Aretha Franklin - Baby, Baby, Baby (Atlantic 2441)
Baby, Baby, Baby
I took my nine year old daughter (a big fan) to see Aretha Franklin last night in Manhattan. She was performing at a benefit concert for the National Marfan Foundation. Touring this fall to support a forthcoming album to be released on Clive Davis' J Records, Aretha's put together a 22 piece orchestra under the direction of the great H.B. Barnum. While a little heavy on the 'supper club' music for me (she covered both Beyond The Sea and Mack The Knife), the show still allowed the Queen Of Soul room to stretch out a bit. Although she only played piano on one selection, that was the high point of the evening for me... she remains, as Jerry Wexler has always reminded us, a genius.
So, what can I say about this amazing woman that hasn't already been said? Not much, I suppose, but I thought we'd focus on a remarkable three week period in early 1967 that changed everything. First, a little background:
The second of Reverend C.L. Franklin's three daughters (and two sons), Aretha was born in Memphis, but moved north with the family, finally settling in Detroit in the late forties. There her father would become the pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church, and a true legend. By the mid-fifties, his fiery sermons were being recorded by Leonard Chess and released on Checker with enormous success. The Franklin home became a haven for Gospel greats as they passed through town, and Aretha grew up singing with the likes of Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward as she helped them in the kitchen. The Reverend James Cleveland actually lived with the family for a time, and taught her how to play the piano 'by ear'. Sam Cooke was a frequent visitor as well, and encouraged her to "Sing, girl!". Sing she did, almost constantly. In Gerri Hirshey's Nowhere To Run, Aretha recalls singing with her sisters Erma and Carolyn "all day, every day" until the other girls begged her to stop. She began performing at New Bethel during her father's services when she was about nine years old.
As her father's reputation grew, he was able to tour the country and pull down a cool $4000 per appearance - big money in those days! When Aretha was 14, she began traveling the 'Gospel Highway' along with him, and that was when her real education began. Her first recordings were made during this period, and the resulting album, Never Grow Old, received plenty of airplay on Gospel radio. As the daughter of the renowned Reverend Franklin, she was already well known in the black community when she was 'discovered' by John Hammond in 1960.
Hammond, the legendary A&R man at Columbia records who had signed both Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday to the label, heard that same ineffable quality in Aretha's voice on a demo somebody was playing for him in his New York office. He went out of his way to find the young singer, and signed her to an extended contract in the fall of 1960 (Hammond would, of course, later go on to 'discover' Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen as well...). Her first Columbia sides were produced by Hammond, and songs like Today I Sing The Blues and Won't Be Long (backed by the Ray Bryant Combo) became top ten R&B hits, as would Operation Heartbreak in October of 1961. The B side of that record, her cover of Al Jolson's Rockabye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody, actually cracked the pop top 40, and seemed to set the tone for the rest of her stay at the label.
Bounced from one producer to another - like former Dinah Washington protegés Belford Hendricks and Clyde Otis (and even Mitch Miller!), later Columbia releases failed to create much of a stir, and by 1966 Aretha seemed to be just biding her time, waiting for her contract to run out. Louise Bishop, a dee-jay at Philadelphia radio station WDAS, heard that Franklin's Columbia contract was about to expire, and called old friend Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records.
Wexler jumped at the chance to add her considerable talent to the already formidable roster of Soul giants at the label, and made a 'handshake deal' with Aretha and her husband Ted White in the Fall of 1966. Jerry then offered her to Jim Stewart at Stax, who was riding high with his own impressive string of Atlantic distributed soul 'super-hits', but he turned him down (whether this was seen as some kind of peace offering from a man Stax had already attempted to distance itself from, we'll never know).
Wexler's next call was to Rick Hall down in Muscle Shoals. Atlantic had become Fame's biggest customer by then, and their recent track record with Wilson Pickett was just unreal. The big company had forced Hall to install a new three track board that would allow for stereo recording and overdubs at the studio by then, and he was none too happy about it. When Wexler told him he was bringing someone named Aretha Franklin down there to record, the name didn't mean anything to him or the rest of his young studio regulars, and he booked the studio for a week at the end of January 1967.
