Patterico's Pontifications


Aretha Franklin, 1942-2018

Filed under: General — JVW @ 10:58 am

[guest post by JVW]

Aretha Franklin, the renowned Queen of Soul, passed away at her Detroit home earlier this morning from pancreatic cancer at the age of 76.

Born in Memphis on March 25, 1942 to the Reverend C. L. Franklin and his second wife, Barbara Siggers Franklin, Aretha and her family moved to Detroit at age four when her father became pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church. She would begin her singing career at the church and her father, who was said to have a “Million Dollar Voice” both in preaching and in singing, would encourage her along the path to a singing career. Rev. Franklin, who would go on to be a confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement, was so well-known as a preacher that his services would often include luminaries such as Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, James Cleveland, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Marion Williams in the pews, and those stars and others would also be guests at the Franklin home, giving young Aretha exposure to some of the most accomplished singers of the era.

One of the earliest known recordings of Aretha is her singing the gospel standard “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at age 14. You can already hear the style that would come to define her work: the powerful voice, the incredible vocal range, the ability to wring deep feeling from a lyric. Signed by John Hammond, who called her the greatest voice since Billie Holliday, to Columbia Records at age 18, she languished in New York for six years, making a dozen albums with ho-hum sales, being passed back-and-forth from the gospel to the pop divisions, with only a few truly memorable recordings. Looking back years later on Aretha’s tenure in New York, Columbia producer Clyde Otis acknowledged “No one really knew what to do with her,” a sentiment with which Hammond himself apparently agreed.

If Columbia could not figure out Aretha Franklin, Atlantic Records felt that they could. Once her contract expired in 1966, she was signed to Atlantic by co-owner and impresario Jerry Wexler and taken to the Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama for her first recording session in early 1967. Perhaps it was the location — a daughter of Memphis returning to the Deep South — that led to the magic. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened had Aretha instead signed with Berry Gordy’s hit factory at Motown, Aretha’s adopted hometown. Perhaps it was the remarkable house band she recorded with: Jimmy Johnson and Chips Moman on guitar, Spooner Oldham on electric piano and organ, Tommy Cogbill on bass, Roger Hawkins on drums, and a full horn section consisting of Ken Laxton and Melvin Lastie (trumpet), David Hood (trombone), and Charlie Chalmers, Joe Arnold, Willie Bridges, and the great King Curtis playing saxophone. Perhaps it was the addition of Aretha’s sisters, Emma and Carolyn, as backup singers (along with the late Whitney Houston’s mom, Cissy, until she left to join Elvis’s touring band). Whatever the magic formula, Aretha would have a five-year run of hits which solidified her reputation and earned her the title Queen of Soul.

Everyone knows the mega-hit “Respect,” an Otis Redding song that Aretha feminized and took to the top of the charts for her only solo Billboard Number One Pop Hit (“The girl done stole my song,” Otis was heard to jokingly say). All of the greatness that was teased in the 1956 gospel recording and was glimpsed from time to time in the Columbia recordings was on full display in Muscle Shoals, as the hits began rolling out: “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You),” “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Baby I Love You,” “Since You’ve Been Gone,” and “Think” all reached the top of the Billboard R&B charts in Aretha’s first two years at Atlantic, with “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “The House That Jack Built,” and “I Say a Little Prayer” all reaching the top five on the R&B charts. Even after her recording output began to slow down she still packed arenas and nightclubs for live shows and had a wonderful cameo as Matt Guitar Murphy’s henpecking wife in The Blues Brothers. In 1980 she left Atlantic for Arista Records, where she had modest success including a duet with the late George Michael that topped the charts in 1987 when Michael was at the apex of his popularity. Though she continued to record and play select concerts up to her last years, she remained mostly in the shadows except for when she would show up to save an awards show by subbing for an ailing opera star.

As we say goodbye to her, I want to share with you my favorite Aretha Franklin recording. It was part of her very first Muscle Shoals session which began on January 24, 1967, recorded at Fame Studios. On that day she recorded the hit “I Never Loved a Man (the Way That I Loved You),” but she also laid down the track to this song (the vocals would be overdubbed later in New York) as a B-side to the single which would be released just 17 days later. “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man” was written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman, and Moman would play guitar on the session along with Johnson, Oldham, Cogbill, and Hawkins, with Aretha joining in on piano and vocal backing provided by her sisters along with Cissy Houston. The song is a bluesy love ballad, a plea by a woman for her man to shape up, and Aretha sings in her secular voice though her gospel roots are clearly evident. Wexler would later characterize this recording as perfection, and Rolling Stone saw fit to include it among its 500 Greatest Songs in 2004. It’s an apt way to see her off to the Heavenly Choir.


