Aretha Franklin, who died today at 76 after on-off health issues, was descended from musical royalty that determined the direction of her life. Though born in Memphis, daughter of Mississippi Delta-born Reverend C. L. Franklin, she made her name in Detroit, where her father became a per-eminent African-American preacher and social activist, his sermons so charismatic some were released on record. Realizing his daughter's talents, he supported her desire to sing, so much so that she made her first gospel album at 14, for JVB Records, the same label that released his own sermons.
It's impossible to hit everyone's favorites here, so I've tried to honor history with some memorable live performances.
Naming three of the early jazz piano combos to set standards for everything to come is almost a no-brainer, the combos led by virtuoso Art Tatum (1909-1956), whose high-velocity technique with stunning harmonic ideas transcended his blindness, producing brilliant and influential performances. The King Cole Trio, led by Nat "King" Cole (1917-1965), was a cutting-edge jazz unit defined by Cole's innovative piano technique well before Nat himself became a star vocalist, eventually using the piano as a small part of his stage show.
The Oscar Peterson Trio combined the best of Tatum and Cole and left its own indelible mark on jazz, and not just through the Tatumesque improvisations of Canadian-born Peterson (1925-2007), whose groups became an incubator that produced other great names in jazz, but through his sidemen, which included pioneering swing-bebop guitarists Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis, the steady, reliable yet adventurous bass of Pittsburgher Ray Brown and, later, the flawless percussion of drummer Ed Thigpen.
Half a century ago, Aretha Franklin was a vital new voice in jazz. Her R&B days were looming ahead.
These three clips show her about 1964 in appearances she did on on the now-legendary Steve Allen "Westinghouse Show," a late night syndicated show that competed with Johnny Carson for a few seasons (seen locally on KDKA at 11:30). Allen's madcap, anarchic nature on the show influenced among others, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Harry Shearer and David Letterman, who adapted some of Allen's stunts to his NBC show.
Aretha had been discovered a few years earlier by John Hammond, the Columbia Records executive and producer responsible for discovering Billie Holiday, Count Basie, jazz guitar innovator Charlie Christian and Bob Dylan (he'd later discover Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan). He saw her as primarily a jazz artist at the time. Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, would take her in a funkier direction a couple of years later.
Allen, a so-so jazz pianist, gave jazz mainstream TV exposure it didn't otherwise receive at the time. Accordingly, he had a terrific band on his show, led by Donn Trenner. One of its better known members was guitarist Herb Ellis, seen behind Aretha chonking rhythm on his Gibson ES-175. "Won't Be Long" demonstrates her powerful blues delivery, and she does well on the others, both pop standards.
"Won't Be Long."
"Lover Come Back To Me." Her Columbia Dinah Washington tribute album Allen displays before the song confirms this was '64.
"Rock A Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody" Herb Ellis again playing hot in the background.