“In your lonely flight, haven’t you heard the music of the night.”
When Aretha Franklin’s album Laughing on the Outside was released fifty-five years ago, August 1963, the same month as the March on Washington, it barely caused a ripple. While her previous album for Columbia Records, The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin, managed to land in the top 100, her first of many, many visits to the chart, this follow-up came and went, and is one of the least-known in her discography. So why even bring it up now, in the wake of Aretha’s death, when there are so many masterworks, essential albums like Spirit in the Dark, Lady Soul, Live at Fillmore West, Soul ’69, that capture her at the peak of her fame and glory at Atlantic, that astonishing period from 1967’s I Never Loved a Man through 1972’s Amazing Grace and Young, Gifted and Black, where nearly everything she recorded, even the most trivial of then-current pop songs, was given blazing life? Tell people that Laughing on the Outside is one of your favorite Aretha albums, and you get puzzled nods or skeptical stares. Seriously?
Seriously. Aretha’s Columbia period is generally considered a confused prelude, a time when she was passed around from producer to producer, given all kinds of material, saddled with uninspired arrangements. Not until she went to Atlantic and hooked up with producer Jerry Wexler and the cats of Muscle Shoals, the narrative has it, did the Queen of Soul emerge. There is some truth in that; no one would be fool enough to deny the earthshaking impact of “I Never Loved a Man.” But what I hear on many of her Columbia records, like Laughing on the Outside, cut when she was twenty-one, is a singer so supernaturally confident, so delighted with what she was capable of, already a master of phrasing and tension and dynamics, on songs that demand emotional commitment. There are songs on Laughing on the Outside that, by the early ‘60s, had been stamped by the greatest vocalists ever: Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, but if Aretha was daunted by the shadows of those singers, she certainly didn’t show it. She is tremulously heartbreaking on Irving Berlin’s “Say It Isn’t So,” measured and forlorn on Duke Ellington’s “Solitude.” She makes Lerner & Loewe’s “If Ever I Would Leave You” from Camelot into her own brand of show-stopper.
You can quarrel, if you must, with the string-laden arrangements by Robert Mersey, who at CBS Records was more accustomed to working with middle-of-the-road singers like Andy Williams, Bobby Vinton and George Maharis (for the record, Aretha told a Fresh Air interviewer that she loved recording with all those strings), and you can dismiss the recordings on that basis, but that would be like not acknowledging Charlie Parker’s genius when he was backed by a phalanx of violins. She is in her own zone, and always making surprising choices, hitting a hair-raising note about three minutes into “Solitude,” getting torchy on the line “Are you painting the town, while I just sit around,” on her own co-composition “I Wonder (Where You Are Tonight).” Did it matter that Tony Bennett got to “I Wanna Be Around” first? Not so much: Aretha takes it in a soulful direction. “Revenge is so sweet,” she snaps. She will not be crossed.
In some ways, listening to Aretha singing in 1963 is like watching Muhammad Ali – when he was still Cassius Clay – in the ring in that same year. They were both twenty-one, born only a couple of months apart, he was fighting his last bouts before taking on Sonny Liston for the world championship, and she was a few years away from claiming her own crown, and they had the same kind of confident beauty. There was nothing that was going to stop them; they would take on all challengers. There was also, in each of them, a knowing playfulness, a fleetness, in their determination. Isn’t this fun??, they seemed to say. Look what I can do! It was a shame, in a way, that once Aretha became the Queen of Soul, she rarely tapped into the type of songs she was doing at Columbia (not all of them, God knows; there were quite a few clunkers), on her Dinah Washington tribute album, on the “live” album Yeah!!! (where she did “Misty” and “There Is No Greater Love”). “She fails to realize,” the critic Will Friedwald states in his Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, “that’s she’s this generation’s Ella Fitzgerald.”
The most famous performance on Laughing On the Outside – it’s been referenced in a number of the wave of tributes and obituaries – is her definitive version of the Hoagy Carmichael-Johnny Mercer standard “Skylark.” It is a marvelous thing, a dramatic soliloquy of longing, and it’s one of the songs that from that early period that Aretha held on to. She kept returning to it in concert – as recently as 2017 — telling a story about how she was booked to sing it on the Ed Sullivan show, how she rehearsed it (and substituted a new gown when her first choice was deemed too low-cut), and was bumped from the show, The Queen did not forget any snub. Like everyone in the pantheon of jazz singers, she reinvented it each time. The track on the album is gorgeous, but I’d play the stripped-down, virtuosic outtake for anyone who dares write off her years at Columbia.
Then I would play Coots & Lewis’ “For All We Know,” a song that dates back to the 1930s but sounds like one of those songs of parting and uncertainty that were so prominent during WWII (the Andrews Sisters’ recording came out around the time of Pearl Harbor). Aretha starts with the rarely-sung verse, accompanied by a lone guitar: “Sweetheart, the night is growing old/Sweetheart, my love is still untold,” and then she lingers over the familiar lyrics, taking thoughtful pauses. She wants to hold on to this moment, and she is in no hurry for the night to end. It is so powerful, and so tender. It is singing at its most masterly, “For All We Know” is about transience, our inability to predict what’s coming around the corner. It could all be gone, just like that. “Love me tonight,” Aretha sings, and today that feels so unutterably sad, “tomorrow was made for some/Tomorrow may never come, for all we know.”