Sista Ree spells it out

Aretha Franklin
I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You
Atlantic, 1967

Though she had made a dozen albums for Columbia, by 1966 Aretha Franklin was still trying to find her voice. Miscast as some kind of Vegas-bound song-and-dance act by record executives, she had been churning out lukewarm pop-jazz fare like “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody” since being discovered by talent scout John Hammond.

Like the rest of the suits at Columbia, Hammond was fully aware of her background as a gospel prodigy in her father C.L. Franklin’s New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, but signed her based on the conventions of the day. Aretha was a woman, and a black one at that; her role was to be an entertainer first and a singer second. It was what the pop charts demanded, it was what the public was accustomed to.

This all changed when she signed to Atlantic Records and met producer Jerry Wexler. A music-industry carpetbagger of sorts, Wexler had been making his name mining unsung local talent for national consumption. Having exhausted his relationship with Stax Records, Wexler looked south, to Muscle Shoals, Ala., where he began work with Aretha Franklin on the record that would catapult her from being an iffy pop princess to the undisputed Queen of Soul.

In Muscle Shoals, Wexler enlisted seasoned local R&B musicians the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section at the Florence Alabama Music Emporium (FAME) studios to lay down a sonic backdrop that could tap into Franklin’s own deep Southern gospel roots and charged mezzo-soprano range. By all accounts, the sessions were incendiary — in every way. The first tune recorded for her Atlantic debut, the sensuous title track “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You),” showed Franklin capable of a fourth dimension — an untapped soulfulness, a fiery, sexy spontaneity her previous dozen albums never even hinted.

Emotions ran high outside the vocal booth too. Franklin’s manager-husband Ted White got into it with the studio owner Rick Hall after a scuffle with a studio musician. Wexler, caught in the middle, wound up decamping the recording sessions to New York, where the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section was flown in surreptitiously to finish the album.

In New York, Franklin never stopped delivering, taking an active hand in the songwriting and making her renditions of others’ songs her own — from her stirring take on Ray Charles’ “Drown In My Own Tears” to her own “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream” and the unashamedly sexual “Dr. Feelgood.” But with her adoption — not just adaption but adoption — of Otis Redding’s “Respect” Franklin did the impossible: She made the anthemic deeply personal and the deeply personal anthemic.

The impact was immediate.

When I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You was released in 1967, it finally gave her Top 10 hits and gold record sales.

But more importantly, the album signaled the arrival of the new kind of voice, one that recontextualized women in popular music from broken-hearted background singers and eyelash-batting chanteuses to epic heroes of a bruised but true humanity. A voice that everyone could share in and be stronger for it.

She spelled it out in “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”: “A woman’s … not just a plaything / She’s flesh and blood just like a man.”

As Time’s Christopher John Farley observed writing about Franklin in the magazine’s Top 100 people of the 20th century issue: “From the moment she sang ‘Respect’ — that still famous call for recognition and appreciation — Franklin helped complete the task begun by Billie Holiday and others, converting American pop from a patriarchal monologue into a coed dialogue. Women were no longer just going to stand around and sing about broken hearts; they were going to demand respect, and even spell it out for you if there was some part of that word you didn’t understand.”

With the respect Franklin demanded for women on I Never Loved A Man … came her own need to be understood as a human being. It is impossible to underestimate her need for this. An unwed teenage mother and daughter of a powerful, sometimes controlling pastor father, she was drawn to strong men who were typically bad for her. She usually came out on top, but her emotional roller coaster voice traced every step of the way begging not for forgiveness. but just to be heard. And when you heard her, you felt her. “I think of Aretha as Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows,” Wexler would later write, “anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical aura.”

This anguished glory became a rallying cry for feminism, sexual liberation and racial equality as the ’60s lumbered on under the weight of its banners and active self-reflection. As writer Thulani Davis noted, “For black women, Aretha is the voice that made all the unsaid sayable, powerful and lyrical. [She] let her raggedy edges show, which meant she could be trusted with ours.”

But with her Atlantic debut, Franklin also proved herself every bit the artist Detroit would become (in)famous for producing — the one that, after gestating in the industry-oblivious climes of Detroit, would be baffled by the concessions artists had to endure to make it in the business, and who would only really flourish when allowed to operate on his or her own terms. During her Columbia years, Franklin had been part of the industry; with I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, she became her own industry.

Detroit has a long tradition of does-not-play-well-with-others artists, from Berry Gordy’s street-smart, buttoned-down proto-punk DIY ethic to Kid Rock today bypassing industry codes of rap-rock and fast-forwarding to his own classic-rock jukebox arena bar-band sound.

Aretha may seem like an unlikely member of the Motor City’s wealth of difficult-but-pioneering artists. But in lieu of her Atlantic debut’s impact on the grand abstract history of soul and R&B, she is no less a part of the uniquely Detroit pantheon. She has found her own voice by sidestepping the world around her — the music industry, domineering men — and retreating into a world of her own where she could, finally, do her thing the way she always knew she could.

The impact of the raw articulate soul-hero voice first heard on I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You continues to this day. And it’s not only through the generations of Whitneys and Lauryns and Mary J.’s, but in the lonely truth of knowing the only way you’re ever going to be heard — to be really heard — is by making something that is all your own.

A still-teenaged Aaliyah sang gospel at Sharon McPhail’s wedding to David Snead in the mid-’90s. There, she invoked the spirit of Franklin, not just with her gospel chops, not just as a fellow woman facing man issues (her brief marriage to R. Kelly), but in the way she skipped the vocal pyrotechnics of other teen divas to find her own voice, in loss and triumph and loss again, just as the Queen of Soul had three decades before.

Return to the introduction for this special collection of music stories, where you'll find links to the other nine records on our list of Detroit discs that shook the world.

Hobey Echlin writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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