Counterbalance No. 81: Aretha Franklin's 'I Never Loved a Man...'
If you want a do right, all day woman, look no further than the 81st Most Acclaimed Album of All-Time, a landmark 1967 soul serenade from Aretha Franklin.
Klinger: I can only imagine what a mind-messer Aretha Franklin's "Respect" must have been when it first hit the airwaves back in 1967. Even if you had heard Otis Redding's version a couple years before, this rendition still must have sounded like it came from another planet. That punch-in-the-face intro, the brassy first blast of vocals, those backing vocals that zig every time you think they're going to zag—it must have been one of the most thrilling experiences pop music had offered up in quite some time.
A shame, then, that it's been worn down to such a nub in the intervening years. Every time I hear this song I end up thinking of Murphy Brown for some reason, and I'm not even entirely sure why. Did Candace Bergen sing it a lot on the show, Mendelsohn? I don't remember, but here we are. Anyway, the song has become such a cliché, such a lazy Hollywood way of expressing empowerment, that it's practically lost all meaning. If you really concentrate, though, you can still hear that first spark that made "Respect" so great. And luckily, the album it came from, Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, is full of plenty more moments that haven't been chewed into mush by the Big Chill generation. I'll let you point out a few now.
Mendelsohn: Wait, what? You lost me at Murphy Brown. Mentions of late-’80s sitcoms that my parents used to watch leave me spinning in nostalgia. Please excuse me while I try to put any and all mental images of Corky Sherwood out of my mind. If I don't I won’t be able to focus on . . . Aretha Franklin. Hey, funny story. Aretha did a cameo on Murphy Brown. She did a private show, performing "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” for Murphy. It was funny and empowering, but unfortunately Corky Sherwood was not in the scene. And there I go, thinking about Corky Sherwood again. This is going to be tough.
Look, this album is great; I'm not going to pretend it's not, and any nitpicking I'm about to engage in will be strictly academic. The thing I love the most about this album is Franklin's voice—it's the only constant on the LP, the one element that pulls the record from Great all the way past Exceptional to Unmatched. Her voice can seemingly be all things—as powerful as a hurricane or as soft as a spring breeze, biting and acidic or sweet and supple. It doesn't change from song to song, it changes from bar to bar and it is simply amazing. My favorite example is 'I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)": she is so sharp, matching those staccato horns step for step, and then the bottom drops out and her voice turns into a cloud.
Klinger: Well, I certainly hate to push you into your own Faith Ford memory hole, so we'll try our best to stay focused on the album at hand. And of course since this is the Internet and not some tea-and-crumpets salon, I'm afraid I'm going to have to prod you further regarding your nitpicking of I Never Loved a Man. Because to my ears, there's enough consistency of sound to explain why critics view this as a cohesive album that more than warrants its place on the Great List. And at the same time there's still a surprising diversity of sound in the arrangements. For a more obscure example, there's "Save Me", which cops the intro to Them's "Gloria" to marvelous effect.
Then there are the covers of what were essentially soul standards, taken in some odd directions here, like Ray Charles' "Drown in My Own Tears". Aretha's arrangement strips the original of the basic hook that makes the chorus so memorable, and in the process makes the song completely her own. In fact, I listened to this album several times before it fully kicked in for me that it's the same song. All of which forces me to ask, "Why must you nitpick this album, Mendelsohn? Why?"
Mendelsohn: I have to nitpick, Klinger. What else are we going to do? Talk about how great this record is? Or how it launched the career of the finest female singer of our generation? Or why it isn't higher on the list? Debating perfection is boring. And if we are going to talk about perfection, please let me direct your attention to pictures of Faith Ford in business attire. My nitpicking is purely an exercise in rhetoric. Yes, this album is great. Yes, Franklin's vocal work is still unmatched to this day. My issue lies solely with the backing band and production not be being nearly as good as it could have been, which forces Franklin to carry the record. Now, is my nitpickery completely unwarranted? Without a doubt. But let’s take a look at the list and the other soul album that came out one year earlier—Otis Redding's Otis Blue. I know, we aren't here to compare these records to one another, but hearing Franklin do some of the same soul standards always leads me down that path. Plus, there is the fact that Redding did write "Respect", the song that Franklin is most famous for—and for good reason, as she completely blows Redding out of the water.
I can't point to any certain song and say, "See? The band is terrible", because they aren't. Redding's band is just better; they had more pop and the sort of intangible qualities that you can't purchase or practice. Do you know what I mean? Franklin's band sounds flat in comparison. Of course, I could be just be imagining things, like global warming, and this might just be a problem with my record player.
Klinger: Yeah, blow the fuzz off your needle, Mendelsohn, because you're clearly missing out on a few things. Because while it's true that the Stax group had more power, there's a lot to be said for the finesse of this Muscle Shoals group. There's a lot to be said for their ability to shift dramatically from the gospel infused R&B of the title track into the bossa nova of "Don't Let Me Lose This Dream". (Of course, I recall that there was some . . . unpleasantness . . . at the Muscle Shoals sessions—something involving Aretha’s husband Ted White, a couple of players, and a bottle of whiskey—that caused the album to be finished up in New York.) But because the players are so deft, there's more room for one of my favorite things about this album—the backing vocals of the Sweet Inspirations, mostly arranged by Aretha's sister Carolyn. I mentioned earlier how they help transform "Respect" into a whirligig, but they also somehow manage to anchor Aretha in her various flights of fancy.
Of course, it's because of that sense that Aretha has really taken off on I Never Loved a Man that we're talking about it now. Prior to this, she was recording at Columbia, who was eager to turn her into the next Dinah Washington. Not that there's anything wrong with wanting more than one Dinah Washington—and really, there's not much wrong with those early records in and of themselves (in fact, they seem to be on their way toward a critical reevaluation). But hearing the difference between those more restrained performances and these early Atlantic albums is like someone flipping on a light switch. And at least some of the credit can go to producer Jerry Wexler and those simpatico musicians.
Mendelsohn: And, as you can see, a well-reasoned, fact-based argument puts my nitpickery to shame—as it should. Because what am I doing? I'm complaining about the Muscle Shoals contingent not being nearly as good as the Stax contingent, which, when you get right down to it, is like comparing fudge to fudge with nuts—they both taste awesome. Unless you are allergic to nuts.
A lot gets made out of certain artists "opening the door", for a bunch of other artists to make it big. Recently, I've heard some mumbling about how Adele's success is somehow tied to Amy Winehouse "opening the door" for her, although I'm still trying to figure out that correlation. But be that as it may, do you think it would be safe to say that is was Franklin who kicked down the door in the first place and forced the criterati to take notice of the fairer sex?
Klinger: You know, you may be on to something there, Mendelsohn. Prior to Aretha Franklin, critics were less likely to view female pop musicians as artists in their own right. Perhaps it's thanks to her jazzish years at Columbia that she was distanced from, say, her Motown contemporaries and given a chance to be considered as something more than a singer. Maybe it's she combines the unbridled ecstasy of gospel with the control of jazz. Either way, the impact is undeniable. When you're hearing a singer with as much power as Aretha, it's hard not to think you're in the presence of something truly special. Sort of like how feel when you watch Corky Sherwood.