Aretha Franklin (Part 2) – The Queen of Soul

Wikipedia: The now-defunct Regal Theater in Chicago was part of the so-called “chitlin circuit,” that “provided commercial and cultural acceptance for African-American musicians, comedians, and other entertainers during the era of racial segregation in the United States (from at least the early 19th century through the 1960s.)

Sometime in the mid-1960s, Aretha was headlining a show there, where the city’s legendary radio disc jockey and promoter Pervis “The Blues Man” Spann produced concerts for blues and soul acts. After her performance at the Regal, Spann presided over a coronation of sorts, placing a crown on Franklin’s head and dubbing her “the Queen of Soul.”

Franklin, who had been wearing a form-hugging sequined silver gown, later gushed remembering the moment: “I never thought it would happen!” But she embraced her newfound title. “Who wouldn’t want to be called ‘Queen’?” she said. (Well, the band Queen wouldn’t mind it but, um, I wouldn’t be too crazy about it – ME. 😂)

After Aretha’s Columbia contract expired in 1966, she went over to Atlantic Records. Whereas Columbia did not know what do with her, the guys who ran Atlantic – Ahmet and Neshui Ertegun with partner Jerry Wexler – had a much better feel for her gospel/blues/R&B roots. Not only that, they knew how to work the Black market, knew what was popular on the street, and which DJs to call. And with whom and how to record her.

When Stax for reasons of their own turned down a chance to work with Aretha, ex-Billboard writer and Atlantic executive Wexler called up Rick Hall who owned FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Per the Guardian, Hall recalled that  Wexler had told him: “I got this girl, I’m thinking of signing her, I’d like to bring her down here.”

“Course, I’d never heard of her,” Hall said. “She couldn’t get arrested. She’d never had a hit record, I didn’t know whether she could have a hit record. She came in here and she had her song down and she sat at the piano right by the window … and played “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You.” We were immune to that. ‘What’s this song all about? It sounds like an old waltz! It’s got a waltz beat, you can’t dance to it, it’s not gonna happen.”

Regardless, Aretha got along well – at least musically – with the Muscle Shoals guys as they knew how to find the groove. Unfortunately, the compatibility was all in the music. Bear in mind this was deep woods Alabama in the Sixties – the band and Rick Hall were white; Aretha and her husband (Ted White) were black.

What happened next is that Rick Hall and White (at least) were drinking that night. One of the horn players – who may have made a pass at Aretha or issued a racial slur – got into an argument with Ted. White stormed out taking Aretha with him.

Hall went to their hotel and – trying to make it better for his client Wexler – made it much, much worse. According to Hall himself, “Ted didn’t wanna hear any explanations but I gave ’em anyway. That just led to a bunch more yelling with Ted telling me he never should have brought his wife down to Alabama to play with these rednecks. Which led to this time-honored exchange:

“Who you calling a redneck?” Hall said.
“Who you calling a nigger?”
“I’d never use that word.” (Sure – ME.)
“But you were thinking it, weren’t you?”

It goes on from there to some ‘fuck you’s’ and then some fists being thrown. This is after one day!

Needless to say, that was the end of the session. Two songs had been recorded and then Ted and Aretha split, never to return to Muscle Shoals. In a panic, Wexler – who knew a hot property when he heard one – made acetates of “I Never Loved a Man” and sent it to DJs in key markets. Who loved it as did their audiences.

But Wexler needed a B-side. And after ten long days of not being able to find Aretha, he finally got on the phone with the still-pissed-off White. Who said, I think wisely, that he would not go back to Muscle Shoals but that Wexler should bring Muscle Shoals to him. He’d been impressed by the band (minus the horn player) and brought them up to New York to finish the album. Which led to a string of classic late ’60s/early ’70s albums with the Muscle Shoals guys.

The eventual album – Aretha’s tenth, released in March 1967 – wound up being named after “I Never Loved A Man,” and it reached number one on the R&B chart and number nine on the Billboard Hot 100. And so after eleven years of slogging and six years of recording, with this song, and its b-side, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” Aretha had her first top ten pop single.

Spotify link

Aretha is backed up on vocals on “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” by her sisters Carolyn and Erma as well as Cissy Houston. Houston is the aunt of Dionne Warwick, cousin of opera singer Leontyne Price and mother of Whitney Houston.

“The blues is a motherfucker,” said jazz singer Carmen MacRae. “And not everyone can sing ’em. It’s more than chops. You have to live ’em. In Aretha’s case, her greatest album is that first one on Atlantic, when her voice was the strongest, but, from what I heard, her blues was also the deepest.”

This is in part because the 25-year-old Ms. Franklin was in a difficult marriage with Ted White. White had been a confidant of her father and, some said, had been a pimp. Both he and Aretha were heavy drinkers and Ted was given to hitting Aretha, sometimes in full view of others. She even showed up to a session once with a black eye. But she stuck with him, at least for a while. (They divorced in 1969. She later married an actor named Glynn Turman but they divorced in 1984 and she never married again.)

Despite that, Aretha and White sometimes wrote songs together. This tune, “Dr. Feelgood,” is not about the kinda guy who dispenses drugs but dispenses love I’m talkin’ about L-U-V:

But oh, when me and that man get to lovin’
I tell you girls
I dig you but I just don’t have time
To sit and chit and sit and chit-chat and smile
Don’t send me no doctor
Fillin’ me up with all of those pills

I got me a man named Doctor Feelgood
And oh, yeah, that man takes me off all o’ my pains and my ills
His name is
Doctor Feelgood in the mornin’
And taking care of business
Is really this man’s game

But as good as those songs were, they were completely overshadowed by the tune that would put Aretha on the map forever.

Next – R-E-S-P-E-C-T. And a couple of guitar gods factor into the mix.

Source: The Guardian, Wikipedia, Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. David Ritz. Little, Brown and Company (October 28, 2014)

13 thoughts on “Aretha Franklin (Part 2) – The Queen of Soul

    1. No but a nasty, nasty scene that I only heard about years later. I debated whether to use the ‘n’ word but I think people should see how ugly it is and what a race problem we had – and have – in America.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. I don’t know much about her life (as usual I’m getting the Doc education). Certain albums I have of her music I dig. I do know the ‘Muscle Shoals’ sessions( They might be able to make CB sound good). Not a major Aretha guy but certainly give a nod on what she brought to the table.
    Yeah the world of music is paved with hard lives. So many come to mind. Men and women. Comments from 1dancingqueenqd are felt. Billy Holiday is probably one of my top artists. Talk about “hard lives”. She set the bar. But through it all her creativity and music never fails to move me. If I could give her a hug I would. In fact I send a hug out to almost everyone today.

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        1. I used to love to watch Fields. “All things considered I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” Have you ever seen his juggling act? Amazing, especially the blocks around 3:00 or so.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Doc. We go from Aretha to Bill Fields. You have to know that he is one of my favorite entertainers. I’ve seen that juggling thing many times. Thing is he makes it look easy like all talented people do. Have you ever tried to juggle? One of the best bios I ever read was on W.C. Ask my Gal what I think of him. Like music, I go on a Fields binge regularly. I was laughing the whole time I was watched that clip.

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  2. I didn’t know much of Aretha Franklin’s background story. What I do know is she was an incredible vocalist, as the songs you highlighted nicely illustrate.

    This lady just gives me goosebumps. Without meaning to sound like I’m full of myself, when music has this kind of impact, I just know it’s great.

    Looking forward to the next installment!

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