But let's not be too cynical, let's look at the evidence: A view at some of the industry's most promoted female artists of recent years gives us Rhianna, Ciara, Fergie, Alicia Keys...truth-telling artistry? Back at home, that's what we call talking out of both sides of your neck. No, listening to the recent Rhino release of Rare and Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul, one knows that the industry would never sign someone this unabashedly real, this completely devoted to human nakedness.
But let's not be too cynical, let's look at the evidence: A view at some of the industry's most promoted female artists of recent years gives us Rhianna, Ciara, Fergie, Alicia Keys...truth-telling artistry? Back at home, that's what we call talking out of both sides of your neck. No, listening to the recent Rhino release of Rare and Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul, one knows that the industry would never sign someone this unabashedly real, this completely devoted to human nakedness. They would be too afraid to -- not to mention that marketing wouldn't know what to do with a slightly frumpy church girl who couldn't easily slide into bejeweled booty-shorts, no matter how well she sang.
Today's music industry may have more in common with yesterday's than one might think. On this collection of demos and outtakes painstakingly chosen by legendary music journalist, David Nathan, one hears a post-Columbia Records Aretha, young, vibrant with a voice rich in pain, sass and confidence-often all at once. We also hear an Aretha of depth and starkness previously unheard on her recorded releases. One thinks of Aretha as unleashed and unvarnished through the 30 plus hits she secured during her Atlantic Records period with legendary producer Jerry Wexler; but the songs on Rare and Unreleased reveal that the truly raw Aretha of record wouldn't see the light of day for 30 or more years. That Aretha was sitting in a vault on lock waiting to be rescued. David Nathan as Sir Lancelot, who knew?
The long-term incarceration of thesese straight-from-the-hip recordings tells me a story about industry marketing fears in even the golden era of soul, which-lest we forget-is also the civil rights era. To put it plain, Aretha on these tracks is terrifying for anyone not comfortable with three-dimensional humanity in all its ugliness and glory. Unmasked humanity stripped of all its niceties, particularly from a woman or a Black person, has a way of making people shift in their seats at best and tune out in denial at worst. A short reflection on the recent list of "honest" artists who've been shelved or dropped from their record labels demonstrates this adage to be as true today as it was in the 1960's.
Just listening to Aretha on these timeless recordings, it becomes not only untenable but hilarious to consider the number of Americans who could deny the full intelligence and dimensions of a people who could produce such a talent. More than a spokesperson for her race, Aretha symbolized a bold proclamation of complete womanhood whose emotional strength was as intact as her sexuality. Here, her wails are not the dismissible hysterics of a ranting harpy but rather accusations of river-deep wounds, ones whose perpetrators are branded and undeniable. Instinctively aware of her amplified position as a symbol, Aretha ably and proudly represented the bare-knuckled humanity of those whose complexities are purposely understated and whose creative and intellectual capacities were-and are-constantly being questioned, maligned and necessitating defense.
Everything about Aretha's art belied centuries of myths and lies concerning women and Blacks. While Aretha's "Think" and cover of Otis Redding's "Respect" get all the glory for its literal declarations of human rights and implicit condemnations of oppression, its on the artistry and fervor delivered here through Rare... on covers like "Lean On Me," the Supreme's "You Keep Me Hanging On," Frank Sinatra's "My Way" and original cuts "I'm Trying To Overcome" and "To Need A Strong Man(The To-To Song)" that Aretha says something more nuanced, ancient and powerful about the multi-faceted spirit of her people, women, and her people, Black. Further, Aretha reminds us that there is more to being human than exemplifying the cold rationality of Western civility, that humans are also blood-beating hearts filled with intense hungers. While we didn't always get the chance to hear it, Aretha on Rare...is proven courageous in her willingness to sing a truth about both her people in an age when such edicts caused a national dis-ease manifested in bombings and bloodshed. It is no surprise then, that Aretha at her most courageous was shelved.
Truth isn't always cradling, comforting or lovely to the ear. Moreover, it often offends those unprepared to receive it without filters. On earlier versions of "Dr. Feelgood," "Never Loved A Man," "Sweet Bitter Love" and "Rock Steady" presented here as demo cuts, we hear looser, more bluesy arrangements that doesn't play up the alternating sass and victimhood of the final hit singles. The portrait of a sultry, wise woman telling stories from the end of the bar, presented on these unreleased cuts, has more in common with early Bessie Smith or George Gershwin and Dubose Heyward's Bess than with the sanctified, righteous spit-fire marketed to 1960s consumers. That isn't to take anything away from Jerry Wexler's final productions; those much-cherished versions are polished and pack more of a predictable-and thereby safer-emotional punch than what is heard on Rare.... These recordings divulge that the beloved Aretha is one attenuated for consumer sensibilities, for guilty-pleasure commerce in the end. However vindicated in its outcomes (at least where Aretha's meteoric sales are concerned), 1960s industry marketing proves to not have been entirely as fearless as its storied golden era suggests. With so much inflammatory history infused in that Detroit cum Deep South voice, even the visionary risk-takers at Atlantic were only going to believe that this Black girl's backward-reaching, but forward-thinking blues could be received but only so much by an audience using Aretha's soulful tunes for catharsis, not self-recrimination.
