As Aretha Franklin’s days at Columbia Records wound down, the label continued to try new tricks to turn her floundering career around. In 1965, they decided to take a “live” approach. They recorded and released Yeah!!! In Person With Her Quartet. Recorded in studio and then dubbed over to give the illusion of being recorded in a small nightclub, the album was meant to tap into the successes other artists were finding with live albums.
Ironically, Aretha probably would have fared better had she actually recorded the album live. Her live performances always superseded her studio recordings. The material largely consisted of covers. One such cover was “If I Had A Hammer”. Originally a folk song, Aretha applies a heavy jazz influence to her arrangement, notably adding a piano part highlighted by infectious chords that open, close, and repeat at key breaks in the song.
Though Aretha’s version is largely unknown, Peter, Paul and Mary achieved top 10 success with the song 3 years earlier in 1962. They also earned two Grammy Awards for the song: Best Folk Song and Best Performance by a Vocal Group. It’s not unlikely that Sam Cooke’s 1964 cover on his live At The Copa LP partially inspired Aretha’s 1965 take on the song on her own “live” LP. Sam’s arrangement, along with elements of Rita Pavone’s align the most with Aretha’s, though even her vocal has Sam’s influence all over it.
The undubbed version of the song (without the faux-audience sounds) was released in 2011 as part of Columbia’s Take A Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia box set.
Listen to Aretha swing out a warning on “If I Had A Hammer”: