We all require and want respect, man or woman, black or white. It’s our basic human right.” – Aretha Franklin.
Otis Redding wrote and released “Respect” in the summer of 1965. It had some level of success (Top Five on Billboard’s Black Singles Chart, and crossed over to pop radio’s white audience, peaking at number thirty-five there.) But it certainly wasn’t any kind of blockbuster sales-wise, just another song in the great profusion of tunes in that year. But a really good, killer, horn-driven song.
However, when Aretha’s version was released in late 1967, it was a whole ‘nother ballgame. She re-crafted it as a woman demanding respect from her man. According to Vox, Franklin wrote in her autobiography:
“So many people identified with and related to ‘Respect.’ It was the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher — everyone wanted respect. It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance.”
Franklin “grew up in the movement. Her work has a particular meaning for the black freedom movement, for the civil rights movement, for the black power movement, and for black women involved in the women’s liberation movement at that time. Civil rights workers would see her at a fundraiser, right next to Martin Luther King Jr., raising funds for the movement, and then hear her records on the radio,” Professor Reiland Rabaka added.
“Respect” also had a special meaning for female listeners. Franklin had her first child at 12, Rabaka pointed out, and was involved in abusive relationships. “This is pre-#MeToo movement,” he said, “but a lot of women knew that sister Aretha was singing from a pit of pain.” (Let me here confess that 100% of this was lost on me at the time. I just thought it was a good song – ME.)
Aretha was fully and firmly – and forever – on the map. At the 10th Annual Grammy Awards in 1968 she won Best R&B Solo Performance, Female and Best Rhythm and Blues Recording for “Respect.”
This was to be the first of 18 Grammy wins and 44 nominations. And the hits kept coming with “Baby I Love You,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” (which she co-write with Ted White), and a cover of the Stones’ “Satisfaction.” People close to Aretha said that these songs reflected her feelings about her relationship with Ted White at the time. (Yes there will be a Spotify list.)
Check out this great live video of Aretha and the ladies rockin’ the audience with “Chain of Fools” in Amsterdam in 1968:
She also recorded a great Goffin/King tune called “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman.” According to his autobiography, the song was inspired by Atlantic Records co-owner and producer Jerry Wexler.
As recounted in his autobiography, “Wexler, a student of African-American musical culture, had been mulling over the concept of the ‘natural man’, when he drove by Carole King on the streets of New York. He shouted out to her that he wanted a “natural woman” song for Aretha Franklin’s next album. She and husband Gerry Goffin went home and wrote the song that night. In thanks, Goffin and King granted Wexler a co-writing credit.” That actually sounds like total bullshit but ok.
Here’s Aretha doing it (much later) at the Kennedy Center Honors (for King) and Carole freaking out like “Who is this woman?” (Who by then she’d known for like, 40 years.) You’ll also see a President and First Lady capable of appreciating what they’re hearing and who actually show up – and are welcomed at – these events.
Aretha was so tied into the zeitgeist of the Sixties, so hailed by everyone that in June of 1968 – when she was 26 – she made the cover of Time magazine. By “plugged into the zeitgeist,” I don’t mean to imply she was a hippie or something. Far from it.
She crossed over from a black to a white audience but the chances of her being invited – or even being interested in being invited -to a Woodstock were pretty slim. (Although she did later play Fillmore West for a largely young, white audience.) Blues, jazz, gospel, and R&B – a term invented by Jerry Wexler to replace “race records,” – were her forte and commercially she was R&B all the way. The beauty of the Sixties musically is not only that there was an explosion of creativity but that it was happening on so many parallel, sometimes intersecting planes.
One place where it intersected is in Aretha’s use of rock guitarists. It is, I think, pretty well-known that for a period of time Duane Allman was a Muscle Shoals session musician and played on a few of her tunes. We’ll get to that. But did you know Eric Clapton also played on the same album (Lady Soul) that had “Chain of Fools” and “Natural Woman?”
According to the book Respect, Clapton – who was at Atlantic recording Cream’s Disraeli Gears – “came by when Aretha was laying down the vocal to ‘Good To Me As I Am To You.’ (Tom Dowd was engineering both albums.) Per Jerry Wexler, “Ahmet (Ertegun) heard a spot for some guitar licks.” Eric gave it a shot but was apparently so intimidated by Aretha he flubbed it. He managed to come back the next day and nail it:
For the next few years, the Queen of Soul had a run of terrific albums with great players. She was in her prime.
But if I’m an honest reporter I must digress here for a moment to the downside of The Aretha Story which is Franklin as diva. She was somewhat of a perfectionist and control freak who took her “Queendom” quite seriously. For the most part, while she admired other female singers she did not like it at all when other ones came along and seemed to take the spotlight away from her.
And she was absolutely notorious for having her agent book gigs which she then just arbitrarily decided to cancel or just not show up for. These would cost her thousands of dollars in cancellation fees for which she would always blame her booking people.
She used the media to convey what she wanted to be true rather than what was true. (Although that said, many entertainers hire publicists to do just that.) Recall that when she was very sick the last few years of her life no one could find out what the problem was. That’s because she wanted to control that message and denied even being sick. She hired and fired people routinely and fought like cats and dogs with her sisters. (But if you have siblings, what else is new?)
I come not to damn Ms. Franklin but to let you know she was all-too-human. Everyone’s attitude seemed to be, well, she’s a genius and so that explains behavior and so what can you do? I’ve always found that particular narrative tiring no matter who it’s applied to as it excuses all sorts of behavior.
Her saving grace was not only that magnificent voice but also her songwriting and arranging skills. And despite all the above, she was also quietly generous, often randomly sending money to people in Detroit anonymously.
Back to the music. In January 1970, Aretha recorded the album This Girl’s in Love With You. In order to stay current, she was convinced to do the (sort of) spiritual Band tune, “The Weight.” She confessed she didn’t know what it was about but liked the groove and so did it anyway. She wanted slide and said, “Get me that white cat.”
So the white cat, Duane Allman, who’d played with her on a previous album, joined Aretha for this soulful version of One of Your Favorite tunes. (Wexler had bought Duane’s recording contract from Rick Hall to use on session gigs):
Aretha was by now firmly established as a popular star who could sing anything but leaned towards soulful R&B. However, she felt that she needed to record something that would bring her back to her church roots. So she (or Wexler – accounts differ) concocted an idea to record (and film) a two-day gospel show at a church in LA.
Wexler got director Sydney Pollack to film the whole thing but it was never released as there were problems with the sound. And then years later when that was resolved, Aretha decided she didn’t want it released, maybe because by then it might be seen as a eulogy. The good news is that Aretha’s estate has decided it should be out there and it premiered at a NYC film festival last month with wider distribution planned for 2019. Here’s a brief look.
As to the album, Aretha’s gamble worked. Wikipedia: Released on June 1, 1972 Amazing Grace ultimately sold over two million copies in the United States alone, earning a double platinum certification. As of 2017, it stands as the biggest selling disc of Franklin’s entire fifty-plus year recording career as well as the highest selling live gospel music album of all time. It won Franklin the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance.
Here’s “Mary Don’t You Weep”:
Next (and final) post – The Queen’s career waxes and wanes but she still travels on.
Source: Vox, Wikipedia, Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. David Ritz. Little, Brown and Company (October 28, 2014)