Wexler then called his favorite guitar player, Chips Moman, in Memphis and hired both him and bass player Tommy Cogbill to work on Aretha's Fame sessions (just as he had been doing with Pickett's). Moman had established his own American Studio in Memphis by then, and was now working with Dan Penn, who had teamed up with him after leaving Fame a few months earlier. Both Moman and Penn knew who Aretha was, and had been following her career ever since they first heard her Gospel material on WLAC. They were psyched, and decided to bring a song they had been working on down there for her to check out. That was fine with Wexler, and he asked Chips to put together 'the usual' Memphis horn section for him.
Now the plot thickens. Chips called Charlie Chalmers, a local sax player that was a regular at the studio (and would later become an essential part of Willie Mitchell's 'Hi Sound' as one third of legendary backround vocal trio Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes) and left the rest to him. For one reason or another, Charlie was unable to get his usual team (which included Bowlegs Miller and Floyd Newman, both black) together, and, along with David Hood (soon to become the regular Fame bass player) on trombone, he brought down Joe Arnold on sax and someone named Ken Laxton on trumpet. By all accounts, Laxton was somewhat of a 'wiseguy', and basically an outsider to the Memphis/Muscle Shoals hit making machinery.
On January 24, 1967, Jerry Wexler checked into the Downtowner Motor Inn in Florence, Alabama with Aretha, Ted White and his engineer Tom Dowd in tow. When they arrived at Fame for the sheduled session, he was a little taken aback to find no other black faces in the room, and he began to get nervous. White had been brought up in Detroit, a city only months away from major race riots, and was understandably wary. This was Alabama, after all.
Aretha, at home in any studio by then, sat down at the piano and just blew everyone away. At that moment, Wexler (to his eternal credit) decided that she would play piano on all her Atlantic material (something she had not been doing at Columbia). "When I heard her play I said, Jesus, she sounds like Thelonius Monk!", he later recalled. Everyone else at the session was equally impressed, and began to realize the sheer talent of the woman they were working with. White had brought a rough demo of a song written by Ronnie Shannon with him, and despite his and Wexler's enthusiasm for it, the down home boys just didn't get it. It was Spooner Oldham who would come up with a couple of rolling chords on the electric piano that formed the basis of the 'head-arrangement' that was to follow, with Chalmers writing up charts for the makeshift horn section as the song developed momentum.
After about four takes, they had created what still stands as a timeless distillation of how truly great soul music can be; I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You). I know I say this a lot, but, this one IS as good as it gets! The musicians in the room knew it too, and began celebrating, passing around a bottle. Ted White soon joined in, and the party was on. One thing led to another, and apparently Ken Laxton made some kind of 'inappropriate sexual remark' about Aretha in front of her husband. [We now know, through conversation with Ken's son Mikel, that Laxton's exact words were 'Man, she sure sings her ass off!' which is neither inappropriate nor sexual. -ed. 2015] White charged into the control booth and demanded that Wexler fire Laxton on the spot. Jerry, in true record company executive fashion, delegated that job to Rick Hall, who went ahead and fired him. At that point White and Wexler took off for their respective rooms at the motel, and that, basically should have been that.
Only it wasn't. Hall had had a bad day behind the new soundboard, with Tom Dowd looking over his shoulder and telling him what he was doing wrong. He hadn't heard much to celebrate about in the song they had just finished either, and basically felt like the whole session had been a bust, even before the incident with Laxton. He began pulling from the bottle as well, and decided he needed to go over to the motel and try to patch things up. By the time he knocked on Ted White's door, they were both well on their way, and an escalating shouting match soon turned into a fist fight that ended up with Hall cussing and screaming to Wexler on the phone in the lobby. White called Wexler's room next and told him he and his wife were leaving the next day. "Don't tell me, tell my lawyer," was his reply. Not good.
Meanwhile, back at the studio, Dan Penn had finished the lyrics to the song he and Chips had brought for Aretha, and had stayed behind with Spooner, Chips, Roger Hawkins and Tommy Cogbill to work on it with Aretha. They laid down a basic track, with Penn singing the lyrics to Do Right Woman - Do Right Man in Aretha's key, and called it a night, figuring they'd take up where they left off the next morning...
