ARETHA FRANKLIN: ‘One Step Ahead’ (Label: Edsel)

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Rumour has it that the Queen of Soul is currently ensconced in the studio putting the finishing touches to ‘Aretha: A Woman Falling Out Of Love,’ which is slated as the chanteuse’s debut album for her new label, Aretha’s Records. There was a time, of course, when the prospect of a new Aretha album would send a nerve-jangling frisson of excitement down the necks of soul fans – not any more. The truth is that most soul fans aren’t particularly interested in Aretha’s future plans – rather, perhaps like me, they find more excitement listening to her old records. Talking of her old records, here’s a commendable twofer that presents a couple of her early ’60s LPs for Columbia (‘Unforgettable’ and ‘Runnin’ Out Of Fools’). The general consensus amongst soul buffs is that Aretha’s pre-Atlantic sides are not up to much and that Columbia didn’t know how to utilise the singer’s talents – the latter is patently true, I think, though the former contention is somewhat dubious, especially after you’ve given this CD a spin. Sure, there’s nothing here to match the incendiary soul majesty of ‘Respect’ or ‘Chain Of Fools’ but only a fool would dismiss this music out of hand. ‘Unforgettable’ is a homage to blues matriarch, Dinah Washington, cut in 1964, with Washington’s erstwhile producer, Clyde Otis, at the helm. Aretha was only 22 at the time but you’d never know it from the mature quality of her vocal performances. ‘Unforgettable’ proves an attractive mixture of jazz, soul, gospel and blues. Interestingly, there’s a strident, upbeat, slightly funky, soul tune called ‘Lee Cross,’ which hints at the direction that ‘Re’ would take three years later under the aegis of Jerry Wexler at Atlantic (Incidentally, ‘Lee Cross’ was issued as a 45 after Aretha enjoyed two R&B chart toppers at Atlantic and made the US Top 40 in 1967). ‘Runnin’ Out Of Fools’ was also helmed by Otis, and dates from 1965. It opens with a cover of Inez & Charlie Foxx’s ‘Mockingbird’ and features Aretha doing remakes of ’60s soul hits ‘Walk On By,’ ‘Every Little Bit Hurts,’ ‘My Guy’ and ‘The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss).’ I think the album’s principal weakness is the rhythm section arrangements – they sound like stock session charts and lack the fire, grit, and funkiness of Aretha’s later work. Perhaps, then – as this CD seems to reveal – the key to Aretha’s Atlantic success was not solely down to her choice of material, but was also due to the nature of the backing arrangements and quality of the supporting musicians. This commendable CD also includes three non-album bonus cuts: ‘Can’t You Just See Me,’ ‘Little Miss Raggedy Ann’ and ‘One Step Ahead.’ Overall, this is an excellent musical snapshot of Aretha Franklin before she hit the big time and I’ll bet it’s more interesting than her forthcoming album.
(CW) 4/5