The First Recordings
Try, Try Again
During Aretha's six years at Columbia Records, she recorded albums of jazz, blues, and pop material. She sang show tunes and ballads, traditional songs and new compositions. Critics responded positively to Aretha's talent, but nothing seemed to catch the attention of radio listeners. The music industry was still segregated, with separate charts for black and white recording artists. The most successful black artist at Columbia was Johnny Mathis, who was being marketed exclusively to the white pop charts. Johnny Mathis didn't perform any songs that could be perceived as R & B or race music. Most radio listeners who loved his smooth vocals had no idea that he was African American.
Aretha sometimes had to sing songs that were arranged to appeal to white audiences, in the style of the Johnny Mathis hits. This often required the use of backup singers who sang in a very fixed and smooth manner. These songs also used heavy violins and other string instruments instead of the more soulful piano and bass arrangements. While Aretha still sang the lead vocal on these songs, the end result did not show what Aretha was capable of. None of them were hits.
Though Aretha recorded many albums, Columbia was sending confusing signals to record buyers. Since her voice was produced in many different ways, singing songs of many different styles, it was hard to identify Aretha's signature sound. Listeners weren't sure if Aretha Franklin was a jazz singer, a blues singer, or a pop crossover sensation!
In other ways, Columbia was the perfect training ground for Aretha. Thanks to John Hammond, she had access to the most professional musicians and record producers available. One of Aretha's favorite producers was Bob Mersey, who helped her arrange an album-length tribute to Dinah Washington shortly after Dinah's death in 1963. Bob Mersey was able to provide musical arrangements that highlighted Aretha's unique voice whether she was singing a noisy blues number or a heartbreaking ballad. The Dinah Washington tribute album, called Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington, was one of Aretha's most successful albums at Columbia.
Aretha continued a heavy schedule of live performances. Her tours were getting longer and longer, and she was beginning to open for more successful artists, like Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. Touring with more professional artists, Aretha was learning about all elements of performing. The frightened young woman was slowly becoming more confident, and she was learning how to connect with her audiences.