Unknown to them, Wexler had gotten into it pretty heavy with Rick Hall, broken off all ties with the studio, and left with the master tapes. He was pissed off. According to his wife Shirley, Jerry had staked his reputation on being able to "reveal the real Aretha Franklin" to the world, and he "felt like he was on stage... everybody was watching him". Jerry just couldn't see how something so right had suddenly gone so terribly wrong. He couldn't even find Aretha for two whole weeks, but when she finally called, he was ready.
He had been dying to release I Never Loved A Man, but he had no B side. In a stroke of genius, he decided to fly Aretha's sisters Erma and Carolyn (along with family friend Cissy Houston) in to New York to sing back-up on the sessions that would eventually complete the album. As noted earlier, they had been singing together since they were little kids, and that powerful chemistry came shining through in the studio. The first thing they did was to overdub the piano and vocal tracks to the rough version of Do Right Woman he had brought north from Muscle Shoals. Wasting no time, the single, with Do Right Woman now on the B side, was released on February 10, 1967. Very possibly THE greatest 'two-sider' in the history of soul music, I Never Loved A Man spent 7 weeks at #1 R&B (and cracked the the top ten Pop), while the flip side would break into the top 40 R&B on its own later that year.
A simple phone call to Memphis ensured that Chips Moman, Tommy Cogbill and Charlie Chalmers (along with professional 'hanger-on' Dan Penn) would come to Atlantic's New York studios to work on the album... now came the hard part. Jerry had cooked up a scheme, in true NYC fashion, to have Muscle Shoals 'delivered'. He called Rick Hall and asked him if he had a problem with Atlantic hiring his studio musicians for an upcoming King Curtis session. Hall, still hoping he hadn't totally blown it with the company, readily agreed. Spooner Oldham, Jimmy Johnson, and Roger Hawkins couldn't believe it was really happening, but they were flown into New York, and recorded King Curtis Plays The Great Memphis Hits at Atlantic. When they were finished, Wexler called them into his office and explained the real reason they were there. He put them right back on the floor to record what would become the third track cut for the album, the great Save Me, which had been written by King Curtis, Aretha and her younger sister Carolyn. Chips Moman, much to his regret, had to fly back to Memphis for prior committments at American at that point.
The next session was scheduled for Valentine's Day, and Wexler called in Atlantic secret weapon Arif Mardin (who had just finished working his magic on the Young Rascals' Groovin') as an arranger. According to Mardin, Aretha's arrangements were fully formed in the chords she used on the piano, and all he had to do was translate them to the other instruments (and voices) involved. In what may go down as one of the greatest days in Atlantic history, they would cut two songs written by Aretha; Don't Let Me Lose This Dream (co-written with Ted White), and today's cool B side, which was written with little sister Carolyn, and shows what a great 'girl group' the Franklin Sisters were.
They next tackled three covers of songs made famous by men Aretha really dug - Ray Charles' Drown In My Own Tears, Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come, and Otis Redding's Respect. There simply aren't enough superlatives to convey how HUGE a song Respect was, and remains to this day. When it was released as a single that May it soared to #1 on both the Pop and R&B charts, and would manage to define dance music that Summer, while becoming the ultimate 'message song' as well. To see the crowd (and my daughter) go absolutely wild when she lit into it last night to open the show, demonstrates the enduring power this phenomenal song continues to have almost 40 years after it's release.
They would round out the album the following day, recording Dr. Feelgood, Soul Serenade, and Good Times, before sending the boys from Alabama back home. I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You) had become everything Wexler wanted it to be, and more. He had proven to the world, once and for all, what a great producer he really was and had, as promised, delivered the 'real' Aretha Franklin to the world. If you don't have it already, you owe it to yourself to own this landmark album.
Oh and, by the way, the A side of today's selection was recorded on February 16th, 1967 but held out for later release... something called (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.
Like Wexler said, "genius, baby".