22 Responses to “Aretha Franklin, 1942-2018”

  1. Excellent tribute to a gifted powerhouse of woman. Thanks for posting this.

    I didn’t realize her sisters were her backup singers for “Do Right Woman – Do right Man”. Did they work on other hits with her?

    Dana (023079)

  2. she died on madonna’s birthday

    aside from eminem that’s the only other diva from michigan i can think of

    happyfeet (28a91b)

  3. Great write-up JVW.

    Dave (445e97)

  4. One of the greatest singers of the 20th century.


    harkin (e4ec42)

  5. Here’s one of my favorites from her Columbia days:

    Tighten Up Your Tie, Button Up Your Jacket

    Less production than some of her later hits, but the confidence and sassiness of her vocals is pure gold.

    From the same period, here’s a live video of The Queen doing the best cover of The Shoop Shoop Song, ever.

    Dave (445e97)

  6. aside from eminem that’s the only other diva from michigan i can think of

    Diana Ross, anyone?

    JVW (42615e)

  7. Thanks for “Tighten Up Your Tie, Button Up Your Jacket,” Dave. I wasn’t familiar with that one. I wonder if Aretha played piano on that track too. I always thought she was quite good on the ivories.

    And her version of “The Shoop Shoop Song” is great, just as most of her stuff is, but I love the original Betty Everett version just a little bit more. I especially love Hal Blaine’s drumming, and it’s supposedly The Blossoms (featuring Darlene Love) singing back-up on the track. Perhaps we can both agree though that Cher’s version in the 1990s sucked.

    JVW (42615e)

  8. oh good catch on Diana

    happyfeet (28a91b)

  9. Her RnB and pop stuff was magical, but her gospel recordings were absolutely stunning and awe-inspiring. The pipes on that beautiful, stout woman! RIP.

    Colonel Haiku (9298f8)

  10. 2nd that, Col.

    mg (9e54f8)

  11. Was Smokey Robinson from Detroit?

    mg (9e54f8)

  12. In 1980 she left Atlantic for Arista Records, where she had modest success including a duet with the late George Michael that topped the charts in 1987 when Michael was at the apex of his popularity. Though she continued to record and play select concerts up to her last years, she remained mostly in the shadows

    no Mr. JVW she worked like an omarosa dog to stay relevant including covering Adele in 2014

    failmerica is very very ageist, especially the trash what program american radio

    especially on iconic women

    they’re not allowed to contribute after a certain point

    happyfeet (28a91b)

  13. I think he was, mg.

    Colonel Haiku (9298f8)

  14. Yes a truly distinctive voice:

    Narciso (d1f714)

  15. She was recording her biggest hit, Respect, and her producer was not satisfied with the rhythm of her lead vocal. So the producer asked her to sing while she played piano in an effort to improve the vocal. It worked. Keith Richards said she was his favorite piano player.

    AZ Bob (8e5ef2)

  16. I said a little prayer. I loved her in Blues Brothers.

    Paul Montagu (b566df)

  17. I loved her in Blues Brothers.

    “Don’t you blaspheme in here!”

    Dave (445e97)

  18. “Was Smokey Robinson from Detroit?

    Yep, so was this guy:

    harkin (ac902e)

  19. R.I.P. Queen.

    As to Detroit’s prominence in popular music, the secret sauce (thank you AZ Bob for the keyword):

    urbanleftbehind (83eb57)

  20. Yep, so was this guy:

    And this one too (from age 4).

    For an uplifting and entertaining inside look at the Motown era, and the incredible, but unheralded, Motown Records studio band (they called themselves “The Funk Brothers”), I can’t recommend

    Standing in the Shadows of Motown

    highly enough. Also available on Netflix, etc. and well worth watching if you love the music.

    Motown’s studio band, led by virtuoso bassist James Jamerson (who some consider the greatest bass player of all time), had more #1 hits than Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones – combined.

    They, the musicians, actually composed the backing instrumentals, rhythms and musical hooks of the Motown songs in the studio, from simple chord charts provided by the producers. This documentary/tribute tells their story, including performances and interviews of the surviving members.

    Dave (Detroit City born and raised...) (445e97)

  21. “Keith Richards said she was his favorite piano player.”

    But don’t hold that against her.

    Colonel Haiku (9298f8)

  22. Motown picked up the pace when they started recording at Muscle Shoals. Aretha loved the place.

    mg (9e54f8)

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