It's ironic that Aretha Franklin's first big hit, "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," is a cover version of a song first done by soul man Otis Redding. Franklin covered that song so completely that her version is considered the definitive version of the song - a fact that even the great Redding acknowledged. The irony is that Franklin's career as a pop singer started as an interpreter of the canon of the Great American Songbook.
Franklin, of course, can sing the entries from the telephone directory, and it will sound good. That fact is confirmed by Franklin's work on an album of standards and pop hits she recorded very early in her career which has now been reissued as The Great American Songbook. Franklin talent as a vocalist and an interpreter of the canon is in full display on the album. She easily moves from a bluesy rendition of the Gershwin tune "It Ain't Necessarily So," to a swinging take on Porter's "Love For Sale." Franklin's voice is so powerful that she doesn't have to worry about being overwhelmed by horns. In fact, she seems energized by them on a brassy cover of the inspirational song "Ac-CentTchu-Ate The Positive." That song follows a soulful version of "Cold, Cold Heart" that melds the Hank Williams tune with an arrangement straight from the Baptist church.
The one cover that falls flat is - ironically - another cover of an Otis Redding song. A lush, Nelson Riddlish remake of "Try A Little Tenderness" never takes off. The strings along with the slow tempo of this arrangement appear to hold Franklin back. That is not the case with other soul songs on the album. On "This Bitter Earth," Franklin's slow simmer builds to a powerful crescendo. Perhaps this song works better because the arrangement is sparser. It has a jazzier feel where the strings float in and appear to engage in a conversation with a tenor saxophone. Brushes on the drums and some depth work on the vibes add a nice touch. Franklin takes full advantage of the song's sparse arrangement by moving into the voids intentionally left empty by her sidemen. This same arrangement also pays dividends on another cover of a soul song - in this case "What A Difference A Day Makes."
The Great American Songbook gives hints to the qualities that would eventually transform Franklin into the Queen of Soul - once the suits at Atlantic record connected the singer with the right material. However, the tunes on The Great American Songbook weren't the kind of material that would make Franklin a household name in the rock era. Franklin's career stalled until Atlantic records shipped her down to Memphis, and put some Southern soul into the mix.
This album may have just been a little bit ahead of its time. These days soul and rock singers such as Rod Stewart are making a mint by reinterpreting songs from the canon of great American tunes. Perhaps Franklin - when she feels better - will release another album of standards. I'll keep my fingers crossed for more music and for good health. Recommended
By Howard Dukes