According to a recent interview in the New York Times, Aretha Franklin has conquered her fear of flying. She was put off air travel in 1983 by a bout of turbulence during a hop in a small plane between Atlanta and Detroit; now her apparent readiness to queue for the check-in once again opens up the possibility that her admirers outside North America will be able to hear her live and direct for the first time in a quarter of a century. In the meantime, there is this extraordinary two-CD set of mostly unreleased recordings from her matchless prime.
Such trawls through the tape vaults, while often providing the ballast for luxuriously packaged box sets, rarely unearth material of great interest to anyone other than superfans and completists. This one is the exception, shedding new light on the most creative period of Franklin's career, which began in 1967 when she left Columbia Records, whose executives had never grasped the essence of her talent, to take up residence in the house of Atlantic, where an instinctive rapport with the producer Jerry Wexler created the environment in which she could deliver her finest work.
This collection of 35 songs from a six-year period begins with a brief intercom exchange between Wexler, supervising the session from the studio control room, and Franklin, who is at the piano, recording demos for her first Atlantic session with an unknown double bassist and drummer, probably the regular accompanists of her nightclub act. "Hey, it started to get good in there," Wexler says. "Yes, it did," Aretha replies. "It had that rockin' thing."
And then she resumes the slow-rocking triple-time gospel riff that underpins I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You), the first of the run of classic Atlantic hits with which Wexler succeeded in making her a fixture in the top 10, elevating her to the same commercial level as the products of Motown and Stax simply by emphasising the gospel roots that others had foolishly chosen to compromise.
In this demo, and in the similar treatment of Dr Feelgood that follows it, we can hear with perfect clarity the way Wexler and Atlantic's gifted arranger, Arif Mardin, allowed Aretha's own piano-playing to determine the style and pattern of each arrangement. By the time they added the marvellous session musicians from Muscle Shoals, Memphis or New York, a sense of relaxation allowed her to produce vocal performances of such majesty and impact.
In the last of the trio of demos with which this set opens, Franklin ruminates over a Van McCoy ballad called Sweet Bitter Love, which she had already recorded for Columbia and to which she would return many years later. On this dead-slow version, with its false start and its crude recording, Franklin achieves a degree of deep-soul intimacy remarkable even by her own unequalled standards. It is hardly fanciful, given the match between the lyric and the known facts of her troubled love life, to suggest that she was simply singing to herself.
The collection is studded with other wonderful moments. So Soon is another McCoy composition, this time with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section rapping out an irresistible four-on-the-floor Northern soul stomp and sisters Carolyn and Erma Franklin providing the backup echoes. The treatment of You're Taking Up Another Man's Place, a classically proportioned Memphis soul ballad by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, outdoes even Mable John's redoubtable original. Early takes of You're All I Need to Get By show her feeling her way through a song until she inhabits it. Tree of Life and I Want to Be With You are the best of a fine bunch of outtakes from the 1972 sessions with Quincy Jones. The duds are restricted to three unsuitable covers - The Fool on the Hill, You Keep Me Hangin' On and Suzanne - and two originals sharing a single theme, Mr Big and I Need a Strong Man, in which her submissive pleas sound banal and unconvincing.
But if there is a single reason, apart from Sweet Bitter Love, for investing in this set, it must her reading of My Way, a song so notorious that it has its own Wikipedia entry. Written by Claude François, Jacques Revaux and Gilles Thibaut as Comme d'habitude, the song's destiny changed when Paul Anka replaced Thibaut's original words with an English lyric that set the tone for the descent of western civilisation into a hell of shameless greed and self-regard. On the face of it, then, a most unsuitable choice. But Aretha performs a near-miraculous rehabilitation, cleansing its soul by taking it to church - a place in which, quite clearly, it had never set foot - and making something rivetingly authentic of its tawdry melodrama.