When the Queen of Soul began her travels yesterday to her final home, we remembered that to become the queen, Aretha Franklin first had to travel through Muscle Shoals, Alabama. We talk to Spooner Oldham and David Hood, who played on the 1967 landmark album that made her a superstar, and remember the greatest voice in the history of soul music.
By Chuck Reece
In the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century, the murders started early.
From 1955 forward, Southern white supremacists trying to stop the movement in its tracks killed dozens of black people. From Emmett Till in 1955 to Medgar Evers and the four little girls of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, no-account Kluxers rained terror on Southern blacks.
Did Southern courts bring swift justice to the martyrs’ families? Hell, no. Did every Southern news organization stand against the terrorists? Sadly, just a few.
But something else was going on in those years. Even as countless heartless crimes were committed against African-Americans, small groups of Southern blacks and whites worked together in secret to build a monument of great beauty, a cultural achievement that will stand until the end of time.
Their workshops were recording studios. The monument they built was called soul music. Blacks and whites together built resplendent musical bridges over the old divide, and did it primarily in two places: Memphis, Tennessee, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Thus, in January of 1967, a 24-year-old Aretha Franklin came to magical Muscle Shoals, in search of her groove.
After Columbia Records head John Hammond signed Franklin in 1961, he seemed unable to find the right setting for Franklin’s remarkable voice. Her early albums on Columbia cast her, for the most part, as a jazz singer, and none of them climbed higher than 69 on the U.S. albums chart. After Columbia’s final attempt, 1966’s “Soul Sister,” stalled out, Aretha Franklin moved to Atlantic Records under the direction of Jerry Wexler, one of the label’s founders. Wexler brought Franklin to Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, where she spent January and February of 1967 recording with Shoals masters like Spooner Oldham, Jimmy Johnson, Chips Moman, Tommy Cogbill, and David Hood. The result was, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.” The album was released in March, and it jumped to No. 1 on the U.S. R&B album charts and No. 2 on the Hot 200. It produced Franklin’s first two hit singles: her definitive version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” and the title cut, written by Ronnie Shannon.
That album made — and still makes — perfect, beautiful, Southern sense to me. When word Franklin was gravely ill came earlier this week, I put it back on the turntable. And it reminded me, as it always has, Aretha Franklin had to come home to find the music that could do justice to her inimitable voice and would rocket her to stardom.
I know the South, technically, was not her home: Aretha grew up in Detroit. But her roots in the South run as deeply as those of any African-American family that departed our region during Jim Crow and the Great Migration. She was born in Memphis, but was only 4 when her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, the son of Sunflower County, Mississippi, sharecroppers, settled in Detroit as pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church.
Aretha’s singing career bloomed in that church. She recorded her first album — a gospel record called “Songs of Faith” — at New Bethel in 1956, when she was only 14 years old. Listen to that record (if you can find it), and you’ll hear just how far the threads of Southern music had traveled by the mid-20th century. Black families carried the gospel sounds of their churches with them as they dispersed across the Midwest and Northeast to escape Jim Crow, and their music remained intact in those new locations.
The conclusion is inescapable: Aretha’s musical roots were as Southern as any of you are. And if you’re a student of Southern musical culture, it must always be noted she might have never become a superstar had she not come “home” to the South.
She’d Known It Forever
David Hood, known most widely as the bass player in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, played on “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” — but not the bass. He played trombone in the horn section. Hood would later add soulful bass lines to dozens of Aretha’s performances on record and on the stage, but he remains grateful the ’bone got him into the session.
“There was a problem in the booking of the horns,” Hood recalled earlier this week. “The ones they wanted, they couldn't get that day. And so, I got on the session that way.”
He remembers Aretha as a shy young woman who didn’t tell the musicians what she was going for, and instead just showed them.
“We'd been talking to Jerry Wexler. People were recording her wrong, and he wanted to bring her to Muscle Shoals,” Hood said. “It was to get her a little bit more funky style, but also to have her play the piano while she sang. There are some technical problems when doing something like that, but it was great. It helped the musicians find the style and get the feel that she wanted, and I think that's what made the difference. On nearly all the best cuts she ever did, she was playing the piano on as well as singing.”
