I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You: Aretha Franklin, Respect, and the Making of a Soul Music Masterpiece presents the remarkable story of how The Queen of Soul created what Rolling Stone called “the greatest soul album ever made.”
The album she recorded that earned soul legend Aretha Franklin her first major hits after eleven previous efforts, I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You was a pop and soul music milestone. Apart from its status as a #1 hit record, the album also had a much wider cultural impact. By early 1967, when the album was released, the Civil Rights Movement was well underway; Aretha’s music gave it its theme song. And the #1 Billboard pop chart single “Respect”written by Otis Reddingnot only won two Grammys for best R&B recording and best R&B solo female vocal performance, it became a passionate call to arms for the burgeoning feminist movement.
Matt Dobkin has unearthed a wonderful story of the creation of an album that goes far beyond anything that’s been written about Aretha before. With scores of interviewsincluding ones with Atlantic Records’ famed producer Jerry Wexler, and the Muscle Shoals session musicians who recorded with ArethaI Never Loved A Man the Way I Love You is the story of a great artistic achievement. It’s also the story of a star who is both more complex and determined than her modern image as a diva indicates.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Matt Dobkin is the author of Getting Opera. He is the former classical music editor at Time Out New York, and his work has appeared in New York magazine, Bazaar, Out, and a variety of other publications. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
"The Voice of Black America"
Last fall I went to an Aretha Franklin concert at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, not without some trepidation. As a lifelong Aretha fan in possession of thirty-eight of her albums, I knew to be wary: Although her almost otherworldly vocal prowess was inarguable, her shows, over the years, had become maddeningly hit-or-miss. The singer was notorious for showing up with a corps of luridly attired dancers, Aretha herself in some sort of impossibly unflattering get-up, looking more like a Las Vegas nightclub chanteuse as MAD TV might conceive one than like the universally revered Queen of Soul. Her song selection could be dubious and might rear its head at any moment, consigning her audience to an evening of treacle like "People" and "The Greatest Love of All," rather than soul stalwarts like "Do Right Woman" and "Chain of Fools." Other times, Aretha would show up at the theater just flat-out not in the mood, her desire to get offstage palpable, her devotion to the crowd not the equal of theirs to her.
But this time, Aretha was present. And when Aretha is there — committed, impassioned, emotionally involved in her songs — there's nothing else like it in all of music. Her sublime vocalism, almost preternaturally full of feeling and operatic in size, is supported by a kind of immaculate musicality and innate sense of improvisational rightness. As her longtime producer Jerry Wexler puts it, "There are three qualities that make a great singer — head, heart, and throat. The head is intelligence, the phrasing. The heart is the emotionality that feeds the flames. The throat is the chops, the voice. Ray Charles certainly has the first two. Aretha, though, like Sam Cooke, has all three qualities. Her gift seems to have sprung, like Minerva, full-fledged from Jupiter's head."
The gift — forceful, emotional, unpredictable — was certainly in evidence that night at Radio City, as was a kind of comprehensive curatorial care with regards to the set list. Aretha, sixty-one at the time, was clad in a glimmering white gown encrusted with rhinestones, a white organza shawl draped over her shoulders. A long, straight (and synthetic) ponytail cascaded from the very top of her head almost to her waist. She opened the show singing "Won't Be Long," a song she recorded for her first album for Columbia Records when she was eighteen years old. She paid further tribute to her oft-maligned (to a large degree, unfairly so) tenure at Columbia with a poignant "If Ever I Would Leave You" and an ethereal "Skylark," a longstanding Johnny Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael favorite of Aretha's that she has recorded several times over her career. The musical highpoint of the show was a deep, bluesy "Dr. Feelgood," with Franklin seated at the piano — where she belongs — pounding out the gospel-inflected chords of her composition and giving them the kind of resonant bottom than can't be matched on a recording.
It was during this song that Aretha seemed most herself, most palpably the "natural woman" she came to embody, in the eyes of both black and white America, in the late 1960s. As she eased her way into "Dr. Feelgood," banging out an extended piano introduction, she suddenly paused and announced, "I feel like letting it all hang out tonight." With that she tore off the temporary ponytail dramatically and tossed it onto the piano with a flourish, leaving a short, sad little stump of real hair in its place. The move would become a Franklin signature this particular season (she would reprise it in a televised BET tribute honoring her career), but it nevertheless had an impact, and the crowd roared. Shedding this part of her costume, reminding us that she was both superstar and ordinary woman with a weave, was the perfect symbol of Aretha's combination of awesome talent and down-to-earth "realness," an attribute Franklin prizes almost above all others. Aretha loves her designer gowns and isn't above throwing in a piece of campy razzle-dazzle to lend her act a touch of showmanship — but always while grounded in her own sense of authenticity. Her shows can be either over-the-top or underwhelming, but they are fundamentally rooted in Aretha's own, very personal notion of what her singing is about: "me, with my hand outstretched, hoping someone will take it."
