Aretha Franklin – Demanding ‘Respect’ Messages and Music

Shortly after Aretha Franklin signed with Atlantic Records she flew down to begin recording what would become the title track to her first Atlantic album. It wasn’t “Respect” which became the first track and a lasting national treasure. She recorded “I Never Loved a Man the Way that I Loved You”. This title track and the events that accompanied its recording have become a part of the myth surrounding this album. Sandwiched between two powerful songs that were and still are representative of the Civil Rights movement is a series of songs that teem with the potential of personal narrative. They echo the hidden turmoil of relationships and the strong emotions that many of us may attest we have felt before. Whether written by Aretha or another writer, each song became her own story that she told us. Was this album truly personal? Did she feel and live every moment of this album or is it just coincidence and conjecture?

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Side 1- “Respect” (Otis Redding) – The Searing saxophones and then the sharp soulful call of Aretha’s nearly inimitable gospel call, that cries amidst responses by her sisters Elma and Carolyn, stand out in contrast to the original 1965 Redding record. This amazing start sets the tonality to an album full of singles that in hindsight tell a story. In most stories setting and character development can change what we think about everything that happens. ‘Respect’ shows us a perfect example of how not only who sings the song but how they interpret the character of that song can change how we feel. Music can be deeply emotive and with Aretha It absolutely is. The original version done by Otis Redding was a man singing about how the world didn’t give respect and how he wanted respect when he comes home. Listening to Aretha we have a woman standing in strength amidst a chaotic world shouting with gospel praise to be given the respect she deserves not only at home but in the world. References thrown in about hungry people and the fantastic spelling “R-ES-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me”(the later which was thought up by Aretha’s sister Carolyn shift the drama from home to resonate within the souls of every woman and segregated person demanding rights.

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King Curtis leads the charge with his fantastic saxophone playing and it is hard not to feel as though he is playing a soulful Calvary call for all to stand up and seize the moment to demand justice. Strength not pride adorn this interpretation and there may not be enough words to write that can describe how stirring this song is. For those who lived this perilous journey and still do the song speaks to the downtrodden and discriminated against pushing them onward in the struggle to obtain equality. Here the stage is set. The heart swells with song and emotion and we are pushed towards a new resolution of self. Aretha Franklin proclaims her powerful self and demands justice at home and in the world. What is that line? Yes there is a line people often misquote in this song- but more of that later we are in full swing.

“Drown in My Own Tears” (Henry Glover) – Ray Charles must have influenced this track heavily because it still carries the gospel swing and shuffle and the piano call and response he cultivated into a deeply rooted soul movement within his 1962 rendition. His was not the first. Before him Lula Reed (1951) and Dinah Washington (1956) had sang this similarly. However after the soulful demand for respect we are treated to moments of Aretha doing things with her voice that made it easy for people to call her “The Queen of Soul”. There is a repeated soaring into a lustrous ‘G’ that stirs the speakers themselves and resonates the ear and soul. It should be noted that Aretha Franklin is credited with playing the piano for this entire album. It is obvious that gospel music flowed from her earlier career and flourished in this soulful rendition. Repeating words and phrases for emphasis or responding with interpretive calls to the instruments that lyrically swoon beneath her rubato piano shuffles define this stylistically. It is not joy it is the blues but so deep that it has become a soulful gospel cry for salvation from the pain.

“I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You” (Ronnie Shannon) – This marks the first song Aretha recorded for her Atlantic career and forms the beginning of the drama as it unfolds. Before now we have heard the demand for respect and the sorrow at being away from the one you love.

Aretha went down to the FAME studios in Muscle Shoals Alabama to record there and sat down at the piano. Her playing excited the originally slotted studio pianist Spooner Oldham who moved to Electric piano. After a few ideas she hit some chords and it all started to come together. When we look at her own life and the few glimpses we are given through biography and witnesses to this event there are several moments that begin to play out. As they recorded this track, and attempted to record the b-side for the single release, the incidents that occurred change this album from a collection of songs into an autobiographical glimpse into the spirit, soul, and turmoil of being not only a black woman in a segregated world, but being Aretha Franklin. This is on my part possible conjecture, however it would be foolhardy to not understand that with great emotional singing comes great emotion within the singer.

“My friends keep telling me that you’re no good” she sings. Later we find out that this may have been absolutely true about her then husband Ted White. On this subject Aretha has kept relatively quiet.

