Aretha Franklin, the Detroit-born grande dame of American popular music, is as much Elvis Presley-sized legend as flesh-and-blood human being. She sang at the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s funeral and at President Barack Obama's inauguration. She made her first album, a live recording in front of an entranced audience, in 1956 at the age of 14. Bonnie Raitt once said, "I learned way more about being a woman from listening to her sing 'Respect' than I did from any man." To generations of people around the world, she is a goddess, the living embodiment of a "natural woman."
Known simply as Aretha, the daughter of the late Rev. C.L. Franklin, she has produced a discography that stretches across five decades, from 1956's Precious Lord, which the Rev. Franklin released himself and has been reissued several times since; to 2011's A Woman Falling Out of Love, which Aretha issued through her own label, Aretha's Records, and distributed exclusively through Wal-Mart. Most fans tend to stick to her classic hit singles, from "Think" and "Something He Can Feel" to "Jump to It" and "A Rose Is Still a Rose." Out of the three dozen or so albums she made, only a few receive serious critical attention: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, the 1967 album that made her a superstar; 1968's Lady Soul; and Amazing Grace, one of the biggest-selling gospel albums of all time.
However, it's worth digging beneath the Aretha myth for a closer listen. Born in 1942, she was in thrall to her father, a Civil Rights pioneer whose style of preaching influenced the Rev. King and who hosted a nationally syndicated radio show. (Her late sisters, Erma and Carolyn, were accomplished singers in their own right, and would later write songs and sing backing vocals for Aretha.) By the time Aretha was in her teens, she was accustomed to performing for the Rev. Franklin's gospel friends at his house, including Mahalia Jackson (who changed Aretha's diapers as a baby), Sam Cooke and Clara Ward. When Cooke became a pop star in the late 1950s, he often took Aretha on his tours. On Precious Lord, it's stunning to hear the young Aretha exhibit the same gifts she would unveil to the world a decade later, from her accomplished use of melisma and an ability to extend and rearrange vocal melodies, to the brilliant way she accompanied her vocal flights of fancy on piano.
John Hammond, the famed talent scout and producer whose discoveries range from Billie Holiday to, later, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, signed Aretha to Columbia Records in 1960. (Interestingly, Berry Gordy tried to recruit her for Motown Records, but her family ruled against signing with the then-small, fledgling label.) Her eight Columbia albums are widely derided for their emphasis on pop chestnuts like "Over the Rainbow" (Aretha) and "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody" (The Electrifying Aretha Franklin), but she never abandoned her love of the great American songbook, even after she evolved from a jazz-pop singer in the mold of Dinah Washington to a deep soul pioneer. The worst that can be said about these early albums is that they lack spark, whether it's the producers with whom she worked, or her inability to create an emotional connection in her performances, or the material itself. It doesn't help that many of them are marred by gooey string arrangements typical of sophisticated '60s cabaret pop; Aretha, which she recorded with pianist Ray Bryant and several jazz musicians, may be the best of the lot, since Hammond arranges spare accompaniment that puts a spotlight on her voice.
When Aretha's contract with Columbia expired, she signed with Atlantic Records. Producer and label cofounder Jerry Wexler decided to record a "Southern" album with Aretha at Rick Hall's Fame Studios, the site of so many Stax classics by Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and many others. But only the title track of I Never Loved a Man was recorded at Fame. An altercation involving Aretha's volatile former husband/manager, Ted White, led to Wexler moving the sessions to New York City. However, Wexler and the group of musicians who would soon be known as the Muscle Shoals sound created a template that Aretha would follow for the next five years, spanning eight studio albums and three live albums. Her reputation largely rests on these performances, made between 1967 and 1972, when she remarkably synthesized blues, gospel and jazz into a blueprint for soul music that resonates today. Listening to each album individually, it's amazing how many of the songs began as signature tunes for others: Dionne Warwick's "I Say a Little Prayer," Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge over Troubled Water," Ben E. King's "Spanish Harlem" and, of course, Otis Redding's "Respect." It's a testament to her musical genius, and the way she stamps her imprint on them through sheer personality.
Still, Aretha is unabashedly a pop creature, and her post-1972 output has led her down numerous detours, from noble but failed experiments such as 1973's Quincy Jones-produced Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) to successful contemporary R&B forays like her two albums with Luther Vandross (1982's Jump To It and 1983's Get It Right) and 1998's A Rose Is Still a Rose. She may be living history, but she has rarely felt burdened by it. Each new release is an opportunity to "bop," as she once put it, and try on something new. It makes for an intimidating and haphazardly brilliant catalog of music that rewards deep listening.