In 1960 and 1961 Aretha Franklin recorded her first 12 sides. Well, she had – at the age of 14 – released a gospel album (in the mid 1950s). But at 18 she walked in to the studio and laid down some tracks; two sets of sessions – she was making songs to exist as singles; primarily they were for the jukebox trade of the day.
She played piano on some of the tracks and she sang a range of tunes that came from pop, soul and blues. She imbued them with elements of jazz and of course her gospel style. The influence of Ray Charles is very clear.
Franklin’s first 12 sides were eventually collected as an album – The First 12 Sides; released a decade after they were cut.
The album is astonishing. She is, at 18, prior to releasing a debut pop/soul album, singing like a fully realised artist. Playing like one too. There’s the background of the church in her sound; informing her sound. She had recorded before. But at 18 she has the sass on It Ain’t Necessarily So of Anita O’Day. She has the range and expression of Billie Holiday on All Night Long. And on several of the tracks her vocals recall Dinah Washington. This is not to say she’s aping their vocal qualities and merely tracing around their sound; she’s recalling them. At times she’s even challenging them. You could add Nina Simone to that list too – all of them striking examples of strong and individual voices (vocally, musically).
It’s a sharp set of session players backing the young Franklin, Ray Bryant’s group. In fact it’s worth mentioning here that Bryant (composer, arranger and pianist) passed away just a couple of weeks ago (he was six months shy of his 80th birthday).
But these players sit behind the songs – perfect sidemen. They serve the tunes.
At every step it’s Aretha Franklin’s voice, spirit, personality and musicality that fill the songs; that fill the room. And to hear this 40 years after it was released – and 50 years after it was recorded – is a revelation.
That’s what I want from music. I want to be moved. I want to feel something; experience something. It might come from a brand new recording – or just a recording that’s new to my ears. It could be an old favourite. But it has to have some depth.
The thing that has captivated me about Aretha Franklin’s First 12 Sides is that it feels like a singer giving it everything she’s got. It feels like a musician who has already put in the hours. It feels like someone with everything to prove and the desire to go on proving it.
And of course we know that she did.
Aretha Franklin’s music from the years 1967-1972 stacks up with and against anyone that was making music at that time. More than that, you could use a great deal of it to fire up any party in this day and age; you could take The Queen Of Soul at her most syrupy-pop moment from that half-decade span and still find plenty of wow-factor.
There is so much in a short space from Franklin when she was on top. Those seminal albums still have so much to offer. For me it’s the studio discs Lady Soul, Aretha Now, Spirit In The Dark and Young, Gifted And Black. And it’s the live albums Aretha In Paris, Aretha Live At Fillmore West and Amazing Grace.
But you want to hear Aretha Franklin when she was a teenagerand before she had released any secular music. You want to hear The First 12 Sides. It will knock you down. It will lift you up. It will move you. It’ll have you shaking your head in disbelief, nodding in agreement. It’ll have you falling in love with music. Again. And again. The good stuff. The good oil. It’ll have you baffled and bewildered that it was all but ignored at the time.
We keep trying to crown new kings and queens of pop, rock and soul. I’m all for great new sounds. But why must we try too hard to force a new king or queen of rock, pop or soul when the old ones (the original ones) still have music in their catalogue that we need to be introduced to; that could be a gateway to something else.
Find Aretha Franklin’s First 12 Sides Album and check it out. I’m not wrong. It’s a life-changing experience. Trust me.
I trusted the person that recommended it to me. And I’m glad I did. That’s what it’s about.
I didn’t trust the person that kept sending me Adele and talking it up. I didn’t like that song when it was, essentially, a Creed song. And I didn’t like it as this Adele song.
It cost me nothing to click on a link and listen to Adele. (I already had the album and figured it a 2-star experience at best). It cost me nothing and I got nothing from it.
It cost me money when I received an email from a reader telling me to check out Aretha Franklin’s First 12 Sides. He picked me for an Aretha fan and made the recommendation. A dialogue opened up and then I opened my wallet up. I paid the money and got hold of the album – Slow Boat Records imported it for me because I wanted something tangible. In this case I wanted liner notes; I wanted background. I wanted the thing – to have; to be able to pass it around and along to other people. And to have them want to listen to it and read about it and take something from it. Not just click, drag, ignore.
I want the truth. And I got that from Aretha Franklin singing her heart out, offering so much of herself just to get inside each song. And I got it from taking a recommendation.
Now take mine and hear this music – if you haven’t already. If you love Adele (and are still reading) do yourself the biggest favour you could ever do and hear this Aretha album. It should blow you away. More importantly it should open the door for more music – far more than any fad can offer – to come flooding in.