stuck on songs that weren’t right for her.

John Hammond doesn’t know what to do with Aretha, he knows he has something but he doesn’t know what that something is. So he moves around several black music idioms, he looks at her age and throws in a misplaced “Over The Rainbow,” then notes her blues chops and has her sing “It AIn’t Necessarily So” (“the things that you’re likely to read in the Bible ain’t necessarily so…” Really?), co-producer and arranger  J. Leslie McFarland wrote six songs, half the album ,and his material isn’t terrible, he wasn’t a terrible songwriter and was responsible for at least one great song, “Stuck On You,” but except for r&b stomper “Won’t Be Long” -where Aretha pitches high and makes it something it isn’t, the material isn’t strong enough.”Are You Sure,”from the Broadway musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” is a modified bossa nova, and not right for Aretha at all and still  she runs through the tempo swings with ease.

With 12 songs and 34 minutes  in length, the album feels like a fishing expedition, unsure where to land, not a million miles from mid-1960s Impressions  it covers itself every which way and sure, a showcase is a showcase, but there is a huge set of skills with Aretha that would turn the civil rights movement vanguard on its ear before the decade was over, and it is only tantalizingly close to the surface here. The Gospel recording I mentioned earlier, though recorded on tape live in Church, is more a true representation of her gifts. The  jazz elements, “Maybe I’m A Fool,”  a nothing much blues changes on a jazz track, don’t function correctly. The American Standards are missteps (and the Gershwin is worse than that). Aretha isn’t being served properly, from her incredible range (she could sing from G2 to E6) to her attitude singing, her declarative attitude, her pride so clear you can’t miss it, none of that is here yet. The Billie Holiday “WHo Needs You” is the best song on the album and McFarland’s opening track “Won’t Be Long” comes in second, both are worth searching out.

The Ray Bryant Combo is fair to average and back, the piano is overplayed and the best musician here, guitarist Skeeter Best is under used. They aren’t protean though they are performing blues, r&b, American Standards, they are never comfortable, and stuck with songs that aren’t good enough they go through the motions for the eighteen year old starlette. Nobody is getting it 100% right, they are all near misses or worse.

My favorite Aretha song is Curtis Mayfield’s “Sparkle”: “Submission isn’t easy for me” she sang, and this feeling of vulnerability from a woman who can steam through submission, is like a kaleidoscope of emotion. She recorded it fifteen years after “Love Is The Only Thing” -where  back up singers muddy her sound entirely, almost incredibly she survives it.  Still, this didn’t help the case for Aretha, they didn’t know what the greatest singer of all time, only Frank Sinatra could do what Aretha could do, it isn’t visible here, Hammond could hear it without being able to tap into it and let us hear it.

Grade: B

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