[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.