Lady Soul may be Aretha’s most celebrated album, but this is the one that made her Lady Soul in the first place.
Rolling Stone, of course, was a little late to the party:
Rolling Stone chided the album for “the lack of versatility on the part of the sidemen. The drums weren’t hard enough, the guitar was weak, and the production lacked polish.” In 2002, though, they placed the album at #1 on their “Women in Rock: 50 Essential Albums” list. In 2003, the album was ranked #83 on Rolling Stone‘s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. (Wikipedia)
Let’s look at this motley crew of versatility-deficient sidemen, courtesy of Wikipedia, italics mine:
- King Curtis: Curtis Ousley (February 7, 1934 – August 13, 1971), who performed under the stage name King Curtis, was an American saxophone virtuoso known for rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul, blues, funk and soul jazz. Variously a bandleader, band member, and session musician, he was also a musical director and record producer. Adept at tenor, alto, and soprano saxophone, he was best known for his distinctive riffs and solos such as on “Yakety Yak”, which later became the inspiration for Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax” and his own “Memphis Soul Stew”.
- Charles Chalmers: Charles Chalmers is a saxophonist, session musician, backup singer, songwriter and producer. He has written several hit songs for many recording artists, and has also arranged & performed on many Grammy-winning recordings. Seven of those recordings are in the Grammy Hall of Fame: Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”; Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” “Chain of Fools” & “Natural Woman”; Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man”; and Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” and “Land of a Thousand Dances.” He also holds an Album of the Century award for his work on Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man the Way That I Love You.
- Tommy Cogbill: Thomas Clark Cogbill was an American bassist, guitarist and record producer. Tommy Cogbill was born in Johnson Grove, Tennessee. He was a highly sought-after session and studio musician who appeared on many now-classic recordings of the 1960s and 1970s, especially those recorded in Nashville, Memphis and Muscle Shoals. He has been credited as an influence by bass guitarists, including Jaco Pastorius.
- Jimmy Johnson: Jimmy Johnson is a member of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section who was attached to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama for a period in the 1960s. In 1969, with the backing of Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler, Johnson became co-founder of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Johnson operated variously as a record producer or guitarist. He has performed with Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin and engineered The Rolling Stones’ album, Sticky Fingers.
- Chips Moman: Lincoln Wayne “Chips” Moman is an American record producer, guitarist, and songwriter. As a record producer, Moman is known for recording Elvis Presley, Bobby Womack, Carla Thomas, and Merrilee Rush, as well as guiding the career of the Box Tops in Memphis, Tennessee during the 1960s. As a songwriter, he is responsible for standards associated with Aretha Franklin, James Carr, Waylon Jennings, and B. J. Thomas. He has been a session guitarist for Franklin and other musicians.
Makes you wonder how Aretha could stand to be in the same recording studio with these clowns.
Rolling Stone is famous for these corrections to the record, having given Doolittle a measly three stars on release and later bending over backward to extol its virtues after nearly every leading rock musician of the 1990s named it as an important influence on their work. They’ve never been able to get over the need to be perceived as hip and “with it,” sometimes going to extremes to pander to the contemporary music mag consumer. Michelangelo personally filed a protest from The Great Beyond when their review of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour opined, “The Moody Blues are still the Sistine Chapel of popular music.” No retraction or apology was ever made, indicating that Mr. Michelangelo’s protest fell on deaf ears, as does everything else at Rolling Stone.
But hey, they have about ten million more readers than I do, so what the fuck do I know?
Well, I do know that I Never Loved a Man the Way That I Love You is a soul music masterpiece featuring one of the greatest singers ever supported by an outstanding group of vocalists and top-tier musicians. It’s the record that allowed Aretha Franklin to cross over into popular consciousness after her first eleven albums made only tentative, inconsistent thrusts into the R&B charts. What made the difference is simple: she left Columbia Records for Atlantic and hooked up with producer Jerry Wexler, who found the right material for her natural talent and connected with her in a way that her producers at Columbia never did.
