That Time Aretha Sat Down to the Piano

Aretha Franklin records in Muscle Shoals, Alabama  – January 24, 1967

No, not that time.  Yes, it was great to see Aretha perform at the most recent Kennedy Center Honors and to watch Barack and Michelle bop along. Those two have earned a fun night out if anyone in America ever has, the shit they’ve had to put up with these past nearly eight years. Although – in terms of the show itself – I could have done without all the cutaways to Carole King waving her arms and acting amazed, just amazed!

(Amazed at what, Carole, that Aretha’s still alive, still bringing it? I mean, she hasn’t been in exile in a faraway land, she didn’t just get released from stir. But I’m being petty. And I shouldn’t blame Carole. I should blame the cameraman, who I’m guessing was on loan from CBS Sports, where he’d covered archery and darts. Or the producers, who think they have to “build a narrative” for everything, so all the folks at home know what they’re watching and how they should feel about it. Will we ever again just have basic coverage of an event, of the thing itself, so we can just, like, watch it? Instead of watching people in the crowd wave their arms? And act amazed.)

No, the time Aretha sat down to the piano that I’m talking about was nearly 40 years ago, in 1967, when Aretha finally got free of Columbia and was able to sign with Atlantic Records instead. Columbia Records then was run by Mitch Miller – of insipid “Sing Along with Mitch” fame – but, at Atlantic, her producer would be Jerry Wexler. Among other things, Wexler had coined the marketing term “rhythm & blues” to replace the execrable “race music,” which had ghettoized black American composers and performers since the beginning of radio play. So there was at least a chance Aretha’s new equally-white producer would be more in tune with her than Sing-Along-with-Freaking-Mitch.

What Wexler suggested to Aretha was a session at FAME Studios in tiny Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  The recording studio – with its tremendous roster of backing musicians – had scored rhythm & blues hits for local artists such as Arthur Alexander,  Jimmy Hughes, and the Tams, but it was Wexler (and the Atlantic artists he brought in) who would help it reach the next level. If you haven’t seen the wonderful documentary about FAME Studios called Muscle Shoals (2013), treat yourself. Not the least of its many pleasures are the present-day interviews with Aretha Franklin.

muscleshoals1000v2When Aretha arrived at Muscle Shoals, what Jerry Wexler suggested she do was sit down to the piano and play. Where Columbia had cut off her gospel roots and tried to mold and popify Aretha into someone she wasn’t, Atlantic was interested in hearing what Aretha herself wanted to be. By Aretha’s own account, the music poured out of her.  They settled at the session on “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” as her first recording in Muscle Shoals. Sadly or understandably (depending on who’s doing the telling), it would also be her last.

Something happened at that recording session – something besides the obvious thing of an incomparable artist finding her true voice – and its mostly agreed-upon lineaments include a) a horn player getting fresh with Franklin; b) her husband at the time insisting that the horn player be fired; c) the horn player being fired but that proving insufficient redress for the husband, who insists Aretha leave Muscle Shoals; and d) Aretha leaving.

I’m good with that version. Or any other version that someone cares to put forth. It’s all water under the bridge at this faint remove and, besides, FAME had done its work – or rather Aretha had been able to do her work there – and the greatest period in one of the finest careers in American music history was underway. The single recorded at Muscle Shoals became the title song of Aretha Franklin’s first album at Atlantic. And that album, among its other great songs, included covers of Otis Redding’s “Respect” – Aretha’s first monster hit – and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Chew on that last a moment.  The newly confident Aretha not only took on Otis Redding and made one of his signature songs her own – but also recorded a thrilling, hurt-you-down-to-the-bone version of Sam Cooke’s last and most personal song. Which song, by the way, just happens to be one of the greatest American protest songs ever written.

Chew on that and … so long as the cameras aren’t rolling … go ahead and wave your arms.

aretha on tour uk

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