REVIEW: ARETHA Encompasses The Career of A Queen With Hits And Rarities

For more than sixty years, Aretha Franklin reigned supreme as one of the finest voices and pianists to ever step on a stage. An eighty-one track collection simply titled ARETHA becomes the first compilation to bring together music from every corner of her career. It begins with a teenage preacher’s daughter at the piano and singing gospel, and culminates in the Queen of Soul at the piano and bringing tears to the president’s eyes at the Kennedy Center Honors. Originally slated for release in November 2020 to coincide with the Jennifer Hudson-led biopic “Respect,” it was pushed back along with the film. 8 months later ARETHA arrives, chock full of classics and must-hear unreleased material. 

Unlike a standard greatest hits compilation, ARETHA not only spans Aretha’s entire career, but brings to light forgotten eras and alternate takes on some of her biggest hits. Released by Atlantic’s catalog label Rhino, the collection was executive produced by the British Ambassador of Soul, David Nathan. Nathan has been an integral part of the Aretha legacy for decades. When Rhino reissued Aretha’s classic Atlantic LPs on CD in the early 1990’s, he wrote intricately detailed liner notes for every reissue. In the liner notes for ARETHA he gives a beautiful overview of Aretha’s six decades in music, and testifies to mining the Atlantic Records tape vaults in search of Aretha’s hidden gems for this compilation. He certainly struck gold. 

While some of the alternate takes like those of “Call Me” and “Spanish Harlem” tweak their arrangements and instrumentations slightly, others offer entirely different perspectives. ARETHA’s Quincy Jones-produced cover of West Side Story’s “Somewhere” offers a different take than was originally released in 1973. It features a gorgeous alternate piano solo from Aretha. Emphasizing Aretha’s brilliance as a pianist is a common thread throughout much of this newly unearthed material. 

The three work tapes are where ARETHA really comes alive. Aretha only sings on the choruses of “You’re All I Need To Get By” and leaves the verses to let her piano playing shine. “Until You Come Back To Me”’s first-ever take is included, and though the background vocals haven’t been realized yet, it’s hard not to add in the “your door”’s along the way. The work tape of her sister Carolyn’s masterful composition “Angel” launches with a false start and some chatter from Aretha. It gives way to a subtle, yet affecting take on one of her most beautiful ballads. 

Two newly unearthed demos from 1973 are stunning. “Til It’s Over” and “Oh Baby AKA There’s Something Magic About You,” are Aretha from top to bottom: she’s the songwriter, producer, and sole musician. She reaches to the heights of her vocal register as she accompanies herself on the piano and works out these abandoned tracks that overflow with . She sounds adoringly impassioned on these informal recordings, and it’s staggering to get a taste of just Aretha and her piano, which is a rarity. 

It may come as a surprise, but there are still five Aretha Franklin albums from the 1970’s that have never been reissued. ARETHA becomes the second compilation, and first in the digital era to give these “lost” albums some attention. Four songs debut remastered for the very first time, and another three make their digital debut. The highlights are her sister Carolyn’s gorgeous “Without Love” from 1973’s With Everything I Feel In Me, “You” from 1975’s You (which was also released by Natalie Cole on her debut album that same year), and Aretha’s composition “When I Think About You” from 1977’s Sweet Passion. It’s also hard to resist the campy fare of the Van McCoy-produced disco foray “Ladies Only” from 1979’s La Diva

Another highlight from this “lost” era is Aretha’s towering 1978 cover of Debby Boone’s smash “You Light Up My Life,” which makes its debut. Aretha transforms this straight-forward pop song into a haunting and desperate declaration of devotion, powered by an overwhelming vocal performance and yearning arrangement. It’s a must-hear. 

A who’s-who of music royalty pop up along the way including Ray Charles, Ron Isley, Lou Rawls, Mavis Staples, and Tom Jones. A 1979 Soul Train appearance finds Aretha sitting alongside childhood friend Smokey Robinson for an impromptu, spine-tingling performance of Smokey’s “Ooo Baby Baby.” When the two harmonize for the first time, Aretha reactively quips to Smokey “we should’ve been a duo.” They’re spellbinding together as Aretha’s piano guides their way. 

Dionne Warwick also converges with Aretha for a 1981 performance of “I Say A Little Prayer,” where the two merge their respective versions of this classic. It’s incredible to hear the elements of Dionne’s straightforward original arrangement and Aretha’s call-and-response interpretation come together and bounce off of each other.

There are no shortage of big moments across ARETHA’s 81 tracks, even beyond the hits. Her 1963 demolition of jazz standard “Skylark” scared Sarah Vaughn away from ever singing it again, and her eight-minute overhaul of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” from Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X is a tour de force. For those big moments, ARETHA could have benefitted from an additional disc or two to properly encompass Aretha’s forty-eight years outside of her dozen years at Atlantic. The Atlantic years monopolize more than two and a half of these four discs. Her six-year tenure at Columbia Records in the early 1960’s yielded more than one hundred and fifty recordings, but just ten Columbia recordings appear on this compilation. More focus on the Columbia era could have included her melancholic first take on “Sweet Bitter Love” (which she re-recorded as a demo for Atlantic, and again in 1985 at Arista) and one of the two distinct takes on her first original composition “Without The One You Love.” This collection also omits recordings from her 1964’s Unforgettable: A Tribute To Dinah Washington, which is arguably her strongest body of work on Columbia.

Similarly, Aretha recorded and performed for 37 years after leaving Atlantic for Arista and other ventures. And while disc four is exclusively Arista and beyond, just a dozen of the tracks are recordings (as opposed to live performances of old hits from that era). They don’t even cover all her big successes during those years. Grammy winners like her fiery 1981 cover of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin” and 2003’s breezy “Wonderful” are nowhere to be found. Neither is her 1994 number one dance hit “A Deeper Love.” Her contribution to 1995’s ‘Waiting to Exhale’ soundtrack “It Hurts Like Hell” was a vocal juggernaut that represented the return of Aretha’s diminished vocal range after quitting her decades-long smoking habit. Vocally, it’s one of her best and a crucial musical milestone.

Despite what it may lack, ARETHA does a fantastic job bringing to light lost recordings and bringing Aretha full circle. From the teenager in church, to the Queen of Soul at the Kennedy Center Honors, to all the years in between, this collection shows Aretha at every stage of her career. ARETHA gives Aretha the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” she fervently demanded in 1967, and then some.

Listen to ARETHA:

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