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How Aretha Franklin’s Jazz Beginnings Predicted Her Genre-Transcending Career

On her early albums, the “ex-gospel star” and future Queen of Soul effortlessly mastered jazz — and proved that no one style could contain her

Musician Aretha Franklin recording at the piano at Columbia Studios in 1962 in New York. (Photo by Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In the early Sixties, a young Aretha Franklin moved from gospel into jazz, and showed why no one genre could contain her enormous talent.

Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

The trappings are all there: the smattering of polite applause, the tinkling piano laying out the chord changes of a familiar tune — Erroll Garner’s “Misty,” in this case. But with the entrance of the singer, something shifts; suddenly the record isn’t jazz as usual. Aretha Franklin lands on an opening “Ooo” softly and steadily, holding the note for what from anyone else would be too long and letting it slowly expand and brighten before contracting into a perfectly even vibrato. The song’s actual first word, “Look,” goes from sung to spoken in milliseconds, becoming an standalone exhortation to the audience to sit up and pay attention.

Those first 30 seconds of the record offer an emotional wallop, and the three minutes that follow go higher and broader and deeper — the actual dimensions of the song seem to expand, and even then Franklin’s voice overflows into the margins. “Sarah [Vaughn] had sung ‘Misty’ —  everyone had sung ‘Misty’ — but Erroll actually had tears in his eyes after hearing Aretha,” said Clyde Otis, producer of the album on which “Misty” appears, 1965’s Yeah!!! As he tells it in David Ritz’s Aretha Franklin biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, Erroll Garner only had one critique: “Goddamn, she makes it seem like she wrote it.”

Maybe it was that sense of total reinvention that made the woman who would become the Queen of Soul feel like such an unlikely fit in jazz — despite her incredible command of the music. With her signing to Columbia in 1960, Franklin was transparently looking to cross over from religious music into superstar-caliber secular success; at 18, she was already positioned as an “ex-gospel star.” But despite her obvious gifts and prolific output during her years there, that success didn’t come until she left the label in large part due to their and her early conviction that the path of least resistance would be as a jazz singer. It was a decision that resulted in a hefty, too-often-overlooked catalog of beautifully sung standards that show not how Aretha actually belonged in jazz, but how early it was obvious to anyone paying attention that her music was beyond category.

“Aretha Franklin has a split personality — to jazz club audiences now hailing her as a new sensation, she’s got real feeling for the songs she sings; to gospel fans, she’s one of their own,” wrote the Pittsburgh Courier in 1961, in one of many early attempts to explain the then-19-year-old singer’s appeal. At that point, of course, the lines between jazz and pop were even blurrier than they are today; especially for vocalists, a few melodic flourishes and a stripped-down arrangement instead of lush strings were sometimes enough to give a singer jazz cred (and a much smaller, ostensibly more critical audience). Franklin, for her part, had long idolized Dinah Washington, an extraordinary artist whose hits and bombastic, luxuriant arrangements belied her jazz classification. Washington was among the jazz and gospel musicians who frequented the Franklin household thanks to Aretha’s father’s celebrity as a minister; Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington, Clara Ward, and Mahalia Jackson also visited the house and performed songs on the living room piano.

When John Hammond, the producer so often credited with the success of Billie Holiday and Count Basie — among other jazz legends — came calling in 1960, giving him the reins seemed like the obvious choice for Franklin and her father as they sought respect from a mainstream audience. “Gospel singer Aretha Franklin has been signed for Columbia by John Hammond and will record on the jazz kick,” stated The Chicago Daily Defender in a September 1960 brief. “Hammond, the fellow who discovered the late Billie Holiday, is gone, gone, gone on her,” relayed the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a few weeks later. Her New York debut would come later that same year at storied jazz club the Village Vanguard — ”Former Gospel Singer Aretha Franklin Scores with ‘Jazz,’” the papers brayed.

