Happy 50th Anniversary to Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, originally released March 10, 1967.
Even though Aretha Franklin already had ten studio albums under her belt by the time of its release, her 1967 LP I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You was her true introduction to the world as the Aretha Franklin we’ve come to know as “The Queen of Soul.”
As a child, Franklin learned how to play piano by ear and began singing solos at the New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, was the pastor. At age 14, she went on the road with her father as a part of a Gospel caravan tour. With her father acting as her manager, he got her a record deal with JVB Records, an independent label based in Detroit that specialized in Gospel and R&B. In 1956, JVB released her debut album, Songs of Faith, but soon thereafter, Franklin expressed a desire to branch out into pop music, as inspired by Sam Cooke. She recorded a two-song demo that caught the attention of Columbia Records and others, including Berry Gordy. Franklin’s father rejected an offer from Gordy’s brand new start up, Tamla Records, feeling that the label was still in its infancy and would not gran the level of support she deserved. She eventually signed with Columbia in 1960. And here is where the wheels came off the bus.
Instead of capitalizing on Franklin’s otherworldly talent and great potential, Columbia saddled her with a repertoire of standards, ballads and blues. The nine albums she recorded with Columbia failed miserably to capture the essence of her gospel roots and the exquisite beauty of her piano playing. The head of Columbia Records, who took credit for discovering Franklin, was Mitch Miller. Miller produced and guided the careers of artists such as Doris Day, Ray Conniff, Johnny Mathis, Dinah Shore and Tony Bennett, just to name a few. Do you see a pattern here? Miller was legendary for having profound disdain for anything that was not American Pop (a term that should not be confused with today’s meaning of pop music). The man who passed on Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly (and later after Franklin left Columbia, The Beatles) was in charge of making Aretha Franklin a star. It was destined to fail.
After five lackluster years at Columbia, Franklin declined to re-sign her contract. Famed Columbia Records executive John Hammond once remarked that “Columbia did not understand Franklin's early gospel background and failed to bring that aspect out further during her Columbia period.” After a promise from Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun to give her more artistic control over the direction of her music, Franklin signed with the label in 1966.
At the behest of Atlantic Records founder/producer Jerry Wexler, Franklin was to record a slow blues number for her first song. “Release the kraken” may be a phrase that has seen its best days go by, but I cannot better explain in this moment what ensued on January 24, 1967. Wexler, Franklin and her husband Ted White arrived in Muscle Shoals, Alabama to begin recording her first album at FAME Studios. The in-house band was the acclaimed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who were featured on hits by Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and many others.
Over the course of just a few hours, with musicians she had never worked with before, in an unfamiliar studio, Franklin would record the first big hit of her career. “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” eventually ascended to #1 on the R&B chart and reached #9 on the Hot 100. It is said that Wexler knew they had a hit within minutes of recording the track. Franklin also recalled, "they just told me to sit on the piano and sing.”
After recording “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” Franklin and the musicians began recording “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” The mood in the studio was festive, but abruptly came to a screeching halt. Over the years, there have been several accounts of this story, each differing slightly with the only consistent outcome being that Wexler would never return to FAME Studios to cut a record.
The trouble began the first day of what was supposed to be a week-long session. Franklin's husband, Ted White, set things in motion by accusing trumpeter Melvin Lastie of making a pass at Franklin. After the two got into a fist fight, Wexler immediately had FAME owner Rick Hall fire Lastie. This did not satisfy White, who was still pretty angry. The session ended hastily with “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man“ unfinished and still on the tape machine. In an attempt to smooth things over, Hall decided he would go to the motel where Franklin and White were staying. Not only did Hall fail spectacularly to make amends, but the situation escalated out of control. Hall and White got into a heated shouting match, which evolved into a brawl. Some accounts say there were gunshots fired. To this day, Franklin claims to remember none of it. This may go down as the most memorable first recording session of any artist in musical history.
Franklin, White and Wexler were on a plane the next morning with a career changing song and half of its stellar B-side with them. Franklin went into seclusion for two weeks after the incident, while Wexler scrambled for a plan to finish his budding superstar’s label debut. The rest of the album was completed in New York with some of the musicians from Muscle Shoals.
On February 14, 1967, Franklin began recording “Respect,” which would be her signature song for the remainder of her career. She first heard the original version by Otis Redding in 1965 and remembers the day she first heard the song. "I had just moved out of my father's home and had my own little apartment," she explained to ELLE magazine last year. "I was cleaning the place, and I had a good radio station on. I loved it. I loved it! I felt I could do something different with it, and my sister Carolyn, who was an RCA recording artist, and I got together on the background." Minor tweaks like adding the terms “TCB” and “sock it to me” along with a powerful musical arrangement and Franklin’s gut-punching vocals transformed Redding’s plea to a lover into Franklin’s unequivocal demand for respect. In his iconic appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of ’67, Redding playfully described "Respect" as the song "that a girl took away from me, a friend of mine, this girl she just took this song.”
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You went all the way to #2 on the US album chart and was certified gold by the end of 1967. In 2002, Rolling Stone placed it at #1 on their Women in Rock: 50 Essential Albums list despite the fact that in 1967, the magazine panned 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."
The rest of the album includes “Dr. Feelgood”, “Drown in My Own Tears” and a cover of her inspiration and former crush Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” Most recording artists could only wish to have their eleventh album (if they’re lucky enough to have eleven albums) be as potent and timeless as I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. All hail the Queen of Soul.