Reviewed by Lins Honeyman
Befitting of her music royalty status, this 19-disc, 16-album box set re-issue of Aretha Franklin's best work from her time at Atlantic is an opulent affair. Even before a single disc is inserted into the CD player, it's clear that this release is top quality with a deluxe clamshell box housing the individual albums - all of which feature original artwork replicas - and Rhino Records have done well to make sure that the Queen of Soul's output is reflected in as authentic and unsullied a manner as possible. Sandwiched between spells at Columbia and Arista Records, her time at Atlantic from 1967 to 1979 catapulted her into the public's consciousness with early hits like "Respect", "Think" and "I Never Loved A Man" all helping to showcase Franklin's matchless vocal talents and her less celebrated but nonetheless substantial piano skills. For the most part, her tenure at Atlantic was overseen by producer Jerry Wexler and a great deal of credit has to go to him for battling to keep Franklin's growing diva demands and control freak nature from soiling the goods and the fact that the first eight or so albums in this box set sound so dynamic and pioneering is as much down to him as it is Franklin's genius. Whilst impossible to review in depth all 16 albums in one sitting, some of the highlights include her debut Atlantic release 'I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You' - almost every song on which could feature on a greatest hits collection - whilst the follow up 'Aretha Arrives' does exactly what it says on the tin in terms of cementing her place on the music scene. 'Aretha Now' and 'Lady Soul' continue to build on the momentum of her first two releases and highlight Franklin's innate ability of taking someone else's song and making it her own - Bacharach's "I Say A Little Prayer", Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" and Carole King's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" being cases in point. By the time we reach 'Soul '69' and right through 'This Girl's In Love With You' and 'Spirit In The Dark' to 'Young, Gifted And Black', Franklin's album work becomes more experimental with more fluid and jazz-tinged arrangements replacing the punchy soul sound that characterised her earlier output.
In retrospect, there is a sense of Franklin wandering artistically during this time and she doesn't always get it right. However, tracks like "Spirit In The Dark", "Today I Sing The Blues" and a cover of Elton John's "Border Song" are simply sublime and almost make up for the somewhat languid nature of these four releases. By the time we get to 1973, loyal producer Jerry Wexler's services have been largely dispensed with and the endearingly strange 'Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky)' benefits from the Quincy Jones touch whilst 1976's Curtis Mayfield-produced 'Sparkle' is quite rightly viewed as something of a non-conventional masterpiece. This Mayfield/Franklin collaboration is where this box set's trail runs cold despite a further six albums being released on Atlantic before label and artist parted company but, thankfully, Rhino Records have chosen to include no less than four live albums starting with 'Aretha In Paris' from 1968 right through to 'Oh Me Oh My: Aretha Live In Philly, 1972' - all of which highlight the sheer electricity of her live performances. Regarded by many as her career-crowning moment, special mention must go to the much celebrated 'Amazing Grace' - a live double album recorded with Rev James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir over two nights in 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in LA - which stands as testament to Franklin's church roots, her fervour as a performer and her status as a singer the like of which we may never see again. Disjointed and full of impromptu moments, that one album is perhaps the briefest of snapshots into the real Aretha - the little girl who grew up singing her heart out in the Baptist church before the world and all its demands, fame and temptations took hold. A two disc Jerry Wexler-compiled retrospective of unreleased and rare recordings from her time at Atlantic rounds off this hugely fascinating and ample anthology.
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