Aretha Franklin & What a Really, Really Good Record Can Do To You
If you think music is important and not just something that floats through your life like falling autumn leaves, then maybe, if you’re lucky, you remember a moment or two when a new song obliterated everything else.
Gerri Hirshey, a terrific music and popular culture writer, recalled years ago that the first time she heard Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man” on the radio, she forgot she was driving a car. She sailed right through a red light.
Franklin, who died Thursday of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76, made a lot of people feel that way.
That’s why she has more Grammys than any female artist in history. That’s why she has dozens of gold records. That’s why, when writer Dave Marsh compiled the 1001 top singles of all time, Aretha Franklin had more entries than any other artist. That’s why she has the National Medal for the Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom and why she’s a Kennedy Center honoree. That’s why she was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where women have too often been relegated to the freight elevator.
Furthermore, well-deserved as all of those honors were, they were byproducts. We didn’t revere Aretha Franklin because she was a brand or a star. We revered her because when she sang at her best, which was a lot of the time for a lot of years, she made us listen.
“I Never Loved A Man,” released in early March of 1967, was her radio breakthrough.
She had been recording at Columbia Records for six years by then, singing beautifully and scarcely making a ripple in the popular music world.
Franklin and others always insisted the songs were good quality and that had more people heard them, they could have been hits. A big part of the problem was that Columbia was picking songs like “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody,” which was the cat’s meow for Al Jolson in 1928 and not exactly what rock ’n’ roll teenagers were seeking in 1960.
In 1966 she signed with Atlantic, which said look, let’s send her to Memphis and turn her loose.
Her next single after “I Never Loved a Man” was “Respect,” which trivia fans might recognize as her only №1 single on the Billboard pop charts, a fact that confirms, again, how top-40 radio charts often measure popularity rather than quality.
In any case, Aretha and one of her musical sisters, Carolyn, sat down with “Respect,” which was already a more than respectable hit for its more than respectable author, Otis Redding, and gave it another dimension. That’s rare, but it can happen, as Marvin Gaye’s reimagining of Gladys Knight’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” would soon reconfirm.
That “sock it to me sock it to me sock it to me” interjection in “Respect” came from the Franklin sisters, as delivered by the liberated Aretha.
Her performance on “Respect” is unstoppable, like a long freight train going downhill with an open throttle. You get so lost in the power of the recording that the power of the song itself almost becomes an afterthought.
Franklin calls for respect as a woman. As a black woman. As a human being. No, actually, she’s not calling for respect. She’s demanding it. It’s not a conversation. We hear that, then and now, because of the way Aretha Franklin sings it.
Jerry Wexler and the team at Atlantic were not the first to notice that young Aretha — at that point she was still just 25 — could sing. Her father, the famed evangelist Rev. Cecil L. Franklin, put her in his own road show before she was a teenager.
Part of the warmup for his sermons was Aretha singing a gospel tune at the piano. A handful of those early performances were recorded for an album that’s well worth hearing — not because it matches the gospel greats she loved, like Marion Williams or Clara Ward, but because it captures a talent she would keep working at, honing and improving.
If the Columbia machine had a limited imagination, it had professional production values. By the time Aretha jumped to Atlantic, she knew how to convey a song on a recording, and during her first year with Atlantic, 1967, her five singles were “I Never Loved a Man,” “Respect,” “Baby I Love You,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Chain of Fools.”
Okay, everyone else. Your turn.
For most artists, any one of those releases would have been a career achievement. Franklin batted out five of them, and then the next year followed with the likes of “Think” and “The House That Jack Built.”
It’s been written, and Franklin seemed to agree, that she was a methodical singer who worked at what went onto the vinyl. Even though many of her arrangements were improvised at recording sessions, she had already constructed their general framework. She wrote years later in her autobiography that looking back, she deserved producer credits on all her Atlantic sessions and she’s probably right.
In any case, the recording process made the material better, with Franklin back on the piano from which Columbia had exiled her and support from superb session players like Spooner Oldham and Nat Adderley Jr. as well as background vocalists like her friend Cissy Houston.
The late Luther Vandross once recalled how as a teenager he had studied Aretha Franklin records so intensely that he could identify the individual notes and voices in the background harmonies.
That was a useful bonding device, Vandross said, when his “lifelong dream” came true and he produced Franklin’s 1981 comeback album for Arista, “Jump To It.”
She scored two big hits in the ’80s: “Freeway of Love” and “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” a duet with George Michael that became her second and last №1 on the pop charts.
They were deserving hits for the era, and any artist who is still in the game 20 years later, particularly after a crippling round of family and personal traumas, has an extra gear. If Franklin’s peak was the late ’60s and early ’70s, well, every artist has a peak.
Like all artists, Aretha Franklin was a link in a chain, and unlike some, she acknowledged it. She listened to hundreds of artists, from Billie Holiday and Bessie Griffin to Sam Cooke and the Flamingos, the way we listened to her.
Figuratively if not literally, she sang like a woman who had driven through some red lights.