In other words, she was doing the same things she’d done in church since she was a teenager: playing and singing the gospel.
“You could just pick up the feeling from her piano,” Hood said. “She grew up in a church and had that piano style and vocal style. And that's what Jerry wanted, and that's what everybody picked up on, I think.”
“I expect that was a style y’all would have felt pretty much at home in,” I replied.
“Yes,” Hood said. “Very much so.”
Aretha’s apple had not fallen too far from the tree.
Yesterday, after Aretha’s passing was confirmed, I spoke with another player on “I Never Loved a Man” — the legendary keyboardist and songwriter Spooner Oldham.
“Her dad had been a preacher — a Baptist preacher — and she sang at church as a child prodigy,” Oldham told me. “I guess he’d stack her up on the pulpit or whatever, lift her up where you could see her. So, coming to Muscle Shoals probably resonated the Southern experience in her brain, even though she had been gone forever. And then, when she was allowed to turn loose with all that Southern expression, we just played our hearts out, because we were used to that stuff. I mean, we weren't used to her — because she was top of the heap — but she brought it all out of us. I was curious because I knew she hadn't been around the South much, but she was belting that stuff out like she'd known it forever.”
And the truth was, she had known it forever. But Oldham didn’t know for sure they had recorded a hit album until Wexler called the Muscle Shoals crew to New York to put finishing touches on “I Never Loved a Man” a month after the Alabama sessions.
Between the sessions, Oldham said, “Aretha had been practicing at home with her sisters and family, singing those backup things. And then, when I first heard that re-re-re-respect, just-a-little-bit, sock-it-to-me-sock-it-to-me thing, all of that was brand new. It had never been done before. I knew something was going on then, you know. I knew it was going to turn the world around.”
Aretha Franklin did turn the world around, starting with that album’s release in March of 1967. On the first cut, she transformed Otis Redding’s pleas for a little respect from his woman into a monumental anthem for all women, who got precious little respect in those days.
For 20 more years, she consistently put singles at No. 1 on the charts, making us dance, sway, even cry: ”Baby I Love You,” “Chain of Fools,” “Sweet Sweet Baby Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Think,” “Share Your Love With Me,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Day Dreaming,” “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do),” “Something He Can Feel,” “Break It to Me Gently,” “Jump to It,” “Freeway of Love,” “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me.”
For those of us who grew up on soul music, these and many other of her songs are landmarks, caches in which we hide our own memories, touchstones we all go back to repeatedly because they inspire us, comfort us, make us dance as we did in our youth. No voice ever dominated a genre of music as completely as Aretha’s. The Queen of Soul title has no hyperbole in it.
Hood told me a story about the last time he played with Aretha, in 2011 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
“I was part of the stage band,” he said. “We were doing a tribute to Aretha show, and she was not supposed to play or sing or anything. And they had all these other artists to sing her songs — Jerry Butler, Cissy Houston, I can’t even remember all of them. But at the very end of the show, she decided she would sing. She did ‘A Song for You,’ and, my God, I just stood there behind her and tried to find what she was doing and play along with her. I didn’t have a chart or anything. That was a great moment.”
In the video from that night, you can see Hood struggle a bit as Aretha sits at the piano and renders a highly improvisational and profoundly church-like version of Leon Russell’s classic tune. You can also see a giant smile plastered on his face in that moment, as if he knew his own notes didn’t matter much because the Queen had the crowd in the palm of her hand, all on her own, even in this utterly unrehearsed moment.
But the thing David Hood remembers most about that night was how much Aretha Franklin had changed in the 34 years between his first meeting with her and that evening in Cleveland.
“When she came into the theater, we were backstage, eating and hanging out,” he remembered. “And when she came in, it was like the queen of England had come in. Everybody was so in awe of her presence. That was entirely different from the way it was in the beginning, when she was just a young, young woman who was very shy.
“But when she came in that last time I saw her, it was like Queen Elizabeth walking in the room.”
When I heard that, I found myself wondering what the vibe must be like in heaven today — now that the Queen has just arrived.