Aretha Franklin's pre-Atlantic recordings for Columbia in the first half of the mid-'60s are usually considered both disappointing in relation to her later, more famous output, and unrepresentative of her best talents. Some soul experts stick up for her Columbia work, though, such as David Nathan, who compiled this CD of two dozen of her more obscure Columbia tracks, two of them previously unreleased. To its credit, this anthology takes care not to duplicate material from the most prominent Franklin Columbia compilation (The Queen in Waiting: The Columbia Years 19610-1965), offering die-hard Aretha fans quite a bit of music that's not easy to come by on reissues. But though the liner notes argue convincingly that Franklin was not (as the impression's often given) forced to record more pop-oriented songs than she should have at Columbia, the fact remains that her Columbia sides -- including the ones on this CD -- just don't measure up to what she did at Atlantic in the late '60s, right after she left the label. Of more importance to the Franklin fan who wants to leave that debate aside and is wondering about this CD in particular, the criticisms often levied against her Columbia work apply to these tracks as well. There are too many pure pop tunes and arrangements for a singer such as Aretha, and her vocals just aren't in remotely the same league as those on her more famous classics, lacking the edge and fire of her Atlantic era. They're not even as good as the most soulful early sides by her sister, Erma Franklin, though Aretha's the significantly superior talent. Only occasionally does she muster something close to a performance that shows her assets in their best light, such as the stirring melodic 1964 ballad "One Step Ahead" and (from the same year) her own composition, "Little Miss Raggedy Ann," where she's bluesier and far less restrained than she is on the vast majority of these tracks. What's more, none of these cuts are as good or earthy as the best of the Columbia outings available elsewhere, like "Lee Cross" and "Soulville." Does that mean this collection is superfluous? No, as at the very least it's historically interesting; the better tracks do show hints both faint and strong of greatness; and the annotation is as top-notch as you'd expect from Ace Records. But it's more for dedicated Aretha Franklin fans than it is for more general admirers of her music.
AllMusic Review by Richie Unterberger