The Aretha of "Ain't No Way" and "Spirit in the Dark" diluted? I would have never considered the idea as anything shy of insulting before having heard what didn't make it for public consumption. How could Aretha be more emboldened or passionate than she is on her Atlantic Records period? A close listen however reveals that Wexler did indeed still provide a filter for the Aretha he unleashed following her Columbia Records failure to make it as a Barbra Streisand pop vocalist or a Dinah Washington jazz chanteuse. We'd heard a more sanitized Aretha on those John Hammond productions and, while charming, they do not sound like "I'm In Love." From the guiro accented, slow rolling descent to the bedroom on the alternate mix of "Rock Steady" to the more mean-spirited, lip-turning disdain embedded in "Dr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business)," on Rare...there is a street edge that had been sanded down in subsequent recordings of Aretha's signature hits for a cross-over audience who liked the air of Black authenticity, brazen or long-suffering, without its bite or finger pointing. Stories delivered as unprocessed and authentic as they are in these recordings might have interrupted the vicarious release the masses were seeking in their purchases of the Black soul or rather their more contained idea of it.
If this was the thinking of Atlantic Record suits, and admittedly this criticism is thick with speculation, their fears and analysis weren't without merit. While there are singles to be found among the 35 tunes on Rare..., in their current forms I predict that the hits among these singles would have been sparse outside the UK and Europe. There, context could reduce sting. In America, where the celebration and coveting of truth is limited and time-sensitive, the release of these spirited cuts could have provoked embarrassment if not outright hostility among older and devout listeners and perhaps proven premature for a youth audience not yet accustomed to B.E.T. diets of the sensual and overwrought. Certainly, I can't imagine many of these fiery blues pouring on high rotation through FM radio to greet the urban and rural tinderboxes of 60's America. When the industry goal is easily-digestible hits, on Rare...there is too often too much slave spiritual, sharecropper work song, chain gang lament, hangman's noose and even too much corn liquor, speakeasy, domestic strife, uneasy discontentment, seething frustrations and post-migration rage lining Aretha's cries especially when carried through the roof by the all-too-knowing Sweet Inspirations on backgrounds. And yet, I bristle at the idea these tunes couldn't have been offered to fans as album cuts listened to on evenings alone or among friends like the naughty Redd Foxx records dusted off for those special, adult-only occasions.
Truth in music is needed, for it nurtures the soul and can be crucial for healing. There is, however, something to be said for truth in doses. There are times in my daily walk where I do not have the capacity to receive too much unrefined truth in a day filled with so much performance, the constant masking and artificial rituals of civility that provides comfort even as it allows us to hide our most tender, vulnerable selves. In the world Aretha showcases on Rare... there isn't room to hide or even a consciousness that hiding is preferred. After the scab has healed, the heart has mended and rights have been won, it sometimes hurts too much to look back and allow oneself to feel and think about the sources of indignity and injustice. Maybe that's why this Aretha eventually gave way to a diminished, post-civil rights Re-Re rocking corsets, ironically singing "Who's Zooming Who?" to a public afraid to look back and feel.
Ahh, but to listen to Aretha on Rare... is to look back and feel without option. Gently, she reminds us that once you know something, you can never not know it, no matter how much we may hide. Even on Rare's filler, Aretha's music and delivery always has something to say about the human condition in its interests, passions and unknowable, oceanic capacities for love and loss. Maybe it is because of this peculiar talent for daring, un-self-conscious reflection into the human soul -- and not because of four-decades of hits -- that Aretha has really been crowned the Queen of Soul. When so little today about popular music really matters beyond its commerce, it's hard to conceive the weight borne by yesterday's voice and the responsibilities demanded of artists like Aretha: to feed the souls, hopes and affirm the identities of a people. Braggadocio, however compelling, is not truth. Fear and selfishness does not nourish. The rewards for courage are rarely 20 inches rims, rather it usually results in isolation, misunderstanding, and a long wait until such a time when that truth has enough distance to pose no threat and at last reverence can be bestowed in self-congratulatory critical acclaim. This compilation of Aretha's work gone unheard until now makes many cases about Americans and industry and music, not all pleasant. Still, at least one of Rare's lessons should be studied by today's lesser music ingÃ©nues: Even when there is no hook, no shine and no gimmick, what music can inspire and reveal is more powerful and sometimes more necessary for humanity than either personal fortune or even all the well-compensated artifice a mask-hungry society can stomach. Sometimes just being "called" and gifted enough to document eternal truths is the ultimate reward. The fruit always survives, sustains and-once heard-endures. Highly Recommended.
-By L. Michael Gipson