The First Recordings
Aretha and John respected each other from the beginning. He was impressed with her maturity, and she trusted his judgment in selecting material for her first album. John arranged for Aretha to record her first album using musicians he had chosen. Playing piano was Ray Bryant, an up-and-coming jazz musician who also came from a gospel background. On bass was Bill Lee, the father of filmmaker Spike Lee. The group also included musicians from Duke Ellington's orchestra.
The Attraction of Secular Music
Aretha's album with Chess Records showcased her gospel talent, but she wanted to perform other styles of music, too. With her father's blessing, Aretha decided to sing secular music as well as gospel. “Secular” refers to music that is not church music. Gospel music is focused on spiritual themes; secular music addresses more down-to-earth issues like love and sexuality.
During Aretha's childhood, many gospel singers began attempting professional careers that included jazz, blues, R & B, and pop material. Dinah Washington (born Ruth Lee Jones) was a young gospel singer and pianist. In 1943, when she was nineteen years old, Dinah began singing jazz songs in Chicago nightclubs where she was discovered by bandleader Lionel Hampton. Dinah's career took off, and she became a well-known jazz and pop singer.
Sam Cooke was also a successful gospel performer who crossed over to the world of pop and R & B. He took the performance techniques that he used as a gospel singer and applied them to his career as a pop singer. Sam Cooke wrote or cowrote many of his secular hits, including “You Send Me.”
Unfortunately, there was some backlash to the success of these gospel crossovers. Many churchgoing African Americans felt that gospel singers should not pursue careers in secular music. But Aretha was fortunate. Her father allowed her to pursue her musical talents in any style she wanted to explore. Aretha's first album on the Columbia Records label showcased her ability to sing songs of any style. Her first successful single was a blues song, “Today I Sing the Blues.”
The album Aretha was an unusual mix of songs. The first single released was “Today I Sing the Blues.” The album also included the Judy Garland tune “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and “It Ain't Necessarily So” from the opera Porgy and Bess. “Today I Sing the Blues” was successful on the R & B charts (also known as the race charts because they tracked nonwhite listeners), but Aretha did not have any major hits.