It was only with Aretha Franklin’s death in 2018 that the American public — prompted to listen to her songs that we hadn’t heard in decades — was startled to find that they sound as fresh today as they did when Aretha exploded over America more than 50 years ago. Indeed, the noted R&B enthusiast Ezra Pound’s definition of great literature—”news that stays news”—applies equally to the unrivaled body of music that she left us. Today’s news is that the Black protest movement of the 1960s and early ’70s, with which “Respect”, “Think”, with its ascending shouts of “Freedom!”, and “Young, Gifted, and Black” could hardly have meshed more closely, is in full resurgence today, and one of the 20th century’s greatest Black artists is an inspiration all over again, to a whole new audience.
Two Hollywood celebrations of the artist are on the near horizon: Liesl Tommy’s Respect, a biopic starring Jennifer Hudson, to be released in August 2021, and the third installment of Disney/National Geographic’s Genius miniseries (the first two were about Einstein and Picasso), starring Cynthia Erivo, is also due in 2021. Another film, Alan Elliott’s stunning documentary that was shelved for 40 years, is about the making and 1972 performance of Amazing Grace, Aretha’s, and gospel music’s, bestselling album. It was finally released in 2019 to loud hosannas.
Offscreen, her family’s battle over Aretha’s multimillion-dollar estate (she died all but intestate, leaving three hastily scribbled wills, one found under a sofa cushion), continues to make headlines.
Aretha Franklin is not merely for the ages—she’s hot!
Ellipse by David Zydd (Pixabay License /Pixabay)
What follows is a preliminary chapter from a biography-in-progress, working title I Gave My Heart and Soul to You: The Triumph of Aretha Franklin. It’s about five sick years, between January 1967 to January 1972, in which one of 20th-century pop music’s towering geniuses stood the pop world on its head with a run, inconceivable today, of 11 albums. Six of them were Top Tens, and 13 were Top Ten singles, from “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You” through “Respect”, “Chain of Fools”, “Rock Steady”, et al to “Day Dreaming”.)
I Gave My Heart and Soul to You combines a blow-by-blow account of just how Aretha and a handful of world-class rock ‘n’ rollers cut these records, with insights into the singer’s complex, troubled personality and into one of America’s most turbulent stretches of American history: the Black freedom movement, from the civil rights era through the Black Power years. Aretha connected strongly with both phases.
So here is an closely packed time capsule: the two hours it took Aretha and her great late-’60s studio band, a bunch of Alabama white boys who called themselves the Swampers, to cut her signature song. Events have occasionally been rearranged for clarity and momentum’s sake.
* * *
When Aretha Franklin and her baby sister and musical alter ego Carolyn arrived at Atlantic Records’ studio at 1841 Broadway on 14 February 1967, Carolyn was fully cognizant of the moment’s significance. “My sister was on the brink of letting the world know what I had always known—that she was hands-down the scariest singer in the world.” And not yet 25 years old.
On the studio floor, Atlantic’s staff engineer, Tom Dowd, was setting out microphones. In an earlier life, Dowd was an 18-year-old physics prodigy at Columbia University when he was chosen to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project, America’s effort to build the atom bomb. Later, Dowd returned for his undergraduate degree but was unable to get credit for his work—it was classified. He had nothing to learn in college anyway: “They were teaching 1939 physics, and I’d helped develop 1950 physics,” Dowd recalled a half-century later, so he dropped out to pursue his other love, music, and wound up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as rock’s, and possibly every other genre’s, greatest-ever recording engineer.
“Tommy Dowd was a bloody genius, in the true sense of the word,” said Jimmy Johnson, the rhythm guitarist on this and many other Aretha sessions. “He was so highly genius that we’d try to come up with something that he didn’t know. We’d say, ‘Tommy, how does this work?’ and he would sit there all day and explain it to you.” If a guitar player was even slightly out of tune, Dowd heard it through the studio clatter. “Give me another strum.” Intent listening. “B string.”
