(Note: This is the ninth essay in a series on “Notable Women.” It was originally published as “The amazing career of the Queen of Soul” in the Newport Daily News on March 21, 2022.)
Fifty-five years ago Aretha Franklin’s recording, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” broke into the Top 40 Pop Chart, her first genuine commercial hit which went on to sell over one million copies.
The documentary, “Muscle Shoals,” describes how the song came to be. Jerry Wexler, a music producer at Atlantic Records, convinced her and manager/husband, Ted White, to travel to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a literal backwater in the world of music production.
In her interview for the documentary, Franklin describes Wexler’s pitch: “I’ve got these cats down in Muscle Shoals and they’re really greasy.” Once in the studio, Franklin and the all-white musicians had the words of the song but worked without written music, trying in vain to find the right groove. Singer-songwriter Dan Penn described the scene: “They had a song, they had an artist, but nobody knew what to do, not even these geniuses.”
Suddenly keyboard player Spooner Oldham started a five-note riff filled with melancholy. Aretha began belting out the lyrics. “You’re a no good heartbreaker/You’re a liar and you’re a cheat/And I don’t know why/I let you do these things to me.” The other musicians joined in; twenty minutes later the song was cut.
On March 18, 1967, it broke into the Billboard Top 40 Pop Chart, reaching number 9, giving Franklin her first top-ten pop single. The song reached number one on the R & B chart.
In an interview, Franklin highlighted the importance of her experience at Muscle Shaols. “Coming to Muscle Shoals was the turning point. That’s where I recorded my first million selling record. It was a milestone, THE turning point of my career.”
Franklin began her music career at a young age, singing gospel at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, where her father, C. L. Franklin, was a minister. In 1954 when she was twelve, her father began to take her along on his “gospel caravan” tours. In 1956 J.V.B. Records released her first single, “Never Grows Old,” releasing that same year the album, “Spirituals,” with five of her recordings.
From 1960 to 1966, Columbia Records had her under contract; however, genuine commercial success eluded her under its management. When her contract expired, music producer Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records convinced her to join Atlantic.
After recording her hit in Muscle Shoals, Wexler brought her and the main musicians to New York City and recorded an album with the history-making hit “RESPECT.” As a single, it entered the Top 40 Pop Chart in May 1967, climbed to #1, and remained on the chart for eleven weeks.
The song and I have a history, as it was released when I was finishing my freshman (plebe) year at the US Military Academy. During the academic week, which ended only after Saturday morning classes, room inspection, and parade, it was academics, military discipline and measure, and martial music.
However, at the Saturday night “mixer” dance, it was a different universe. With girlfriends and the girls who came from surrounding colleges, it was time to dance to “Midnight Hour” and “Mustang Sally,” (Wilson Pickett), “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” (The Animals), “Baby, I Need Your Lovin’” (Four Tops), and “RESPECT.” My tight, black collar loosened; the gray jacket became unzipped. It was time to get down and get lost in soul music.
The following year, three classmates and I donned female attire and lip-synched the song in a talent show. I reprised this four years later with other classmates in a talent show in our military unit in West Germany.
The song “RESPECT” came to be her signature song and eventually also served as a civil rights and feminist anthem.
Overall, Aretha Franklin’s accomplishments are breath-taking. She recorded 112 charted singles, including 17 top-ten pop singles, and 20 number one R & B singles. She won 18 Grammy Awards, including the first eight awards given for Best Female R & B Vocal Performance, a Grammy Awards Living Legend honor and a Lifetime Achievement Award.
She was awarded the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1987 she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
By coincidence, my wife and I happened to be in Detroit the day after she died (August 16, 2018). With a group of friends, we were visiting the Motown Museum. Included in the group were all four of us who had “performed” the song in 1968.
We struck up the tune and tried to remember our old moves. A reporter from a major French news service invited me to comment. I said: “The country [back then] was riven by race relations tension and we—you can see are all white—we didn’t give a damn. It’s really a statement about the unifying effect that music can have.”
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is a retired educator and a regular columnist.
“Aretha: Lady Soul.” (album) Atlantic Recording Corporation, 1968.
“Aretha Franklin.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aretha_Franklin .
Accessed March13, 2022.
“Muscles Shoals.” (DVD) Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2013.
Ward, Ed et al. Rock of Ages: The History of Rock & Roll. NY: Rolling Stone Press, 1986.
And today would have been her 80th birthday, just heard that tidbit on 60s channel on Satellite Radio.Ray