Wexler thought Otis Redding’s “Respect” might be a good platform to show off Aretha’s talents and that if all went well, had the potential to cross over to the mainstream charts. Aretha blew those expectations sky-high with an interpretation that transformed a smooth soul number about domestic tranquility into a multi-faceted anthem for women’s rights and racial equality. After experiencing middling success during her years at Columbia, it’s safe to assume that Aretha also infused her vocal with a very personal call for respect as a singer and an artist. You combine that with the creative energy she must have felt in finally working for a producer who got it, and “Respect” is as much a song of personal liberation as it is a cry of the oppressed. I think that’s the key to the song’s tremendous impact and enduring success: if Aretha had made it with the intention to pander to political movements, it never would have worked as well as it did. Her spirit is just as inspirational as the lyrics she sings with confidence and command.
It also helps that “Respect” is a sexy, hip-shaking delight supported by a near-perfect arrangement. There were several brilliant little decisions made in the studio, from the choice to insert an instrumental bridge to vary the soundscape to Carolyn Franklin’s inspired suggestion to have her sister spell it out for people in case they missed it: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” Despite Rolling Stone’s dissing of the players, the intro gets you into the groove in a nanosecond, and what they heard as a “lack of versatility” is really the sound of a band who knew how to support a singer and back off when she’s on fire. This really is Aretha’s show, and her ability to control and vary her phrasing on this song is simply amazing. The almost matter-of-fact delivery when she sings “you know I’ve got it” is sung with a confident shrug of the shoulders; the combination of force and sensitivity she displays in the line “I ain’t gonna do you wrong (force)/’Cause I don’t wanna (sensitivity)” captures the essence of emotional intelligence. And even though equality in the bedroom is a very important thing to establish from the get-go, the way she rearranged the words to emphasize that the importance of financial equality is one of the conditions that makes bedroom equality possible by eliminating any hint of female dependence. This is one woman who is taking care of business (TCB), who knows how to love without having to pander and can take care of herself if she doesn’t get the respect she deserves.
As it should be.
Ray Charles set a pretty high standard for “Drown in My Own Tears” with a knock-you-on-your-ass blues-heavy vocal combining subtlety with soulful passion. Aretha’s approach is almost spiritual by comparison, reflecting her gospel roots: during the bridge she sounds like she has entered a state of religious ecstasy. While I don’t think her approach fits the lyrics as well as Ray’s version, it’s still a compelling vocal performance that allows her to display her command of vocal dynamics.
Aretha adheres tightly to the storyline in the bluesy title track (and her first top ten hit), “I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Love You).” Her ability to convincingly oscillate from disgust at her man’s deplorable behavior to expression of irresistible attraction is so genuine and so real-life that it gives you the shivers. When she gives us that throaty whisper in the chorus, supported by a brief patch of harmony, you can visualize her lips getting closer to his and her nipples hardening. The way she comps herself on the piano is pretty impressive as well, especially in the second verse where she forces her piano to break through to the front of the sound field. The horns on this piece are particularly tight and supportive, but goddamn—when Aretha really gets into a song, she fucking owns it.
After all the heat generated on that track, things cool off with “Soul Serenade,” a nice swaying soul number with tight horn support and solid bass from Tommy Cogbill. The slightly Latin-tinged beat of “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream” follows, an original composition with collaboration from soon-to-be ex-husband Ted White that is a little too sweet and proves to be the most forgettable track on a great record. Things get back on track with the slow soul number “Baby, Baby, Baby,” with sisters Aretha and Carolyn sharing composition credits. Aretha really gets into this one, soaring as high as she can go while avoiding her occasional tendency to break glass. The offbeat call-and-response on this number is a nice departure from the expected pattern.
“Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business)” is a modified blues co-composed by Aretha and Ted White, and a fascinating number on many levels. The long-standing African-American suspicion of traditional medicine, a theme manifested frequently in the blues, is represented by the figure of Dr. Feelgood, and I am completely on board with the concept that a good fuck will cure most anyone’s ills. The real-life relationship between Aretha and Ted White was marked by domestic violence, and the same internal conflict that Aretha expressed on the title track is manifested here: I love you but you treat me like shit; you treat me like shit but I can’t stay away. The supreme dichotomy is the contrast between Aretha Franklin, Christian gospel singer, and Aretha Franklin, woman in heat; the ecstasy she expresses when singing here about making sweet, sweet love is as intense as any of her gospel numbers. The song takes a while to ramp up to the higher end of the thermometer, but when it does, Aretha sounds at times like she’s getting it right there in the studio:
When me an’ that man get to lovin’
I tell ya girl, I dig ya, but I don’t have time
To sit, and chit, and sit and chit – chat an’ smile
Don’t send me no doctor
Fill me up with all a those pills
I got me a man named Doctor Feelgood
That man takes care of all my pains and ills
His name is Doctor Feelgood in the morning
To take care of business is really this man’s game
And after one visit to Dr. Feelgood
You understand why I feel good, in this pain
Oh! Yeah! Oooh!