Arif Mardin was circulating, too. Atlantic’s third Turkish émigré (the others were the label’s co-founder Ahmet Ertegun and his brother Nesuhi), Arif was the staff arranger, the only trained musician in the company. From 1963 to 2001, he composed hundreds, if not thousands, of arrangements for Atlantic, although he never stopped composing classical music: string quartets, piano suites, orchestral pieces, lieder.
The one time I met Arif, at a busy 1986 session, I summoned the courage to approach him; I wanted to tell him how I admired his splendid string arrangements on Aretha’s 1972 album Young, Gifted and Black. He graciously thanked me, yes, he was very proud of those. How had he gotten such a big sound out of little more than a string quartet? Ahmet leaned towards me with a conspiratorial grin.
“You know what the secret is? Unison!”
* * *
Standing over Aretha at the piano, music pad in hand, Arif was jotting down what her left hand was doing so he could sing it to bass player Tommy Cogbill, who built his part around Aretha’s voicings. “Everything stemmed from Aretha’s piano,” Arif said in 2010. “Very few people make records like that today. It was fantastic. The interplay was wonderful, everyone bouncing off each other.”
Dowd concurred, proudly: “We were flying by the pants. There was nothing preconceived,” including Aretha’s piano—the players’ formidable challenge was keeping up with Aretha, a non-stop improviser right through the final take.
Jerry Wexler, Atlantic’s co-owner and chief producer, sat listening and watching from behind the glass, although he might at any moment come flying out and terrorize everybody. A pushy Bronx native with a short fuse, Wexler was an autodidact intellectual whose speech was equally sprinkled with polysyllables and obscenities. He’d been crazy about Black popular music for his entire life, first as a fan, then as a reporter for Billboard (where he coined the term “rhythm and blues”), and finally as a producer and executive, a dominant industry figure through the 1970s.
Not everyone was a Jerry Wexler admirer. “Jerry was kind of ruthless,” Aretha’s later bassist Chuck Rainey told me recently. “Jerry cut a record on Etta James, and he talked to her wrong. He made her cry. Etta came to me, and she said, ‘That motherfucker has no right to call me a bitch.’ So I went to Jerry and said, ‘You have no right to talk to her that way just because you think it’s hip. Maybe a brother on the street calls her a bitch, but you can’t.’ Because Jerry had a tendency to look at all black artists the same.'”
Whether he did or not, it had been Wexler’s, and several other smart ’50s and ’60s record men’s, epochal realization that the better part of great R&B was, as the Alabama-born songwriter Dan Penn put it, “the mixture of two colors of people. That’s my rhythm and blues. That mixture produced a certain kind of music that people loved. I know I did.”
Penn was talking about a peculiarly American set of circumstances first spelled out by another Alabaman, the writer Albert Murray, to whom America was, as Murray put it, “culturally mulatto”, especially in the South, where blacks and whites lived cheek by jowl ever since the arrival of the first settlers and their slaves, sharing folkways, religion, music, customs, manners of speech: culture.
Sam Phillips himself, the great producer born in Florence, yes, Alabama who discovered Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, and a few thousand others, knew long before Murray wrote his classic memoir/travelogue, South to a Very Old Place, that especially, in the South the races shared far more than what kept them apart. “Color be damned,” as Johnson said, “we were all coming from the same place.” (Florence was one of four northwest-Alabama towns collectively known as Muscle Shoals after a misspelled stretch of the Tennessee River once famous for its shellfish.)
Johnson, Penn, and Cogbill belonged to the Swampers, one of pop music’s greatest, most prolific, recording session bands, and Aretha’s de facto collaborators on the bulk of her best records. None of the Swampers could read music; you didn’t have to, to play the five chords to “When a Man Loves a Woman”. Working out of Fame Music, a concrete bunker in, of all places, Florence, Alabama, the Swampers had their own tried-and-true method: osmosis. “When we got in the studio,” Charlie Chalmers, the tenor saxophonist, horn arranger, part-time Swamper and sole non-Alabaman, told me, “we started jamming, and everybody knew almost right away where to put his part. It’s hard to even explain. Everyone was so used to working together that we almost had mental telepathy. There was a lot of eye contact.
“The only rule was, complement, complement, complement! You’re not there to be the artist, you’re there to help them. You want to find a neat, clever lick, short and sweet, a cool lick that fills in the holes. And answers the singer, or sets the singer up. But do not step on them.”
At Fame, a client rarely came in with a prepared arrangement. “The clients that Fame got were looking for creators,” says Chalmers, “and that’s what the Fame guys were. We created arrangements on the spot.
All of the Swampers were under 30; Roger Hawkins, the drummer, had just turned 21. Roger grew up on a dirt road outside Florence; since his family didn’t own a car, Mrs. Hawkins walked Roger two miles to catch the school bus. “I was raw,” Roger understated. “The first song I cut, when I listened back, there was this squeaky sound every time I hit the bass drum. I learned a big lesson from that session: oil the bass drum pedal.”
By his mid-to-late 20s, Hawkins was one of the busiest session drummers in the country. By then, he either had or shortly would cut records with Eric Clapton, Bob Seger, Cat Stevens.,Joe Cocker, the Staple Singers, and Traffic. That’s Roger putting down the irresistible groove that kicks off Paul Simon’s 1973 hit “Kodachrome,” on a box that happened to be lying around the studio (to his credit, Simon’s idea).
“Roger just had the fire,” Chalmers says. “Just as important, he knew when to hold back. Roger never overplayed. He laid that backbeat in there, and when he played a fill, it was at just at the right spot.” As Chalmers tells it, when Hawkins broke in David Hood, a 22-year-old trombonist, as the Swampers’ full-time bass player, “Roger told David, ‘Just play what I’m playing on my foot.’ That was Roger’s rule for David,” and it was what gave the Swampers the heavy bottom that makes things funky.
Johnson, one of two Swamper guitarists, played strictly rhythm, he never soloed. Fame’s owner and house producer, Rick Hall, called Jimmy “the chimper” because Jimmy sat on that backbeat: boom-CHIMP boom-CHIMP. Jimmy took care of logistics, got everybody where they had to be. He was Fame’s first full-time employee — as a bookkeeper.
Chips Moman had the guitar chops. “Chips had a knack for coming up with great licks,” said Johnson, “just bam, on the spur of the moment,” like the nasty four bars that open “Respect”.
Chips’ real gift was for producing. He turned his Memphis studio American Sound, which he built for $3k into one of the country’s top recording centers. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, American was responsible for more than a hundred Billboard Hot 100 hits; at one point, the place accounted for more than a quarter of the Hot 100. Chips cut hits on Dusty Springfield, the Box Tops, Neil Diamond, and supervised Elvis’ 1969 comeback album, Elvis in Memphis, and “Suspicious Minds”, the King’s last #1.
Hood got his sea legs, Cogbill played bass. “Tommy had a different style,” said Johnson. “He had the Tommy Cogbill style. Tommy would push you right out the door.” And played fine lead guitar when called on.
Spooner Oldham “was one of the most laid-back people you ever met,” Johnson said. Soft-spoken to the point of mute and so skinny the others fretted about his health, Spooner was Fame’s keyboardist and a secret weapon. He would diddle around until he found a spot where nobody else was playing and drop in something bad. Spooner avoided the spotlight, and he avoided spats. When tempers flared, he kept his mouth shut. Spooner went with the flow.
Chalmers was out of Memphis, a full-time musician, since he dropped out of Memphis State to go on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis. A fluent sight-reader, Chalmers was a sought-after horn arranger on Memphis’ busy recording scene. And he could play—the fine tenor solo on Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances” is Chalmers.
Due to a full-scale disaster (*noted below), Fame, where Aretha and the Swampers had just cut what would be her first Top Ten song, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You”, was out of the question, but Aretha loved the boys, so Wexler flew them up to New York. The Swampers had never taken a jet plane; flying was a novelty. Checking into almost inconceivably splendid digs, the 44-story Essex House on Central Park South, the guys set out for the studio just two blocks away. “There was so much going on in one city block,” said Johnson, “I got a migraine headache and had to lie down.”
Chalmers flew up separately to find Wexler waiting at JFK, a solicitous gesture that made Chalmers feel right at home. Wexler had a surprise. “Charlie,” he said with a sweep of his hand, “meet King Curtis. He wanted to meet the white boy who played the solo on ‘Land of 1,000 Dances.'”
Chalmers was floored, “absolutely honored”—he sounds honored 50 years later—to be in the presence of a god. In the mid-’60s, Curtis Ousley from Fort Worth, Texas was a larger-than-life figure in Manhattan’s studios, the lead tenor sax player, and often bandleader on most of the scene’s elite R&B and many rock sessions. Physically imposing at six’ two”, a high-stakes cardsharp, pool shooter and dice roller, Curtis effortlessly commanded respect. “King Curtis was a real gangster,” says Rainey, “a real street guy. I’ve seen Curtis back people down.” It was Curtis, period; he probably signed his checks that way.
When it came time to track “Respect”, Dowd and Arif joined Wexler in the control room, Dowd at his state-of-the-art eight-track board, sliding the faders up and down to get just the right volumes. In the mid-’50s, Dowd convinced Wexler to buy the world’s second eight-track recorder (Les Paul owned the first), and pioneered the use of faders, replacing the day’s clumsy volume knobs.
His volubility notwithstanding, Wexler always worked briskly, establishing a routine that he, Aretha, and the players followed throughout Aretha’s Atlantic years. Tape rolling, she and the band cut the instrumental track, Aretha singing a scratch vocal. Three or four takes were usually all it took. “And the second we got through,” said Johnson, “she’d get up from the piano and go over to the vocal mike, and we’d go into the control room, looked like a caterpillar, one by one, never, ever, not to be frozen to death by her performance.”
You tend to remember where you were the first time you heard a life-changing song, the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”. I was washing the breakfast dishes at my family’s summer house on Cape Cod listening to WBZ out of Boston when a UFO came hurtling over the airwaves and fried my impressionable 13-year-old brain. Whoever she was, the lady bore down so hard her voice cracked, noticeably, in the third bar (oddly, the perfectionist Aretha didn’t call for a retake). She sounded almost strident, not young, a seen-it-all lady standing at the doorway in a housedress, arms akimbo, having clearly had it up to here.
Somebody is in for it.
* * *
A modest 1965 hit for Otis Redding, “Respect”, as Otis wrote and sang it, had a somewhat martial four-to-the-bar beat. (Otis worked out his songs largely by dancing them, and he was a famously stiff mover). This other thing comes at you as full-tilt as Otis, but hip —Wexler always talked about the song’s “stop-and-stutter syncopation”.
Hardly has Cogbill’s bass come down, hard, on the opening downbeat, the “one”, joined by a blast from Curtis and the horns, than Roger Hawkins swings in, whacking his snare drum on the two and the four, the eternal backbeat. Chips Moman plays that sidewinding little guitar lick, the sisters announce themselves (“Whoop!”), and look out, here comes Lady Soul and is she pissed. Where Otis was beleaguered, Aretha knows what she’s worth and what she expects.
Aretha arrived at the session loaded for bear, having worked out the backup vocals back home in Detroit. (All of the backup vocals were overdubbed by Carolyn and Aretha after the basic tracks were recorded. Aretha’s older sister, Erma, is often placed at the February sessions, but although Erma seems to have helped work out the backup vocals, Chalmers and others remember only Carolyn in New York. Atlantic’s session log is inconclusive, listing as backup vocalists Aretha, Carolyn “and others.”) Paradoxically, pop music’s greatest vocalist wrote some of its most imaginative vocal accompaniments ever (on par, one sometimes thinks, with Gilbert and Sullivan’s), stepping aside to let the help carry the song. Her family nickname smuggled in (Ree-Ree-Ree-Ree–Ree-Ree-Ree-ReeSPECT!) as everything grinds to a halt for Aretha to spell out the title, just in case she isn’t making herself clear.
Unforgettably, the 16th-note sock-it-to-me-sock-it-to-me-sock-it-to-me-sock-it-to-me that set the bar for all pop music tongue-twisters(whetheryou’reabrother/ Orwhetheryou’reamother) to come. Only the Friends of Distinction’s Icandigit/ hecandigit/ shecandigit/ wecandigit/ theycandigit in their 1969 hit “Grazing in the Grass” comes close. (As it happens, those Icandigithecandigits were the work of the the brilliant vocal arranger Alexander Hamilton—who directed the choir in Aretha’s 1972 gospel classic, Amazing Grace.) Not to mention all the other deft touches (justa/ justa/ justa/ justa/ justa/ justa/ justa/ justa) that fly by too fast to absorb in one listen. “Respect”‘s backup vocals are more, by far, than icing on the cake. Not only do they kick the song into fifth gear; they are essential to the job at hand: subverting a macho complaint into a woman’s demand for good sex.
“The ‘sock it to me’ line helped shape the song for sure,” said Carolyn. “Obviously, Otis wrote the song from a man’s point of view, but when Erma and Aretha and I worked it over, we rearranged the perspective. We saw it as something earthier than Otis’s, a woman having no problem discussing her needs.” (Though something has always puzzled me: if what the lady wants is her man in the sack, why does it sound like she’s about to brain him with a frying pan?)
“Respect” has just three chords, not counting a bridge that just kind of happened—as long as they were gutting Otis, why not drop a bridge in? Hell, why not steal one? Somebody—Curtis, as Wexler recalled—suggested swiping the bridge from Sam and Dave’s “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby”, which was fresh in Curtis’ mind; he and his Kingpins had covered it in their own session the night before. In rock ‘n’ roll, not many are concerned about plagiarism. In went the eight-measure bridge.
Some je ne sais quoi was still lacking—the lift, maybe, that a key change provides. Aretha’s “Respect” is in the key of C. As they take it to the bridge (1:12), the band modulates to F-sharp (listen up), “a totally unrelated key,” sais Arif, “but we liked it!” The song stays in F-sharp through the bridge before resolving back to C (1:25), a bracing little touch. Everyone agreed that a tenor saxophone solo would fit in perfectly. Curtis could have pulled rank, but since he was a Charlie Chalmers fan, why not give the kid a shot? They flipped a coin. Curtis won.
And did he ever deliver on that solo. In his allotted eight bars, all of 15 seconds, Curtis electrified millions, still does, long after he is gone. As I wrote in a 1998 New York Times article on rock’s great sidemen, “[T]hough King Curtis played on countless records, he could almost be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for 40 seconds of pure, abrasive genius: the saxophone solos on the Coasters’ ‘Yakety Yak’ and Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect.'”
Three takes, two hours, done. “I have seen, in my day, many important sessions,” said Dan Penn. “Some of them really made my hair stand up, and this was right up there with the best of them. It was spectacular.”
By the evening of February 16th, the third day of work, every song was in the can but one. Everybody was bushed, so they left it for the final morning.
As Wexler always had it, the backstory to Aretha’s other signature song is that he’d been driving around midtown, turning a phrase around in his head that had just dropped in. It seemed to Wex that “natural man” was a good hook for something. When he spotted Carole King and her husband and songwriting partner Gerry Coffin walking up Broadway, he pulled over and yelled that he wanted a “natural woman” song for Aretha. That night, King and Goffin sat down at the kitchen table and, in the proverbial one sitting, wrote “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”.
It took a day or less to lay down the basic tracks, including Aretha’s vocal. Realizing that he had all but outdone himself with his orchestral score, Arif called on a super-special conductor, the legendary Ralph Burns, who came out of big-band jazz’s ’40s heyday. After listening to Aretha, Burns turned to Arif and said, “This woman comes from another planet. She’s here visiting.'”
And everybody went their separate ways. The four days in New York yielded eight songs. Between the *disastrous January 24th “I Never Loved a Man” session back at Fame and February 17th, less than four weeks (minus Aretha’s two week disapperance, when Aretha hid out in Detroit recovering from that Fame session), she cut six of her greatest songs: “Respect”, Natural Woman”, “I Never Loved a Man”, “Dr. Feelgood”, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”, and “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream”. It may be the most spectacular creative outburst in pop music history.