Aretha Franklin
" Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul "
Atlantic Records/Rhino Records

Aretha and Wexler Reunited One More Time, (12/05/07)

I have always felt that Aretha Franklin's LPs for the great Atlantic Records label from the later part of the 1960s and through the early 1970s (the Jerry Wexler/Aretha era) are her best. The smart folks at Rhino seem to have a similar feeling as this two-CD set culls its tracks from that same time frame, as all the cuts are taken from 1966 to 1973. Except the B-side 45s "Lean on Me" and "Pledging My Love/The Clock," everything is either an outtake, demo, live, or an alternate version of the original. So there's a bunch of previously unheard material taken from Aretha's most expressive timeframe, which sheds additional light on the fact that Franklin is one of the greatest Soul (and otherwise) singers of the twentieth century.

The tracks included here are timelessly valuable. They are not nearly close to her best previously released work, but there are some gems and moments that make this two-CD set very worthwhile to own. Such as the two opening tunes, which are early demo versions of "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" and "Dr. Feelgood," which are a bit crude and not very well recorded, but what is cool is that we hear Aretha singing and sitting at the piano, accompanied by just bass and drums. Additionally, Aretha covers her sister Carolyn, Gene McDaniels, James Brown, Van McCoy, Leonard Cohen, and another version of Paul Anka's "My Way," of which a different version of Aretha covering the same tune was released last year on Rhino's compilation Atlantic Unearthed- Soul Sisters. Plus there are several tracks that are interestingly listed as "composer unknown."

But there are more than two handfuls of strong, complete recordings by Aretha which are quite lofty, such as Disk One's "So Soon" (Van McCoy), which is an Aretha Arrives outtake; Holland, Dozier, and Holland's "You Keep Me Hangin' On;" and, Van McCoy's "Lean On Me," which has Donny Hathaway, Chuck Rainey, Cornell Dupree, and Bernard Purdie on board.

Disk Two top picks are a wild remix of Aretha's "Rock Steady," which was previously issued on the highly recommended four-CD Rhino box What It Is! Funky Soul & Rare Grooves, plus two tracks by the elusive "composer unknown," "Sweetest Smile And The Funkiest Style, with Billy Preston on keyboards, and "The Happy Blues" with Willie Weeks, Dupree, Purdie, and Donny Hathaway. The absolute high point for me was the second known coupling of Aretha singing with Ray Charles, taken from a live performance in Los Angeles covering Duke Ellington's "Ain't But The One" with a killer band that includes Kenny Burrell, Chuck Rainey, Dave Grusin, and Paul Humphrey. This classic performance is from a CBS TV special Duke Ellington...We Love You Madly. This live recording simmers and boils towards a Gospel frenzy that will take your breath away! Which begs the question: Rhino, are there more Brother Ray & Aretha recordings? (Writer's Note: The other Ray & Aretha performance is "Spirit In The Dark" from the Aretha Live at the Fillmore West, and be sure to get the unedited version that was released last year on Rhino as a two-CD deluxe edition.)

Add to this fine mix a twenty-four-page booklet enclosed in this absolutely wonderful compilation, with liner notes from well known author David Ritz, and a soon-to-be ninety-one-years young Jerry Wexler, who is also the executive producer of this box set. Wexler probably says it best, "We've discovered a treasure trove of vintage Aretha that's nothing short of thrilling. Aretha's outtakes are the sort of performances most artists would be proud to call first choices." May you "Rock Steady" forever Mr. Wexler, and you too, Aretha!

Bob Putignano: