Note: This piece appears in Paste Quarterly #1.
When you’re the queen of anything for 50 years, your majesty becomes the status quo.
Entire generations know only your reign, and so your greatness can begin to be taken for granted as a simple fact of life: The sky is blue; the grass is green; Aretha Franklin is the greatest singer to ever live.
But just like Michael Jordan got cut from his high school basketball team and Meryl Streep’s first experiences with film included Dino De Laurentiis telling her she was too ugly to be in King Kong, the Queen of Soul had to wait until the world was ready for her. After putting out her debut album—a gospel record called Songs of Faith—as a teenager, she went secular and spent six years at Columbia Records, where they tried to maximize her crossover appeal by having her sing standards over lush arrangements.
It was good (nothing featuring that voice can ever truly be called “bad”), but it wasn’t her. Her success was modest at best, with her highest-performing single from those nine Columbia albums (her 1961 rendition of “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody”) peaking at No. 37 on the charts. By the time her contract was up in 1966, the writing was on the wall—change was inevitable, for Aretha and for all of us.
The year 1967 is remembered for the Summer of Love, but for those who lacked the privilege to pick up, put flowers in their hair and converge upon San Francisco, for whom “turn on, tune in, drop out” was not an option, it was something else entirely—the Long, Hot Summer, a bloody one in which 159 race riots broke out. Months earlier, on January 10, Lester Maddox—a vile segregationist who once asked “Why would we have different races if God meant us to be alike and associate with each other?”—was sworn in as Governor of Georgia. That very same day, just one state over, Aretha Franklin set foot inside Muscle Shoals, Alabama’s FAME Studios for the first time to record her debut album for Atlantic Records, I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You, with a band of white guys called the Swampers and demand a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
And then, suddenly, there she was.
“Spooner [Oldham]’s keys part at the beginning of ‘I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You)’ is just awesome. Then Aretha comes in and shows you why she is one of the best singers to ever grace this planet. This song has that Southern grit to it—add Aretha and that is why it is a classic. Any singer that says they ain’t influenced by Aretha is a liar or stupid.”—Paul Janeway, St. Paul & The Broken Bones
You don’t have to believe in God to appreciate Aretha Franklin’s music, but you do need to believe in magic. She doesn’t give you a choice. Every run, every wail, is living proof of something inside of her, a gift from somewhere so many miles ahead of most everyone else that it defies explanation.
And yet the real magic is how she manages to make it all sound so damn human. You don’t need to be able to sing like Aretha if you can feel like her, and everything she emotes—heartache, joy, lust, anger, pride—manages to burrow deep into your guts and latch itself onto you. Her experience becomes your experience; she is singing about your shitty Tinder date decades before he was even born. Magic.
Like all the best magic, it just sort of … happens, and once it does, there’s no stopping it: Jerry Wexler signs Aretha to Atlantic with the intention of turning her into “the female Ray Charles” and brings her down to Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals to record. That iconic Wurlitzer riff comes from somewhere inside Spooner Oldham, spills itself out onto the keys and stirs up what was already in her all along. Instantly, it is apparent she’s not “the female” anyone—she’s Aretha Louise Franklin, and you better give her your propers.
“As a young woman and already an avid music fan, especially of R&B, roots and blues, I was totally blown away the first time I heard R-E-S-P-E-C-T on the radio. I had to get the whole album and Aretha became and has remained my all-time favorite singer and influence. She’s simply the greatest singer I’ve ever heard—the sheer beauty, power and range of her voice—her exquisite phrasing; her ability to express passion, heartache, defiance, vulnerability and strength—all modeled for me what a full-grown, authentic woman could be.”—Bonnie Raitt
“Every once in a while, an artist comes along that is the perfect fit for the material that she’s doing, the arrangement and everything, and that’s the case with her. She’s an amazing singer anyway, but this music is so perfectly suited to her, and then she just sings it so perfectly—not flawlessly, you know what I mean? When you hear it, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I can’t imagine any other way of singing that.’ And she just does that effortlessly over and over again. And so when all that lines up, that’s what enduring classics are made of.”—Rhiannon Giddens
The Muscle Shoals session didn’t end as well as it began—after “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” was cut and work on “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” started, the day devolved into a drunken altercation between Hall and Franklin’s then-husband and manager Ted White. Wexler vowed he’d never work with Hall again, but he flew the Swampers out to New York to finish the record.
