Since her passing in August 2018, Aretha Franklin has been the subject of a wide range of discographic tributes across all media and formats. Available on August 27 alongside the theatrical release of the biopic Respect, the new 4 CD Aretha box set and its 1 CD/2 LP editions are now emerging as the definitive anthologies of the eternal Queen of Soul.
Over the past three years, a few notable releases have joined one of the most outstanding catalogs in the history of popular music: in addition to compilations of the most iconic tracks in Aretha Franklin’s discography, in 2019 vinyl fans were treated to The Atlantic Singles (1967 and 1968) singles box sets and, most recently, the first LP reissue of Oh Me Oh My: Aretha Live in Philly, 1972 as part of Record Store Day.
In addition to the exceptional documentary filmed by Sydney Pollack, the 2018 re-release of Amazing Grace, the mythical recording of the gospel concert held in January 1972 in a church in Los Angeles, was the highlight of this selection… until the release of this new box set.
Five hours of music
Delayed for several months due to the pandemic, the Aretha anthology is available in several formats: 81 tracks and more than five hours of music spread over 4 CDs for the Deluxe edition or 20 tracks for the 1 CD double-vinyl version Aretha (Highlights from the Boxset) — that is to say, a perfect introduction to the Lady Soul’s catalog, enhanced by unreleased tracks, alternative versions and TV performances. Subtitled The Queen’s First Full Career Retrospective, for the first time ever these volumes also compile Aretha Franklin’s recordings on the three major labels that accompanied her career: Columbia, Atlantic and Arista, plus occasional productions for Def Jam Recordings, Checker, Warner Records, and Quincy Jones’ label Qwest.
Presented in a vintage-style sleeve, the 4 CD edition’s packaging is illustrated by artist Makeba Rainey and includes a 52-page booklet with rare photos by Rochelle Riley (author and director of the City of Detroit’s Arts and Culture Department) and journalist and author David Nathan.
Spanning the years 1956 to 1969, the first CD traces Aretha Franklin’s early career, from her first gospel songs for J.V.B. Records to the rise of the Queen of Soul and her first successes for Atlantic Records. The cover of the traditional song Never Grow Old, her very first documented recording in 1956, anticipates an unsuccessful start with the Ray Bryant Combo, as well as her first albums released by Columbia Records in the mid 1960s. The first two unreleased tracks of the Aretha box set capture the transitional period between the failure of the Columbia era and the triumph of the Atlantic years with two demos recorded in her Detroit home, in preparation for the album I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) (1967). Borrowed from Frank Sinatra, “My Kind of Town (Detroit Is)” and a “swing” reworking of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” were miraculously found in the Atlantic archives. These demos, consigned by Aretha Franklin’s husband and manager and intended for Jerry Wexler, the producer of Atlantic Records, offer a first dive into a copious offering of alternative versions extending with the rare British single of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, accompanied by an additional track of backing vocals. Alongside these rarities is a selection of Lady Soul’s sixties hits, from “Respect” to “Chain of Fools”, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man”.
Takes and covers
Dedicated to the first half of the 1970s, the second CD of the box set deals with the second phase of Aretha Franklin’s reign. Still backed by the breathtaking rhythm section of the mythical Muscle Shoals studio, the Queen of Soul continues to revisit her gospel heritage, and to reinvigorate the pop standards of the time (“Let It Be” by the Beatles and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon & Garfunkel in 1970), while exploring the possibilities of funk with the relentless “Rock Steady”, represented in the alternative version included in the album Rare & Unreleased Recordings From the Golden Reign of The Queen of Soul, released in 2007 by Rhino.
Regarding alternative versions, this second disc offers a new series of miraculous discoveries: recorded in Miami in October 1969, “Call Me (Alternate Version)” features a more advantageous mix of strings, while “Young, Gifted and Black”, the cover of Nina Simone’s soul-gospel classic, is presented in a longer version. Aretha Franklin then invites herself on the set of the Tom Jones Show for an expeditious medley of “It’s Not Unusual” and “See Saw” in the company of the Welsh crooner, before delivering one of the most brilliant revelations of the boxed set: the 20th take of “You’re All I Need to Get By”, in which the Lady Soul illuminates the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell hit with her exceptional talents as a keyboardist. Also included is Aretha Franklin’s soulful and jazzy piano playing in an outtake of “Brand New Me” characterized by a different vocal approach than the one chosen for the album Young, Gifted and Black (1972).
Although the hits become rarer during the 1970s, the selection of the third disc of this anthology constitutes the highlight of the Aretha box set: in addition to key extracts from her last recordings for the Atlantic label under the patronage of Curtis Mayfield, this volume offers at the outset a batch of six previously unreleased tracks of very high quality. Led by Quincy Jones in 1972, the sessions for the album Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) produced the moving “Somewhere”, borrowed from West Side Story, the uptempo “The Boy From Bombay” and the ballad “Angel”, captured here as a fascinating work in progress.
This exceptional series continues with the dazzling piano-vocal takes of “Til It’s Over” and “Oh Baby a.k.a. There’s Something Magic About You”, followed by a live, laidback rehearsal of “Until You Back to Me”, a sumptuous Stevie Wonder composition from the 1974 album Let Me in Your Life. Another great bonus for fans of the four-octave singer is the previously unreleased studio version of Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life”, recorded in 1978 and until now only available in her television performances.
Essentially devoted to the iconic duets and performances of the latter part of Aretha Franklin’s career, the fourth and final disc of the set compiles 18 selections, beginning with her notable appearance in The Blues Brothers (“Think”, 1980). CD4 also covers the Arista period, with the hit singles “Freeway of Love”, “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” with Eurythmics (1985) and “I Know You Were Waiting (For Me)”, a huge international hit shared with George Michael in 1987. These late triumphs round out a generous 81 tracks, capped off by the deeply moving performance of “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)” in front of the Obama couple and a tearful Carole King at the Annual Kennedy Centers Honors in December 2015. Combining must-have tracks with the most precious unreleased material from an unparalleled repertoire, the Aretha box set is the ultimate jewel in the crown of the Queen of Soul.
By Christophe Geudin