Concerted efforts to rehabilitate Aretha Franklin’s CBS output seem to have been going on for most of the 21st century, and arguably stretch back well into the 1990s. While it is true that there was much promise and skill in the recordings, they were almost totally out of step with the younger music happening in the years 1960-65.
Did Aretha and CBS believe those new directions were passing fads and that the styles of Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan would prevail? Within the CBS albums one can often hear what would happen if the over-elaborate orchestrations were stripped away. Jerry Wexler at New York’s Atlantic label certainly did and instantly made the CBS style obsolete during the 1967-72 classic period, when Franklin redrew the black music landscape and became Queen Of Soul. In fact, just as deserving of reassessment as the CBS years is the transitional Atlantic period of ’73-’75.
10. Jump To It - Aretha Franklin
Addressing Aretha's later years is an exercise in perspective. Steadily through her Arista era, 1980-2003, her voice loses power as she and her producers chase changing styles. Her music is of a piece with the market, perhaps, yet she used to be a leader, so far ahead of any competition. There's probably one decent CD to be compiled out of all her Arista works but, clearly, the Luther Vandross- produced Jump To It is the best stand-alone set. Five of her 10 for Arista are on the Original Soul Classics box set (not to be confused with Rhino's Original Soul Series, which has five truly classic Atlantic LPs). By the early '90s, she would have benefited from working with Anti- or the like.
Her slow decline after decamping for Clive Davis’s Arista in 1979 was foreshadowed in her last recordings at Atlantic as eminent producers (Lamont Dozier, Curtis Mayfield, Van McCoy) struggled to find a logical new path for her. Typified by booming arena duets with younger singers (George Michael, Annie Lennox, Whitney Houston), the ’80s were marked by a steady subsidence of glory as the challenge of giving Aretha suitable material with either message or melody flummoxed producers. Actually, this was the time to be making the kind of music she’d recorded for CBS, exploring the great American songbook and the jazz singers who’d made them famous.