The concert wound down, and as Aretha dispensed with the obligatory thank-yous to her band and backup singers, a personal slide show commenced on an enormous screen overhead. Here was Aretha with Mary J. Blige; Aretha in miles of mink at Bill Clinton's inauguration; super-thin Aretha after one of her successful diets in the 1970s. Most of the shots were in color and relatively recent. The audience collectively craned their necks to observe but seemed relatively unmoved.
Until, that is, one particular, striking image was projected, almost shockingly, above our heads. Dating from February 1968, the photo was taken at Detroit's official "Aretha Franklin Day" and captured, in evocative black-and-white, the singer in a shapeless dress, with a band of feathers up around the chin and another around the hips, constructed out of what looked to be a rather hot, uncomfortable fabric. Her hair was in the de rigueur bouffant style of the era, the eye makeup Egyptian, and she clutched a plaque commemorating the occasion. Beside her, grinning happily, seemingly thrilled to be present at what was essentially a publicity op for a beleaguered Midwestern city and its favorite daughter, was Martin Luther King, Jr. The reverend was in his customary dark suit, white shirt, and dark tie; what was unusual was the sense of casual joy projected by the man so often portrayed in photos and film clips as solemn, burdened by the weight of his work. The image had the patina of history about it: Aretha and Martin instantly and palpably evoked an iconic sixties, a moment in time that indeed seems to exist in black-and-white in the collective memory. A moment when the country, uncharacteristically, seemed to be heeding the advice of one of the last tracks Aretha had recorded for Columbia Records a year or so earlier, "Take a Look," which exhorted: "Take a look in the mirror/Look at yourself/But don't you look too close ... Lord, what's happening to this human race? I can't even see one friendly face. ..." Perhaps only a shot of Martin with Kennedy or Martin with Muhammad Ali could have summoned that decade more swiftly or completely.
The event was held in Detroit's Cobo Hall exactly a year after "Respect" had hit the airwaves. Aretha was receiving awards from both Cash Box magazine, for a year's worth of pop-chart ubiquity, and from King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, honoring the work the singer had done for the civil rights movement for much of the previous decade. In addition to King, Aretha's sisters were present, as was her father, the Reverend C. L. Franklin, a well-known preacher who had introduced Martin to Detroit for that city's 1963 civil rights march, which would serve as a template for King's famous march on Washington later that year. For those of us who followed Aretha's career closely, the picture was familiar, but the moment it appeared, the Radio City audience erupted in cheers and whoops. Several people started to cry. This was who her fans believed Aretha to be. Aretha, in black-and-white, standing with the man who was similarly emblematic of an era and an ideal — this was the real Aretha: a woman who in the space of a year had captured the public imagination and become the queen of the pop charts at the same time as she came to be viewed as what the poet Nikki Giovanni calls "the voice of the civil rights movement, the voice of black America." This was the Aretha who was born not out of Jupiter's skull but from the offices of Atlantic Records with the 1967 release of her breakthrough album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. Mere months later, Aretha would sing at a King memorial service. But at this moment in February 1968, she was civil rights activist, icon of black womanhood, the most respected popular singer in the world. It is this freeze-frame Aretha that I've tried to capture.
The "masterpiece" referred to in the title of this book is not "Respect," although that song certainly had something to do with it. Otis Redding's classic, as reimagined, rerecorded, and, most importantly, resung by Aretha Franklin, is an anthem (a "battle cry," Aretha calls it), a call-to-arms for women, civil rights activists, and, of course, the lovelorn. "I once called 'Respect' a combination of a global sororal call to fraternity — or sorority — combined with personal lubricity," Jerry Wexler told me. For other listeners who felt the racial implications of the song more forcefully than its feminist-sexual undercurrents, "Respect" was the sound of revolution.
But "Respect" is just one part of a larger work of art of even greater breadth and influence. The album that garnered the singer her first major hits, I Never Loved a Man was a pop- and soulmusic milestone for Aretha, but apart from its status as a hit record, Aretha's Atlantic debut also secured a wider cultural import beyond the scope of the Billboard charts almost immediately upon its release. The Civil Rights Movement had long been in full swing; now it had its theme song. Five years before Gloria Steinem launched Ms. magazine, feminists had their song too.
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, acknowledged by virtually every major music survey as among the best albums of the rock era (the New York Times said it "sounds like freedom"), won Aretha the first of her seventeen Grammys (one of which was for Lifetime Achievement; the most recent of which she was awarded in February 2004). In 1994 she received a Kennedy Center Honor; in 1987 she had already become the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Lady Soul has received no shortage of accolades. Yet her monumental contribution to popular music, today, is not taken seriously by a large sector of the public. Dubious taste in clothes and material, a limited performance schedule (thanks to a crippling fear of flying), and a certain divalike imperiousness (the product more of a natural shyness than of arrogance) have conspired to make Franklin come across more as a soul-sista caricature than as the genre-crossing, unclassifiable genius that she is. What's more, the extent of her vocal gift is often taken for granted; the fact that she's a great singer is almost a cliché, something people reflexively know without stopping to ponder why or how. Women singers, no matter how gifted, habitually get short shrift with regard to other elements of their musicality. Aretha is a great singer not just because of her instantly recognizable tone but because of her vocal flexibility, her interpretive intelligence, her skillful piano-playing, her ear, her experience.
