When Aretha Franklin signed with Columbia Records in 1960, she was just 18 years old. John Hammond, famous at the time for discovering Billie Holliday, signed Aretha to the label with the hopes of giving her a career steeped in jazz. Hammond produced her 1961 debut studio album, titled Aretha with the Ray Bryant Combo. The LP is a mix of original material and covers. One of the covers on side A is the universally known Judy Garland classic “Over The Rainbow” from The Wizard Of Oz.
Obviously one of the most well-known songs of all time, Aretha’s take strays away from the Garland arrangement. For one, like Aretha became famous for, she didn’t sing the melody straight. She took liberties and made the song her own. And while there’s no vocal show-out in the original, Aretha finds a place to insert one at her final “Somewhere over the rainbow, blue birds fly”. Instead of the written line, Aretha embellishes as the band goes staccato with “gonna be some-where… oooover the rainBOW! Oooooooo, where pretty little bluebirds fly. Birds… fly, oh-oover the rainbow. Why, then oh why, can’t I?” It’s one of the first notable vocal show outs in a nearly 60 year career of effortlessly demonstrating vocal superiority to any singer brave enough to cross her path.
While Aretha’s take didn’t get released as a single, that same year The Demensions reached number 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with their cover, demonstrating the 1939 classic’s sustainability through new eras of music. Listening back to many of the versions which pre-date Aretha’s including Dave Brubeck, Bud Powell, and Glenn Miller, non arrangement is quite like hers, even the jazziest. Like many things Aretha did, this arrangement is singular.
Listen to Aretha go “Over The Rainbow”: