Aretha Franklin's recordings for Atlantic in the late 1960s and early 1970s are universally acknowledged as her best, and this two-CD set draws exclusively from that era, spanning late 1966 to 1973. Aside from the B-sides "Pledging My Love/The Clock" and "Lean on Me," everything here is a demo, outtake, or alternate version -- a real hoard of largely previously unheard material from the prime of one of the greatest soul singers. Franklin and Atlantic did exercise sound judgment as to what to select for release, however. So these recordings, as valuable as they'll be for soul fans to hear, are neither on par with her best official work nor revelatory insofar as uncovering hidden gems or unsuspected stylistic detours. Still, what's here is characteristic Franklin soul, which is satisfying enough. Historically speaking, the most fascinating of these vault finds may be the three late-1966 demos that lead off the set, including early versions of "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" and "Dr. Feelgood," although the rudimentary arrangements (just voice, piano, bass, and drums) illustrate how vital Jerry Wexler's production was to getting the most out of the material. Otherwise the tracks reflect the diversity of the songs Aretha was putting on her official Atlantic releases, encompassing covers of tunes penned by James Brown, her sister Carolyn Franklin, Motown, Van McCoy, Leonard Cohen, and Gene McDaniels, and even including a pass at "My Way" (as well as several items whose composers remain unknown). Stylistically the palette is broad, too, from wailing near-bluesy soul to near-pop, usually played with tight soul combos, but wrapping up with a solo piano demo of "Are You Leaving Me." The early-'70s recordings on the second disc don't have quite the energy and quality of the first, though they're still performances most artists would envy, taking in mild funk, earthy gospel, and a slight creeping slick pop influence. As for the track that seems most inexplicably passed over for release back in the day, that would be the bold, pounding McCoy-authored 1968 outtake "So Soon."
Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul Review
by Richie Unterberger
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2
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