March 3rd, 2011
Title: The Great American Songbook
Artist: Aretha Franklin
Label: Sony Legacy
Catalog: 88697 83468 2
Release date: February 1, 2011
Aretha Franklin is one of the superwomen of American pop and soul music—and she has always had the tools. Born to a Baptist minister, she grew up singing in the church and made her first recordings as a gospel singer at age 14. Columbia signed her on at age 18 where she recorded a number of works ranging from jazz to pop to soul, before she moved on to Atlantic Records where she gained the title “Lady Soul.”
The Great American Songbook is a compilation of tracks Aretha recorded for Columbia between 1960-1964. All have been re-mastered from the original 2-track, 3-track, and 4-track analog tapes and repackaged with extensive program notes by Anthony Heilbut. Included are many American Songbook classics, such as the Gershwins’ “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” Johnny Mercer’s “Skylark” and “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive,” Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale,” and Irving Berlin’s “Say It Ain’t So” and “How Deep Is the Ocean.” The remainder of the tracks might be considered the “Extended American Songbook,” ranging from jazz standards, such as Strayhorn’s “My Little Brown Book” and Billy Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” to Hank William’s “Cold, Cold Heart.”
It’s easy to see why Columbia kept pushing Aretha into jazz. As Heilbut points out in the notes, other gospel singers of the day, such as Mahalia Jackson, didn’t possess the diction or nimbleness to sing Gershwin and Mercer. Aretha really shines in this genre, bringing a “soulfulness” to the music which makes her renditions quite distinct from other jazz singers of that era. On the whole, the arrangements and the overall styling is superb. Most were done by Robert Mersey, Columbia’s famed staff arranger/composer/producer, with accompaniment provided by a jazz ensemble. Aretha also plays piano on a number of tracks (though only two are specifically identified).
There are also several soul-charged gospel songs on the CD that are especially noteworthy. The final two tracks, “Are You Sure” and “That Lucky Old Sun,” will make you break away from all evils and “roll around heaven all day,” as Aretha posits. According to Heilbut, “That Lucky Old Sun” changed gospel history when James Cleveland and Cassietta George transformed it into one of the greatest hits in the golden age of gospel as “Walk Around Heaven All Day.”
The songs on this compilation are indelible snapshots of special times in the career of a musical genius, Aretha Franklin. She has the ability to slow the music down until it gets under your skin, breaks your heart, raises your emotions, and then ends on a perfect note. This CD affirms Aretha’s energetic, passionate and soul inspiring messages.
Reviewed by Nana Amoah
Review Genre(s): Rhythm & Blues, Soul, Funk