Aretha Franklin's first charting hit was with Ray Bryant and his hard-driving left hand. Columbia was trying to make her into a jazz vocalist, but Jerry Wexler at Atlantic saw her as a soul singer all the way. Alas, Bryant does not appear in the first episode, but viewers immediately get to dive into her notorious first session at Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios when Genius: Aretha premieres this Sunday on Nat Geo.
She was known for her R&B chops and gospel roots, but she needed a hit in 1967. Wexler thought there would be hits to be had by letting Franklin be Franklin and one of the best places to do that would be Muscle Shoals, where he recorded a monster hit for Wilson Pickett. That is the sound Franklin wanted, but she did not know it came from a white rhythm section. Franklin eventually warms to the Swampers, but her disruptive, freeloading manager-husband Ted White does not.
It is hard for Franklin to watch White sabotage her comeback session, especially when she remembers where she came from. We see those scenes in black-and-white. Ironically, her talents were enthusiastically encouraged by her highly problematic father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, who had a national following for his fiery, politically-charged sermons. At her father’s parties, she met and was encouraged by the likes of Dinah Washington and Art Tatum (played by Robert Glasper). That was also how she met White, much to her later regret.
For real jazz listeners, the best part about the initial episode is the smart way it features the music and depicts the musicians. Cynthia Erivo is spot-on channeling Franklin’s voice and presence. Likewise, Glasper is an eerie dead-ringer for Tatum (who might not be an obvious choice to include in the Aretha Franklin story). It is also nice to see King Curtis (Marque Richardson is another good likeness), considering how much his solos contributed to Franklin’s hits. Technically, he was more of a jump blues-R&B musician, but he is starting to sound more and more like jazz these days.
Genius, but strictly in-character, without his typical mugging shtick. Courtney B. Vance towers over the first episode, even though showrunner Suzan-Lorri Parks and co-writers Bethany McHugh and Natalie McKearin never shy away from his well-reported shortcomings.
Genius: Aretha captures the music and the tenor of the era quite vividly. It is a top-notch period production that looks great. (Sadly, dying intestate was not such genius on her part, but nobody’s perfect.) Recommended for all soul and R&B fans, Genius: Aretha premieres this Sunday (3/21), on Nat Geo.