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You is the title for this book not just because it's the title of the album in question but because it nicely raises the question of the exact identity of "you." Who is Aretha singing to, on this album and indeed in all of her music? The potential answers to this question summon various key themes in the singer's life. When she sings the words "I never loved a man the way I love you," is Aretha speaking to a man at all, or to God? The influence of Aretha's gospel training on her subsequent art cannot be overstated. Her formative years were spent learning her art in the church — for much of her life, consequently, music was the praising of the Lord. Along with Ray Charles, Aretha is largely responsible for bringing to the pop charts the kind of fervent, transcendent singing that had previously only existed in black churches. The gospel undertones of all her recorded output suggest that, when performing some particularly inspired vocal feat, Aretha could potentially be addressing either a lover or the Lord, a sex/religion paradox she picked up from Ray Charles and passed on to artists like Al Green and Marvin Gaye.
The lyric might also refer to Aretha's preacher father, to whom Aretha's devotion was without limits; there was nothing she wouldn't do for the famous and charismatic C. L. Franklin, a celebrity in his own right in the black church, an influential preacher whose musical delivery was widely imitated, and by most accounts a loving yet strict, demanding, and authoritative parent. Is Aretha swearing fealty to Daddy when she sings "I never loved a man the way I love you"? Certainly, lovers came in and out of the singer's life; her love for her father, however, was constant.
That said, the words of this song could of course refer to any number of the men in Aretha's life. At fourteen, she gave birth to her first child; she was no stranger to the coarser sex when she recorded this album at age twenty-four. Aretha herself has said, "If I can't feel it, I can't sing it," so we can confidently assume that some element of her personal life was being limned in her performance of the album's title cut (and indeed in all of her songs). Is "you" then-husband Ted White with whom Aretha had an undeniably stormy marriage? Could "you" be the still-unnamed father of Aretha's first child, or some other early lover of the singer? ("I think you have to bring it down to something carnal," Nikki Giovanni told me.)
When Aretha sings, "I never loved a man the way I loved you" (or, for that matter, when she sings, "you make me feel like a natural woman" or, "you better think about what you're trying to do to me" or, "ain't no way for me to love you, if you won't let me"), I for one feel as if she's singing directly to me. And this is the facet of Aretha's talent that I've tried to uncover. Whatever she sings, Aretha is nothing if not defiantly direct, open, real. At the height of her powers, Aretha's voice was fundamental, essential, honest, her presence complete, convincing, inarguable. As Robert Christgau, longtime music critic of the Village Voice, has written of Aretha's singing, "Its power is so ineffable that no one has ever satisfactorily described it in words. One reason the sentimental myths that identify her solely with soul grit and gospel exaltation hold such sway is that they at least make surface sense." But what's below the surface? How to describe the voice's melding of sweetness, sass, sex, pain, and strength, plus a metaphysical element, something unknowable? The challenge in writing about Aretha is to describe the essence of her voice, to go beyond the surface analysis described by Christgau, which so far has had to suffice when examining her art.
Aretha Franklin is not a diva. Although endless television specials, magazine tributes, critical commentary, homages from colleagues and other forms of contemporary mythmaking have conspired to persuade us in recent years that a diva is a "strong woman" of talent and Aretha is their queen, the truth is that Aretha, like her uncategorizable vocal gift, cannot be shoehorned into a shorthand designation co-opted from the world of opera for marketing purposes. If she comes across as imperious, it's in large part because she's shy; if she seems competitive with younger singers toward whom it would be more becoming to act as a mentor, it's because Aretha has bouts of insecurity. Her voice may be larger than life, but Aretha herself is not. "Natural woman" gets to the heart of the matter, but "ordinary woman" may even be more like it. To understand Aretha's universal appeal, it's essential to consider not just The Voice, but the woman behind it.
Conventional wisdom holds that Aretha's unprecedented international success with her first few Atlantic albums was the direct result of having been brought "back to church" by Jerry Wexler, being allowed to apply her gospel vocals and gospel pianism to material aimed at a mainstream pop audience. This is certainly true, but it's only part of the story. Aretha's very first, John Hammond–produced (and hitless) Columbia album contains several numbers of a decidedly gospel cast. "Are You Sure?" for example, is explicit in its Lord-praising message, as Aretha encourages her listeners to try prayer as a means of coping with daily travails and getting closer to the Lord. And even pop standards like "Over the Rainbow" were given the gospel treatment, with Aretha's impassioned wails lending "The Shoop Shoop Song," "You Made Me Love You," "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive" and other such middle-of-the-road fare an emotionality and ferocity that had never been heard before, certainly not from the female pop vocalists who traditionally essayed such material.
Excerpted from "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You"
Copyright © 2004 Matt Dobkin.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword: A Song for Me by Nikki Giovanni,
one "The Voice of Black America",
two Three White Men,
three The Jazz Singer,
four From the Church to the Charts,
five The New Deal,
six Muscle Shoals, Alabama,
seven "The Incident",
eight A Newfound Respect,
nine "It's 'Retha",
epilogue Aretha's Vocal Art,
Also by Matt Dobkin,