The Queen of Soul secures her place on the throne of the music world Aretha Franklin's CDs show no weakness

September 27, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

"Queen of Soul."

That pretty much says it all, doesn't it? No matter how many pretenders have laid claim to the throne over the last 25 years, everybody with ears knows that soul music has only had one queen ever, and her name is Aretha Franklin.

It isn't just a matter of hits, though Lord knows she's had her share and then some. Since 1967, when "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)" rocketed into the Top 10, Aretha has put some 36 singles into the pop Top 40, including such epochal works as "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "Chain of Fools," "Spanish Harlem" and the legendary "Respect." For many Americans, her songs aren't just memories but personal landmarks -- the soundtrack of their lives, in a way.

But there's more to it than that. What makes Franklin's hold on the soul crown so strong has less to do with hits than with the sheer strength and character of her vocal style. Hers is the purest kind of soul singing, in which fleshly desire and spiritual ecstasy intermingle and intensify one another.

Part of it comes from the church and is reflected in the roof-rattling exhortations that punctuate her performances, but another, equally important part comes from the juke joints and dance halls that are just as much a part of Southern culture. And both are amply evident in her greatest recordings -- not just in the deep, hip-shaking grooves provided by her rhythm sections or in the full-throated exuberance of the singing, but everywhere, from the first note to the last.

That's why "Queen of Soul: The Atlantic Recordings" (Rhino 71063) is such essential listening. Like most boxed sets, it's an impressively lavish affair, offering 86 songs in vividly remastered digital sound, delivered on four CDs or cassettes along with a booklet packed to bursting with liner notes, recording credits and other essential trivia. All in all, it's the sort of package guaranteed to leave any soul fan lusting for a copy.

But as nice as the outside may be, it's what's inside that really makes the box worth having. To say that these are Aretha's greatest recordings seems to belabor the obvious, but really, there's no getting around the fact that before Atlantic's Jerry Wexler took Aretha down to Rick Hall's Fame studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., she was a virtual nonentity in the music world.

Building a name

That's not the same as being an unknown, of course, for Franklin had been building a name as a singer since she was in her teens. It helped that she was the daughter of the Rev. C. L. Franklin, who was not only one of the foremost Baptist preachers of his day but a recording star in his own right, whose sermons were steady sellers for Chess records in the '50s.

Growing up in Detroit's New Bethel Baptist Church, Aretha heard and sang with some of the greatest gospel singers alive, from Clara Ward (whose exultant delivery is echoed in Aretha's own singing) and Mahalia Jackson to Sam Cooke (then still a Soul Stirrer) and Archie Brownlee. She herself began performing in her teens, and even cut a handful of singles for Chess, but it wasn't until Columbia talent scout John Hammond signed her in 1960 that Franklin took on the pop market.

It wasn't a terribly successful assault; over the course of 10 albums, Aretha only dented the Top 40 once (and then just barely, climbing to No. 37 in 1961 with "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody"). Most critics place the blame for her unrealized potential on Hammond, who catered to the young singer's jazzy ambition at the expense of her soulful essence, and there certainly is some validity to that argument.

But trying to make Aretha into the next Dinah Washington wasn't the only mistake the label made. As the recently released "Jazz to Soul" (Columbia/Legacy 48515) retrospective makes clear, Aretha's Columbiarecordings also had their share of soul efforts; indeed, tracks like "Take It Like You Give It" and "Can't You Just See Me" feature many of the same mannerisms that fuel her Atlantic recordings.

What they lack, however, is a sturdy sense of rhythm. Like most of the great gospel singers, Aretha's talent is essentially reactive; as much as she might bring on her own, it's the way she reacts to her surroundings that usually makes the difference between a great recording session and an average one. And that -- providing her with the proper musical environment -- was what gave Atlantic's Jerry Wexler the edge over Hammond and his crew at Columbia.

Sparks fly

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