I’ve always prized Aretha’s Columbia output moreso than her Atlantic output. I think a compilation that was released some 13-14 years ago really stated it accurately: Queen in Waiting. Beloved by Dinah Washington herself, Queen of the Blues, it should be by no surprise Aretha would take over the throne in the wake of that Monarch’s death at the end of 1963.
Decidedly during 1964, Columbia decided to push Aretha in a more R&B orientated direction. None other than the man that had shepherded Dinah Washington to Pop crossover territory 5 years earlier was called in to do the job. Clyde Otis had made many a star out of voices probably more primed for shouting R&B by giving them a sophisticated sheen. There wasn’t only Washington on his list of meticulous Virgoan conquests, there was Nat King Cole, Brook Benton and Timi Yuro as well. In fact, Otis produced 33 out of the 51 chart hits Mercury Record had in 1962 alone.
So we have Aretha’s first fireshot in the heart of summer towards becoming the latest R&B ingénue. Like Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts,” Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By” and Irma Thomas’s “Wish Someone Would Care” it was a laser focus portrait of emotions still rare for women in R&B to present. Where it’s a definitive “Aretha” moment is the sparse, direct whack between the eyes heap of wisdom from a woman scorned.
Here’s the Aretha that would unfold on forthcoming Atlantic moments like “Respect” and “Think.” This is the woman too wise to allot you too many hours or too many tears should you screw up. Here’s the early warning that she’s willing, like any Aries, to go to war. At this stage, still dressed in pearls and a Tippi Hedren-like bun or Jackie Kennedy Fall behind microphone or piano, we start to see the blossom of the woman we came to know so well by the middle of 1967.
There’d be additional moments of glory and goading in her Columbia output (see the immediate follow-up “Can’t You Just See Me?”) alongside representations of emotions that represent that fire. I’m a big fan of seeing where people have been to see where they’ll go, and as we celebrate Aretha Louise Franklin’s 74th Birthday, I highly encourage you to get to know all of her work.