Photo: Lester Cohen/WireImage.com
By now you've heard Aretha Franklin's classic songs so many times you know every sigh and shout and swoon by heart. Aretha Franklin: Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul (Rhino), a two-disc compilation of 35 recently discovered tracks, is a revelation—a fresh supply of passionate performances from the singer's legendary 13-year run at Atlantic Records.
Franklin's start at the label is represented by a set of heart-stopping 1966 demos, with the 24-year-old singer at the piano, her voice confident and unrestrained, performing slow-burn renditions of Van McCoy's "Sweet Bitter Love" and her own "Dr. Feelgood." The charm of the recordings is only enhanced by their roughness: This version of "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)" begins with a cough.
Most of the remaining songs were recorded with her mentor, celebrated soul producer Jerry Wexler; among the many Wexler-era pleasures are a handful of inventive (and sometimes eccentric) covers. Franklin adds a bossa nova rhythm to the Beatles' "The Fool on the Hill" and turns Paul Anka's brassy "My Way" into an earthy blues workout. A set of outtakes from her early '70s work doesn't hit as many high notes—the material simply isn't as strong. Still, Franklin's vocal prowess is never less than astonishing. These raw takes and lost treasures offer an alternative chronicle of the world's greatest soul singer at the peak of her powers.