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Aretha Franklin: 'Take A Look' Back At The Columbia Years

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Aretha Franklin: 'Take A Look' Back At The Columbia Years

Aretha Franklin: 'Take A Look' Back At The Columbia Years

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Aretha Franklin became the queen of soul after she signed with Atlantic Records in 1967, but that was actually her second act. Franklin's recording career began seven years earlier at Columbia Records. Few of those songs hit the charts, and her Columbia years have been largely ignored. But now, a 12-disc collection tries to set the record straight, and reviewer Oliver Wang says it's well worth a listen.

(Soundbite of song, "Today I Sing the Blues")

OLIVER WANG: On August 1, 1960, a shy, lanky teenager from Detroit walked into the East 30th Street Studios of New York's Columbia Records to record with the Ray Bryant Combo.

(Soundbite of song, "Today I Sing the Blues")

Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN (Singer): (Singing) Without a word of warning, blues walked in this morning and circled around my lonely room. I didn't know why I had that sad and lonely feeling...

WANG: Even at 18, Aretha's voice was a marvel of rich timbre and piercing power, but it's not obvious that Columbia knew what to do with her. At the same August recording session, her producers also had her borrow this page from the Judy Garland songbook with, shall we say, mixed results.

(Soundbite of song, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow")

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Somewhere over the rainbow way up high.

WANG: For many years, fans and critics largely dismissed Aretha's Columbia recordings, suggesting that various producers mismanaged or underutilized her talents. That's not completely unfair. At times, they did seem more interested in molding her to be the next Dinah Washington rather than the first Aretha Franklin.

Unleashing her on top of a pleasant but innocuous jazz accompaniment is rather like bringing a fire hose to a water gun fight. To her credit, even as an unlikely torch singer, Aretha still knew how to smolder.

(Soundbite of song, "This Bitter Earth")

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) This bitter, bitter earth. What fruit it bears? What good is love that no one wants to share?

WANG: For all of their unevenness, there are more than enough diamonds to be dug out of Aretha's Columbia years. In fact, the rehabilitation of that catalog began with previous compilations, including 2002's "The Queen in Waiting."

However, the new box set goes much further, with over 10 hours of material, including performance videos, unreleased songs, studio outtakes, even a couple of vintage radio ads.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Unidentified Man: Listen to the voice of one of the top Columbia recording stars. Listen to Aretha Franklin.

(Soundbite of song, "Running Out of Fools")

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Sure you haven't got the wrong number.

WANG: Surprisingly, for an artist that many consider the greatest American singer of the 20th century, "Take a Look" is the first time any label has documented her recordings to this degree.

Notably, there is no Aretha Franklin: Complete on Atlantic, at least not yet. So the Columbia set offers up an unprecedented opportunity to rediscover Aretha, despite what we think we know of her from all the years we've spent listening to her.

(Soundbite of song, "One Step Ahead")

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) I'm only one step ahead of heartbreak. One step ahead of misery.

SIEGEL: Our reviewer, Oliver Wang, is a professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach, and he writes the music blog "Soul Sides."

(Soundbite of song, "One Step Ahead")

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) ...to be the same old fool for you I used to be.

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