Aretha Franklin is the Led Zeppelin of soul music. And no, that’s not a fat joke. As artists whose best work exists as perfect expressions of their respective genres’ transcendent capabilities, Aretha and Led Zep have become shorthand for what people mean when they talk about “soul music” or “rock & roll.” If you were trying to introduce the concept of either musical style to an alien, would there be any more exemplary representation?
There are unwelcome side effects to such dominance: Both artists have had their music overplayed to the point of numbness. (That someone’s first response to hearing Aretha belt out “Think” could be, “What commercial is that from?” is as good an argument as any for banning the use of pop songs in advertising.) Furthermore, it goes without saying that, outside of a well-defined “golden era” for each, their reputations outweighed their work. (Again, not a fat joke.)
For Aretha, that golden era is defined as the years between her 1967 debut on Atlantic Records and her 1972 decision to record a concept album with Quincy Jones. During that time, the Queen of Soul released eight studio albums, two live albums, one recorded-in-church gospel album and two collections of her Atlantic hits.
That body of work is a crystalline representation of soul music at its best. Incorporating bluesy piano, delicate balladry, swinging jazz, epic spirituality and that legendary Muscle Shoals take on rhythm and blues, the music produced in these five busy years is peerless in its perfection. And that’s ignoring the unignorable: Aretha Franklin’s precision-tuned typhoon of a voice, an instrument so often examined and marveled at that any further attempts at dissection or description would be redundant.
So why is it that, while both she and Led Zeppelin have been treated recently to reissues – Aretha with a previously unreleased live album and a two-disc compilation of unreleased session recordings, Zeppelin with a remastered version of a live album released 30 years ago and a two-disc compilation of their best-known songs – it’s Page and Plant that are getting so much attention? Nothing against those folks who are excited about hearing the 27-minute version of “Dazed and Confused” in improved fidelity, but the opportunity for a look at what got left out of the best soul albums ever recorded is worth celebrating.
Rare & Unreleased Recordings starts, appropriately enough, with three Aretha-at-the-piano demo recordings. Two of the songs – “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business)” – were rerecorded for inclusion on her Atlantic debut. The other, “Sweet Bitter Love,” is a song she recorded for Columbia in 1965, the year before she signed with Atlantic, and would again record for Arista in the ’80s. All three of the songs are stunningly forceful, especially given their simplicity and the variable fidelity of the recordings. Aretha’s voice evinces the rough, raw edges of a practice session, but still manages to evoke the room-filling authority and warm range for which she is known.
From there, it’s four songs recorded during the sessions for Aretha Arrives and Aretha Now, two albums that, stylistically, are of a piece with her debut. Accordingly, the outtakes share a similar vibe: piano-driven rhythms and bluesy undertones, with That Voice driving the bus right through your heart. Why they didn’t make the cut 30 years ago is a mystery. Less puzzling is why “Talk to Me, Talk to Me” didn’t make it onto Soul ’69. That album put Aretha in a big-band setting (along with top-notch players like Pepper Adams, Ron Carter, Grady Tate and others); this cut is all down-and-dirty soul.
For all the cover versions that made it onto Aretha’s albums, there are even more to be found on this set. While it’s tough to comprehend the decision-making behind having her sing “My Way,” the versions of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “The Fool on the Hill” and “You’re All I Need to Get By” stand as solid proof that the Queen could truly make any song her own.
As the unreleased collection wends its way from Muscle Shoals beginnings through her Donny Hathaway–assisted early-’70s period, the changes in style are overshadowed by the sheer power of Aretha’s voice. Riveting numbers like “I Need a Strong Man (The To-To Song)” and “You’re Talking Up Another Man’s Place” (from the Young, Gifted and Black and Spirit in the Dark sessions, respectively) could have slotted easily onto the remarkable albums from which they were omitted.
But when the wall of outtakes from 1973’s Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) is hit, it’s clear that this diva’s glory days were coming to a close. While her voice is in full, poetic form, the overstuffed arrangements – courtesy of Quincy Jones – do her no favors. A total of eight songs from the sessions are included; none will do much to change anyone’s mind about the album they could have been on.
But, tucked between those leftovers and some middling, late-period outtakes is a duet between Aretha and Ray Charles on Duke Ellington’s “Ain’t But the One.” Recorded in 1973 for a television tribute to Duke, this is remarkably one of only two available collaborations between these two soul music titans. (The other is the two of them doing Aretha’s “Spirit in the Dark” on her Live at Fillmore West LP.) The release of this sort of gem is the kind of news that would qualify a Led Zeppelin reissue for front-page treatment. Here, it’s a footnote on a stellar package that is unlikely to generate the attention it should.