Patterson Hood’s father played with the late Aretha Franklin for years. Today, he remembers the great power she had in his family and on his life.
By Patterson Hood
“Hey Daddy, what did you do today?”
“Well, I sat in my living room, listening to Aretha Franklin, and wept.”
“This Girl Is In Love With You,” Atlantic Records, 1970. My dad flew to New York City and Miami to record it with Aretha — the musicians together in those rooms with her sitting at the piano and singing those incredible vocal takes live as they played. The band also included Duane Allman, Eddie Hinton, Barry Beckett, Jimmy Johnson, Jerry Weaver, and the great Roger Hawkins. Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin were producing. It’s a sublime piece of work, often overlooked in her catalog due to the monumental status of so many of her classic recordings and performances, but I can’t listen to “Call Me” from that album without tears rolling down my face as she conjures the heartbreak and loss she lived through and expressed so beautifully in her art.
August 16 was already known as the day Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, passed away in Memphis in 1977. And now, 41 years later, Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, born in Memphis but having lived most of her life in Detroit, passed away after a life of universal love and acclaim but also horrific loss and tragedy. Many better writers than me will no doubt write about her life in the upcoming days, and I’ll surely read most of them.
I never met Aretha Franklin and only saw her sing one song live, in 2009 at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, but there’s never been a time in my life when Aretha wasn’t in some way a part of it all.
My dad was there in that tiny room at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals when Aretha sat at the piano, next to Spooner Oldham who was playing the Wurlitzer, and recorded “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You),” singing that incredible vocal live as she played — surely one of the most historically and earthshaking performances of the 20th century. Lofty words, backed up.
Dad was 23 years old at the time. (I was 3.) He was getting his start as a session musician. He went on to play bass on a number of great Aretha Franklin tracks, but on that day he was there as part of the horn section, playing trombone. My dad had been first-chair trombone player in Sheffield High School’s marching band before getting kicked out. I never got a believable answer as to why, but he did once say that his band director told him he’d never make it as a professional musician, which (whether true or not) was always a nice piece of family folklore around my house growing up.
My dad’s first trip to New York City was to record with Aretha. Jerry Wexler loved my dad and became a sort of honorary godfather to me as I grew up. My own dreams of a life in art and music are forever intertwined with my dad’s successes and friendships. Aretha Franklin’s Atlantic Records recordings laid the foundation for my dad’s many triumphs, and her music was an essential part of the fabric of my life and upbringing. It was so deep in the bedrock of my life for so long that I was actually in my 30s before I broke it down and delved into it on my own.
I had just moved to Athens, Georgia, and was setting up my own house in a flea-ridden dump outside of town. A hand-me-down baby gate protected my records and stereo from the dogs. My record collection has begun in third grade and overflowed with the soundtrack of my life. I set out on a quixotic mission to get as many of the Muscle Shoals recordings as I could find, mostly used and somewhat worn.
It was the Aretha records I played the absolute most. I was 31 and about to set out on the adventure of my life as I began writing the songs that a couple of years later became the foundation of the first couple of Drive-By Truckers albums. My then-wife, Donna Jane Sampler, would be in the tiny kitchen cooking up a feast and I’d be holding court on the turntable, blasting “The House That Jack Built” to whoever would be visiting as the dogs wreaked havoc on their domain. We had a beautiful black (with white highlights) mutt that looked to be part Setter and part Newfoundland. We had named her Aretha in honor of our love for the Queen of Soul, and she had a quirk: Whenever we’d play “I Never Loved A Man” on the stereo, she would start wailing along with it. It amazed our friends and was a no-fail party starter. It felt like a perfect mix of fate and coincidence that was in keeping with the synchronicity of my life at that moment in time. Our Aretha was stolen from our front yard about a year later, and I grieved losing her for endless months.
Today, I’m sitting in a different living room. Much nicer, on the other side of the country, in beautiful Portland, Oregon. My dog Pearl is asleep at my feet as I stare out the front window onto a beautiful summer day. I’ve been spinning my Aretha records, often with tears streaming down my face. I read beautiful tributes from Ann Powers, Joe Henry, Warren Zanes, and many more whose words ring way more eloquently than my own rambling remembrances. The hits are ubiquitous and amazing, but it’s the deep cuts, the ones that haven’t been played on radio a million times, that are cutting the deepest right now. It’s the nature of this particular art form that the songs we love become such personal parts of the fabric of our lives that there’s no separating our own lives from music made by someone we’ve never personally met. We weep and feel deep loss on such an intimate level for someone who would never recognize us on the street. My son crawled up into my lap as I was listening to “Call Me.” He instinctively knew I needed that. It was such a weird rush of emotion.
I’m not saying goodbye to Aretha Franklin. I’m sure I never will in my lifetime. Her music will remain with me as a fixture in our home for as long as I live, and it’s a tradition that my own kids will no doubt carry forward after I’m gone. I’m glad she is no longer suffering. She no doubt lived a full life full of ecstatic moments and majesty. She has left behind a legacy of work that is written into the bedrock of the American art form that she defined and transcended. There was no greater singer in the 20th century, and those Atlantic recordings are stouter monuments to what’s great about our country than anything that could ever be carved into stone. Her songs are living, breathing monuments to the soul of man and woman and race and history and culture. Of the American ideal. The human experience.
I won’t say goodbye, but I will say thank you. Thank you, Aretha Franklin, for turning the pains, sufferings, and transcendent joys of the human experience into an art form that can be blasted from the tiniest transistor radios or the finest McIntosh amplified stereos. They are sounds of our hearts and souls on fire.
The music in Rock and Roll Heaven just got a whole lot more heavenly. Hail to the Queen. Long live the Queen of Soul. Rest in power, Aretha Franklin.