Oh, good God a – mighty
The man sure makes me feel real…
Those grunts and oohs she makes are simply too real to believe that this wasn’t a live performance.
Aretha does two Sam Cooke numbers on the album, with “Good Times” appearing first. I have to confess a preference for Phoebe Snow’s version, which is slightly slower but with a stronger groove, more melodic movement and a noticeably relaxed good-time party feel. The next song is certainly not a party song, as a blow-up between Ted White and either Wexler or the guy who ran FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals ended with Ted taking Aretha off the premises and out of town before the recording was finished. Aretha literally disappeared for weeks, finally showing up in New York with her sisters to finish the track. Aretha took care of the overdubs on piano and organ, while the sisters provided the backing vocal. Aretha’s voice sounds very different on this track, and it isn’t just that she’s singing in a lower register. This may be reaching, but it sounds like she carried the sad embarrassment of her relationship with her volatile and violent husband with her into the studio. The feminist aspect of the song therefore comes across as much more personal, as if she’s very, very tired of not getting the respect she deserves as a human being:
Take me to heart and I’ll always love you
And nobody can make me do wrong
Take me for granted, leaving love unsure
Makes willpower weak and temptation strong
A woman’s only human
You should understand
She’s not just a plaything
She’s flesh and blood just like her man
I find this one of her more touching performances, integrating gospel and soul stylings with some very heavy emotion.
And then we hear the opening chords of . . . “Gloria?” Huh? No, it’s not Them’s classic after all, but the album’s foray into rock ‘n’ roll called “Save Me.” Aretha’s soul stylings and the horn section temper the rock influence of the guitar, but if the intent was to show off Aretha’s wide-ranging abilities, it certainly succeeded. Her melodic movement is more like a lead guitar solo than a female vocal, and you can tell that she’s really feeling it. The album closes with the Sam Cooke showstopper “A Change is Gonna Come,” where Aretha reaches into her gospel roots for power and in-the-spirit phrasing. Aretha introduces the song with a verse that acknowledges the composer, who had died by gunfire a few short years before:
There’s an old friend
That I once heard say
Something that touched my heart
And it began this way
She then reproduces the original first verse, but when she gets to the chorus, she replaces one tiny word: “a change is gonna come” becomes “my change is gonna come.” This was no mistake, as she repeats the word substitution the next time around. She also substitutes Cooke’s more graphic examples of discrimination—getting turned away at the movie house and getting knocked down on his knees by a man he mistook for his “brother”—with verses that focus on the less blatant but still deviously effective method of oppression, economic discrimination:
I went, I went to my brother
And I asked him, “Brother
Could you help me, please?”
He said, “Good sister
I’d like to but I’m not able”
And when I, when I looked around
I was right back down
Down on my bended knees, yes I was, oh
The “my” substitution may have been a wish to free herself from an oppressive marriage, or it simply may have been another way to emphasize pride in one’s identity as a woman. However you interpret it, Aretha’s performance on “A Change is Gonna Come” is another stellar performance on an album of great interpretations, one that would have done the composer proud had he been alive to hear it.
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You came out in 1967, and turned out to be as much a landmark album as the record that defined that year, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The deep-seated sexism in rock music journalism blinded Rolling Stone to the album’s significance, and as Daphne Brooks argued in “The Write to Rock,” both gender and race are influencing factors in determining how the dominant white male critic perceives the value of music. Aretha Franklin did not exist within of the supreme paradigm of the white male rock icon, making it impossible for those who live and thrive within that paradigm to even consider the possibility that the work of a black woman could be so culturally transformative.
Great albums like this are often personally transformative as well, and I think they have to be. When an artist takes his or her work to a different level, it’s as if they’re expressing the repressed desire within all of us to transform our lives into something more meaningful. Aretha Franklin accomplished this in I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, facing personal demons as well as cultural challenges, and forged a path for many women to take that same journey in the future.