Aretha Franklin’s come back home. Back home to Boogaloo, Alabama, and Pigeon Pea, Tennessee, back home to Hog Maw, Mississippi, and Chitlins, South Carolina. Back to where they do that flatfoot soul singing. Not a lot of dancing and falling down and crying and playing dead—just straight-ahead stuff, standing there on your own two feet and making it.
She’s been away for quite a while, you know, and up till now you could only find her in the pop female vocalist section with Barbra Streisand, Peggy Lee, Edie Gorme. She didn’t belong there, of course (and personally l don’t think they belong anywhere), but that’s what happens when you get “discovered.”
You see, when Aretha was about eight she started singing gospel music. Her father was the Reverend C. L. Franklin of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, and she used to tour around on the gospel circuit with his show. (Sam Cooke was in the same group.) I don’t know if you’re familiar with the gospel circuit, but it’s a whole thing in itself. Sort of like when you’ve lived in New England all your life and you suddenly find out that country music has a whole thing going in the South and West—clubs and stars and tours all its own.
Gospel music is a very sincere, straightforward thing. It’s one of the few musical idioms left that seems completely untainted by commercialism. It’s a lot of rhythm, a lot of clapping; a guitar or a piano or an organ are also there but not much music, just more rhythm. The voices are the main instruments, and they are great. People like Aretha who really know what singing is all about—on key and singing real notes with range and tone and grain and even melisma (see Charles Keil’s Urban Blues, University of Chicago Press, 1966, for a description of how Bobby Bland uses this stretching and twisting of vowels), if you want to get fancy. Singing is the whole bit with gospel music. Singing and a direct communication with the audience on serious terms. This doesn’t mean gospel music isn’t happy, just that there are no gimmicks—no echo, no overdubbing, no bullshit. You know what they’re doing, they know, and they want you to make it with them. The whole thing is a very sincere, together type of expression.
To get back to Aretha, her roots are obviously deep in the gospel thing and that’s why it’s good to see that she’s back doing the closely related soul sounds. You see, as I said before, she got “discovered” about five or six years ago by John Hammond of Columbia Records. I can’t stand it when somebody “discovers” somebody. The discoverer seems to get all the credit even though the discovery usually gets taken away from where she belongs—which is what happened to Aretha. She moved into a semi-jazz club, Nancy Wilson bag. She played the Village Vanguard in N.Y.C., recorded with Ray Bryant, and then with strings. Downbeat even picked Aretha as “new star female vocalist of the year’ in 1961—the kiss of death, ‘cause you know if you get the approval of that mag, unless you’re Count Basie, your chances of being heard again by anyone but a hardcore jazz nut are very slim. Anyway she kept recording with strings and then started doing hits of other people and then ended up in the female pop vocalist rack where she doesn’t belong.
Now she’s on Atlantic and they’re treating her right. With two singles (“I Never Loved a Man” and “Respect”) and an album (I Never Loved a Man) she is, fortunately, back on the charts, and she’s certainly back at home. I think the album is one of the best r&b albums to come out in a long time. Jerry Wexler produced it, and he did most of the Ray Charles stuff and that’s all right with me. Tom Dowd also had a lot to do with it. He’s been a recording engineer for a lot of people, even John Coltrane; and I guess he’s starting to do some arranging now, too.
“Respect” is the first tune on the first side. It’s Otis’s tune, of course, but this is a real interpretation, not just a copy. Much cleaner and with a lot more going on. It’s a very rhythmical thing with different accents going on at different levels. The horns are into one thing, the drums and bass another, and the background singers another—and it changes—but all the time very together. So Aretha has a very solid foundation to work with. And she does work with it. The melody is only a starting point. She pushes, pulls, lays back and lets it get ahead. She’s got a real musician’s feel for timing. The fact that she’s playing piano on the album helps too. She knows just where she wants it and just where she doesn’t want it. The sound of the piano is very solid—clear and yet with power, and always up front. Too bad they can’t figure out a way to do this outside the recording studio and not a Ia fuzzy, out-of-tune electric Wurlitzers. Piano’s becoming a real lost art in rock ‘n’ roll, when it used to be a very strong thing with Fats and Little Richard and Chuck Berry and all. I mean, organ is fine, but I dig piano too—and they’re definitely not the same.
Anyway, the next thing to dig is King Curtis’s tenor sax solo in the middle. The figure kind of leaps up and then a little higher and then comes down, with a few side licks in between and on the way for emphasis. No dumb Motown or overly simple Memphis style, very tasty. Curtis has been around for a long while—ever since his tenor work on the early Coasters songs—and he’s never really gotten the credit he deserves. He’s been bogged down in some bad recording contracts which insist that “King Curtis Plays the Hits of but he’s also with Atlantic now, so maybe we’ll see some improvement (see King Curtis Live at Smalls Paradise on Atco).
The tune builds from there on out with different rhythm figures each verse and Aretha in and out and around the whole complex. What can I say?—she just does a whole lot with a song.
There are several slow tunes in the album—maybe too many—and some get a little draggy and empty, but they’re still good. “Dr. Feelgood” (whose medical specialty is taking care of business) is one, and it’s very gospel, with piano and organ dominant. Likewise with “Drown in My Own
Tears,” which has a Raelettes, gospel-type background chorus.
“Do Right Woman,” another slow tune, was obviously recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. You see, they don’t have much money down there so the studio has a Farfisa instead of a Hammond organ and you can spot it right away, like on Percy SIedge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.” A little too thin, but the guy who’s playing it can still have soul, even if his instrument doesn’t, right?
“Baby, Baby, Baby” is just so soft and sweet—
“Soul Serenade” starts with Aretha in her old Nancy Wilson-Dinah Washington bag. First, there’s not too much wrong with Nancy Wilson after all; and second, when the tune gets going and Aretha gets to saying, “I’ve got a message for you here this evenin’,” you know what her original bag really was. This is a King Curtis tune, and if you can pick up the original instrumental which was on Capitol, it’s worth it. He puts some nice thick horn harmonies into this version. Another horn figure that kills me is on the end of “Good Times.” It’s one of those response things to the vocal and together they could go on all night and you’d still dig it. What happened to the guitar in this song’? Sounds like it’s about two inches big—needs a little more B. B. King sock!
“Save Me” is another King Curtis collaboration, and it’s definitely his drummer, Ray Lucas, on this track. Too bad he wasn’t on some of the others. Very solid but yet with a lot of interesting little things happening in between. Sounds like veteran studio man Gary Chester on the other tracks recorded in N.Y.
“I Never Loved a Man”—her single before “Respect”—is in 3/4. Wow. You don’t hear much of that anymore. But it works. There’s more, but like I said, sometimes even if you can talk about it, you ruin it if you do. Aretha may not be so good-looking, but she can sing, baby, she can sing—as M.C. Mr. Sad Sam would say. And what happened to the girls anyway? There are a few good groups left like Patty and the Blue Belles and Martha and the Vandellas, and of course there’s Dionne Warwick, but really the only ones who are making it are the S-u-u-u-premes—and they sing through their noses.
One last thing. I was backstage at the Apollo about two weeks ago. This is no big thing like I know the stars personally and all. I had to knock on a lot of doors and con my way past a lot of very big (and very black) Apollo ushers. I had just seen the “Southern Soul Revue” and I wanted to get back to talk to Eddie Floyd and Sam & Dave if I could. Well, I found Mr. Eddie (as his manager calls him) and a girl who was in the show and a couple of guys in his band sitting in one of those grubby little dressing rooms about three flights up. It was between shows and they were in bathrobes and process rags and some guys were eating cold hamburgers, as usual on the road. But that was the only other activity. They were all listening to one of those mini record players where the record covers up the whole thing and hangs over the sides. The record that was turning around on top was this album I’ve been talking about. —That’s all I’m going to say. That’s it.