Listening to Aretha Franklin’s first-ever recordings, released in their entirety as Songs of Faith, is a magnanimous experience when put into context. The quality of the 1956 recordings aren’t stellar, but her voice is incredibly striking. And that she is just FOURTEEN years old during these performances that is truly a jarring thought. Barely halfway into her teens and already that voice is present, demonstrating power and wisdom years beyond of her age.
It takes a good amount of digging to learn about “You Grow Closer”, which is strange because of its’ place in Aretha’s history. “You Grow Closer” was the B-side to the very first Aretha 45 single ever released, on Jon Von Battle’s JVB label. Its’ A-side was “Never Grow Old”, which has become one of the most well-known gospel cuts in Aretha’s history. Yet “You Grow Closer”, despite being the title of one reissue of the Songs of Faith recordings, is not discussed. In all of my research, it’s never mentioned by any of the Aretha scholars before me, not even in the liner notes of the very recent March 2019 reissue of Songs Of Faith.
One issue that hinders education on the song is the title. “You Grow Closer” was not the name given to this song when it was written. It was originally titled “Closer To Me” and written by gospel pianist Doris Akers. Akers apparently composed over 500 songs. Like Aretha, Akers also was a self-taught pianist and played by ear.
Though Akers wrote and eventually recorded “Closer To Me” in 1953 with her group the Simmons-Akers Trio, the earliest recording I can find of the song is from one of Aretha’s idols and mentors: Mahalia Jackson. Mahalia apparently recorded the song in the fall of 1950, nearly 6 years before Aretha was recorded singing it. It’s likely that Mahalia’s version reached Aretha’s ears since Mahalia was such a big inspiration on Aretha as a singer.
Louise Williams, a radio DJ from Philadelphia who knew Aretha and her family, wrote the qualification on the back of the Songs Of Faith LP. Louise famously connected Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler with Aretha Franklin in 1966, a move that transformed her career forever. As Louise puts it, “You will never hear ‘You Grow Closer’ sung with more depth and sincerity and emotion as on this album.” It’s a strong compliment to issue to fourteen year old Aretha Franklin, especially with Mahalia’s version pre-dating Aretha, but it’s also a testament to the tenacity of Aretha’s God-given talent.
Stream Aretha’s “You Grow Closer”:
“Mahalia Jackson’s Apollo Recordings.” Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field, by Mark Burford, Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 208–210.