The story is as follows. As the recording progressed Ted White got into a verbal spar with trumpet player Melvin Lastie whom he thought was hitting on, or looking too much at, his wife. After a break they couldn’t get the session to sound right. That evening Ted got even more upset and as rumor has it physical most likely with Jerry Wexler or Tom Dowd. Conjecture is that they argued about recording with a bunch of rednecks. Regardless the sessions fell apart after that and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” was not completed. Aretha went away and was not heard from for several weeks.

“Soul Serenade” (Curtis Ousley, Luther Dixon) – Luther Dixon has written for and with the best. He collaborated with Carole King for the song, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and wrote the song “Boys” that The Shirelles and later The Beatles sang. Here he collaborates with none other than King Curtis who would use this as a title track for his album in 1968.

“I want to be free to fly away and sing to the world about my soul serenade” These words could not be more aptly placed in this album as we draw parallels between the themes of this album and her life. It quickly lifts you into the theme and the saxophone responses are perfect and hook you in. Aretha swirls emotionally around the melody combining elements of jazz and gospel ballad creating the epitome of soul. The emotion of the song is almost inherent but cloaked in the more upbeat accompaniment. Although here the contemplation of being free exists; is there enough desire to actually move forward?

“Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream” (Aretha Franklin, Ted White) – When listening to a song it is often hard to tell how truthful to reality the song is to the artist. How autobiographical is this really? Yet here husband and wife write together about feelings they must have had. Clearly the tempestuousness of the relationship existed and this song tells the story of holding strong to that and keeping the dream alive. The emotion is taught set against and beautiful rhythmic tapestry. Aretha sings truthfully, “I only know, I only know”. It is hopeful and uplifting. “Baby baby be be strong”

Yet there is this very poignant lyric message: “You say that you believe that what I say is true And that I’m the one and only girl for you Just tell me no matter what the people say Say that I gave my heart all the way” “Don’t let me lose this dream” fades out leaving us without knowing if the dream ever came true. Certainly Aretha was clinging to the dream. The relationship would continue but she later admitted, “Alcohol played a destructive role”.

“Baby, Baby, Baby” (Aretha Franklin, Carolyn Franklin) – Aretha wrote this song with her sister. The theme is conflicted and beautiful. We hear the story of a person who is going to leave and doesn’t mean to hurt someone and would rather hurt themselves. Her singing is absolutely glorious for such a short track. We here some beautiful slurs and the effect of where and when the phrases breathe is nothing short of great interpretative singing. Yet here again these themes are incredibly direct in their relation to Aretha. Where as husband and wife the theme was holding to the dream here it seems the team of sisters has turned to Aretha moving on despite the love that exists. There is a dilemma in the writing that is apparent. “Reach out to me boy”. The song even ends with the phrase “I need you” yet more than anything the tale tells of the already made decision to leave. Behind this is the implied statement: if you want me to stay you need to reach out to me.

SideTwo

Side 2- “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business)” (Aretha Franklin, Ted White) – “I don’t want nobody always sitting around me and my man… Be it my mother my brother or my sister” these lyrics from the first verse of this very bluesy song further draw us into the personal drama. If it were an argument to stay despite domestic difficulties it is presented as an absolute with no questions left. He makes her feel better than anyone even a doctor. Not much is known about her personal relationship with Ted White but these last three songs seem like more commentary than we really have ever heard from most about what happened.

“Good Times” (Sam Cooke) – moving right along! Really as though the intention to release the tension of the blues we are told to let the good times roll. The song drives forward with enthusiastic intention and almost disappears too soon. The song feels out of place except that it segues between the strong themes and provides a release from the seriousness of the other songs. It is escapism in a sense and a gleeful punctuation to “Dr. Feelgood”.

“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” (Dan Penn, Chips Moman) – certainly Aretha could not escape the strength she possessed as an artist and as a woman. This song slowly teaches us that being a man isn’t about where you stand in the world but how you behave where you stand. “Take me to heart and I’ll always love you and nobody can make me do wrong, take me for granted leaving love unsure makes will power weak and temptation strong. A woman’s only human you should understand she’s not just a plaything she’s flesh and blood just like her man” We are faced with a deep proposition. The song asks for respect for womanhood because of mortality not just for equality.

Aretha’s tonality darkens a bit maybe because of the key of the song. She sound gentle and pleading requesting peace in a personal relationship. Because of multi tracking capabilities she plays both the organ and the piano and it is a unique opportunity to listen to her really drive the feeling of the song. “If you wanna do right…etc.” The song has a somber air.

The mention of mortality in the terms of “flesh and blood” make a clear statement that being treated right as a woman is being treated right as a human. How abusive the relationship was is unknown at the time of writing this article. What is known is that the relationship came to an end in 1969. The setting of all the previous songs tell the story of all the swirling intense emotions that accompany a difficult relationship. The love and the heartache. The songs pull emotionally up and down and all over presenting the pros and cons of even being together. Yet decisively the theme is settled here and in the next song.

“Save Me” (Curtis Ousley, Aretha Franklin, Carolyn Franklin) – “save me someone save me” It is easy to forget that she is singing about a relationship and get lost in the gospel furvor of the dynamite sound that is emitted when Aretha sings. The man is coming around again and the heroine calls out for a hero to save her even the “Caped Crusader” or the “Green Hornet”.

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She has the uncanny ability to sing a song and make it less about her and more about us. Her voice is thrown beyond the microphone and into the world and to great effect. Aretha’s calling out for someone to come and save her sets the stage for what is to be an emotional ending to this album. You cannot be blamed if the sensation of the song leads to the internalization of the message. We all need saving sometime.

“A Change Is Gonna Come” (Sam Cooke) – tracking in at 4 minutes and twenty seconds it has been worth the wait for the lengthier finish to this album. This song had already established itself as an anthem of the civil rights movement and serves as a perfect bookend to “Respect”. Sam Cooke wrote this song after a degrading experience in Shreveport, Louisiana. He and his band had made reservations for a hotel over the phone. When they arrived they were told there were no more vacancies at the “whites only” Holiday Inn. He left reasonably fuming and when they arrived downtown at the negro hotel they were greeted by police waiting outside who promptly arrested them. The Associated Press headline read, “Negro Bandleader Held in Shreveport”. This incident took place on October, 8th 1963.

Shortly after Christmas the same year Sam Cooke penned this amazing song that today still serves as a song of hope for a better day for the oppressed and a stark reminder that Civil Rights are an important part of what people have suffered a long time to receive. It was orchestrated sweetly with strings and sung beautifully by Sam Cooke.

Here though Aretha introduces the song herself with piano. She plays beautifully turning this song into a personal gospel statement referencing Sam Cooke directly as the “HE” in the song.

The organ pads out the gospel sound. We are lead to believe Aretha is playing the piano here, according to all accounts, and one can only marvel at her beautiful touch. She stirs us to know that with all the strength she can muster she is going to sing the change into us and the world. We are pulled into a deep gospel declaration for change that has left the gentle mournful sweep of the original and launches into impressive soulful improvisations that clearly would be at home in a baptist church. She sings with strength that she knows a change is gonna come. It is an unforgettably powerful recording.

This album deserves the accolades and not just for the strength of the musicians that were able to stand up behind Aretha’s dominating vocal presence, but also for its powerful emotional resonance and messages. In a time when many albums were groups of songs with barely a theme even now I am able to trace a story arc through it to tell the tale of Aretha Franklin’s personal journey. Beyond that the strongly soulful singing and the messages of empowerment despite vulnerability lift this album and launch it into the heart so that, before you know it, you may feel the song without even understanding what it really says. This is an incredible dynamic of musical sound and an amazing achievement. The words tell us something, Her voice shows us what it means and the arrangements are the adornments that decorate the pages of the mind.

Personal Note: I have had the privilege to see Aretha Franklin perform in person and due to this research discovered a historical error being perpetuated. First, however, the misquoted line from “Respect”. People and even a cartoon typically state the lyrics as, “take out TCP”. That would leave you with ‘rese’. The now settled upon accurate lyrics are, “take care of TCB” a common parlance of the time meaning ‘taking care of business’. This is not the only mistake: The performance I attended was unforgettable.

It was the 39th Annual Grammy Awards and the previous night there was a lot of buzz surrounding a benefit concert in which Aretha sang ‘Nessun Dorma’ in place of Luciano Pavarotti. I was not slated to be there that evening and was instead a thankful attendant to the nominee party because of participation in the Grammy in The Schools Jazz Ensemble. The next day most expected Pavarotti to sing as had been planned for the telecast. However as the time arose the announcement was made and out stepped Aretha Franklin. It is an unforgettable moment. The Queen of Soul singing her interpretation of an Italian Opera Aria that had become a signature piece for Maestro Pavarotti. YouTube video captions and even the Wikipedia article states that the year was 1998. The year was in fact 1997. So to set the ‘record’ straight, she sang Nessun Dorma for the nation in 1997 and it was actually her second performance of it. It was electric to be there and she promptly received a standing ovation. It really has solidified in my mind what it means to be a musician and what is often lacking in today’s music. The ability to use your voice with strength and grace despite last minute changes. Further still the ability to make last minute changes. There were no backing tracks or voice sweeteners. It was just an orchestra and The Queen of Soul, the inimitable, Aretha Franklin.