Whatever discord was taking place behind the scenes never worked its way into the wax, thankfully, and top to bottom, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You is undeniable—an objectively great gem of an album in an otherwise subjective world.
We disagree about a lot of things in 2017—many of them, sadly, the same things we disagreed about half a century ago—but it’s important to remember just how radical it was in 1967 for an African-American woman to raise her voice and demand to be treated with dignity. And yet, “Respect” rose to Number 1 and became one of the most beloved songs of that era. It’s a feminist anthem; it’s a Civil Rights anthem; it’s an anthem, period, and you’d have to search long and hard to find a single soul who would argue it’s not fantastic, because it manages to so perfectly articulate a basic human desire.
“That album had a super effect on me, and I think everyone else at that time.That album truly epitomizes what we now call soul music. It was a happy merger of gospel and secular music.”—Lee Fields, Lee Fields & The Expressions
There’s a reason it’s called soul music; the best artists are able to make us feel the divinity of secular, everyday life. On “Dr. Feelgood” (written by Franklin—who doesn’t get nearly enough credit for her songwriting abilities—and White), that organ part tells us we’re in church. Aretha starts testifying, praising not Jesus but a different man, one who “takes care of all my pains and my ills” in a much more physical—yet still sacred—way. (“When me and that man get to lovin’, I tell you girls, I dig you, but I just don’t have time to sit and chitchat.”) Love, as the song says, is a serious business.
She’s grounded in reality on “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” but she is absolutely still preaching, this time with some of the most overt feminism popular music had heard to that point. The concept is simple: Give her the attention and respect she deserves, or she’ll find it elsewhere. After all, “a woman’s only human, you should understand/she’s not just a plaything, she’s flesh and blood just like her man.” When Aretha belts “they say it’s a man’s world, but you can’t prove that by me/As long as we’re together, baby, show some respect to me,” she sounds as though she’s fully aware of what’s to come and drawing a line in the sand—either you’re with her, on the right side of history, or you’ll be left behind for a new, do-right man. Amen.
There’s holiness in vulnerability, too, and on tracks like “Baby, Baby, Baby” (which Franklin co-wrote with her sister Carolyn, who would later go on to write the similarly devastating showstopper “Ain’t No Way” for her), she’s begging to be absolved of her sins, admitting to the man she hurt that “those that we love, we foolishly make cry/Then sometimes feel it’s best to say goodbye, goodbye/But what’s inside can’t be denied/The power (power of love), the power of love (power of love) is my only guide.”
If there’s a better guide than that, we sure as hell haven’t found it yet.
“Aretha is here and she will continue to be here forever. With this record, she cemented herself in music history—she’s like soultress Bach to us now. This is a record aliens will (and maybe already do) listen to. This record is like the Abbey Road of soul music. Everyone knows it, has studied it, and it is our foundation when continuing on our own musical journeys from when we are kids and will always go back to it with gratitude.”—Natalie Prass
“One of the things which will always stand out in my memory was [Patti LaBelle] telling us that this was an artist we simply had to hear. I do remember very much instantly liking her voice and her Columbia records, but have to admit that, like many others, it was only when Atlantic Records signed her in ‘67, and showed such understanding of her gospel roots, that I was so totally blown away by her talent. What a fantastic flowering it was, a gorgeous combination of a glorious voice and material and production perfectly tailored to that voice. Aretha has, in my opinion, a technical ability the equal of any soulful singer there has ever been—but that technical ability is something she never has to show off—it’s always serving the song, and never dominates for its own sake. It’s easy and unforced, which means that it has an authority which just communicates in the most powerful way, and always draws you not only to the emotional center of a great song, but underlines its humanity. And she is also a wonderfully expressive, soulful pianist! What a fantastic amount of pleasure Aretha has given to those to whom music is important. She truly is the Queen Of Soul—long may she continue to reign!”—Rod Argent, The Zombies