Holiday had died the year prior and there was no question that to Columbia, at least, Franklin looked like a possible heir apparent. Her first record for them, Aretha in Person With the Ray Bryant Combo, featured jazz arrangements courtesy of pianist Bryant, who Hammond had chosen specifically for his background in both gospel and jazz — but the song choices ranged from Duke Ellington to “Over The Rainbow.” If the album was thematically scattered, Franklin’s performances were uniformly excellent; this wound up describing most of her Columbia efforts. No one could get a handle on what exactly Aretha wanted to sound like. Jazz looked like the best fit because of her already preposterously high level of skill and consistently evocative execution, but her ambitions were obviously more stadium-scale than basement-club-sized. The pop tunes and arrangements scattered across her Columbia catalog didn’t sound bad, but they were certainly woefully inadequate vehicles for her talent — and never came close to making the commercial impact they were intended to.

So, jazz it was. In the early 1960s, Aretha played on bills with Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Art Blakey and Bill Evans at the Village Gate; Count Basie at the Apollo; Horace Silver at the Jazz Gallery; and Miles Davis at the Shrine in Los Angeles. She appeared with Duke Ellington’s band at the 1962 Newport Jazz Festival, just after winning both the “new star vocalist” award in the 1961 Downbeat Critic’s Poll (over Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone, among others) and the 1961 Playboy Jazz Poll. She recorded with Wynton Kelly and Jimmy Cobb, alums from Miles Davis’ band, just after they’d laid down sides for Kind of Blue; she had pianist Tommy Flanagan and guitarist Kenny Burrell among her sidemen. The comparisons to Billie Holiday were almost instant: “Miss Franklin’s delivery has some of the same wild, fearless and positive qualities [as Holiday’s] … she has brought conviction and unaffected artistry,” wrote the New York Herald Tribune in 1961.

As it turned out, pinning down that thing that set her apart turned out to be a task best suited for Franklin herself. “I haven’t really made a switch in preference or in emphasis,” she told Cleveland’s Call and Post in 1961. “I’m merely doing what I’ve always wanted to do, and that is to give a bit of soulful and spiritual meaning to jazz tunes.” Still just 19, she clarified her genre-agnostic mission in a remarkably prescient editorial that same year called “From Gospel to Jazz Is Not Disrespect For the Lord!” in the New York Amsterdam News:

“I don’t think that in any manner I did the Lord a disservice when I made up my mind two years ago to switch over [from gospel]. After all, the blues is a music borne out of the slavery day sufferings of my people. Every song in the blues vein has a story to tell of love, frustrations and heartaches. I think that because true Democracy hasn’t overtaken us here that we as a people find the original blues songs still have meaning for us. I look around in the various cities I visit to find out who’s buying my Columbia albums and it’s usually the people in the crowded areas of the city. I guess my songs sort of go hand in hand with their everyday feelings. To forget the crowded conditions in which they dwell, debts, a girlfriend who maybe left them and the other worries that crowd their minds, they turn to song. It’s the kind of thinking that probably causes them to say, ‘Let someone else express the way I feel.’”

As became evident over the course of her career, jazz and pop alike were too small to contain Franklin’s era-defining sense of purpose. Even at the beginning of her career, her ability to draw from all branches of the blues in service of non-denominational uplift made genre terms and traditions and conventions futile — jazz just initially seemed like the best bet because flexibility and innovation are part of its DNA. “You can call her a pop singer, or a gospel singer, or a rock and roll singer, or a show singer, but you’ve got to call her a whale of a singer — even a new star,” wrote the Washington Post in 1961.

One thing the jazz-era Aretha critics and producers got right is that she’s one of just a handful of 20th-century artists who had as singular an impact on music as Billie Holiday. “She’s not Billie, but Billie’s not Aretha,” Clyde Otis concluded of the comparisons, also in Ritz’s biography. “Billie bleeds. In every song she dies a slow death. She’s like the dying swan in that ballet. Aretha works through the pain and comes out on top of it. Billie died young. Working with Aretha, I knew that, no matter what, she wasn’t gonna die young.”

In This Article: Aretha Franklin

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