​How Aretha Franklin found her voice

When Aretha Franklin is laid to rest, the Queen of Soul will deservedly be remembered in an array of tributes reflecting the immense legacy of her life and music. Her voice is ingrained in the canon of American music and she’s had a number of staggering accomplishments. But to me, one period of her career stands out as the most significant: the years after she left the world of gospel music.

Her jump to mainstream music meant a move into a segment of the industry that was dominated by men who had specific assumptions about how a woman should sing — and what she should sing about. Franklin’s ability to assert control over her career was a watershed moment for female artists seeking to find and maintain their own artistic voice.

Columbia tries to mould a starlet

Franklin began her career in Detroit singing gospel under the tutelage of her father, CL Franklin. As a teenage mother of two in the mid-1950s, sticking with gospel would have been a sensible path for the young singer.

During the 1950s, a number of gospel singers began successfully transitioning into secular music, including notables such as Sam Cooke and Willie Mae Thornton. The ambitious Franklin followed suit and left Detroit for New York City.

In 1960, Franklin signed a contract with Columbia Records after being pursued by John Hammond, a talent executive who, earlier in his career, had signed Billie Holiday. At Columbia, Franklin recorded her first non-gospel album, Aretha: With the Ray Bryant Combo, which was released in February 1961. Reviews were mixed. It wasn’t so much the quality of the record as it was the hodgepodge nature of its tracks.

The album opens with Won’t Be Long, a song written by John Leslie McFarland, who penned a number of hits for 1950s rockers like Bill Haley and Elvis Presley.The track is a streamlined piece of R&B with a tinge of rock ’n roll thrown in for good measure. Franklin’s role on the song — and the album — is entirely as a vocalist. The keyboard playing and song arrangements — two of Franklin’s particular strengths — were left to her male backing ensemble and production crew. As much as the song rocks, it plays into the same male fantasy of girls pining away for boys who have run off.

“I get so lonesome since the man has been gone,” she sings, echoing a tired trope. Despite the message, it’s Franklin’s voice — jubilant and strong — that takes over. By the end, the meaning no longer matters. What’s left is Franklin, who clearly doesn’t seem all that bothered about the idea of her man staying or leaving.

After Won’t Be Long, things get truly odd. The energy of the opening fizzles as Franklin’s cover of Over the Rainbow begins. The juxtaposition of these two songs epitomises the confusing nature of her first album. It’s almost as if the executives at Columbia couldn’t decide which silo of “feminine popular singer” Franklin should occupy, so they tried a bit of everything.

The rest of the album sustains the same random vibe; Franklin covers standards from Gershwin to Meredith Wilson, with an overdose of McFarland tunes in between. The album didn’t generate much traction and her career at Columbia can only be described as frustrating, with her artistic impulses continually suppressed by a company that seemingly wanted to mould a starlet rather than an artist.

Setting Franklin free

Franklin became exasperated with a label that didn’t understand or support the music she was trying to create. By 1966, after nine albums, Columbia and Franklin parted ways. Enter Jerry Wexler, the R&B pioneer and Atlantic Records executive who’d been closely following Franklin’s career. Now free of Columbia, Franklin signed with Atlantic Records, which was known as one of the best R&B labels in the United States.

Wexler’s strategy with Franklin was simple. Rather than attempting to adhere to older standards — as Columbia’s producers were prone to do — Wexler would simply stay out of Franklin’s way, giving her a freedom that led to her creating some of the most exciting and forward-thinking soul music of the era.

A key moment came when Wexler arranged a recording session at the legendary FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. That session produced the song I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, which was recorded live at the studio. Thematically, I Never Loved a Man isn’t all that different from the Columbia release of Won’t Be Long — it essentially plays into same male fantasy trope.

But the music is clearly about Franklin. Using musicians from Muscle Shoals and Memphis’s Stax Records, the song contains a grit and energy that isn’t on the Columbia recordings. With punctuating horns and bluesy guitar fills, the band expertly supports Franklin without overstepping.

Although I Never Loved a Man may have been the first song released and the title of the album, it was the album’s opening track that truly launched Franklin’s star. Drop the needle on the album and you’ll hear horns and a spunky guitar riff. As Franklin sets in to the opening lyric — “What you want, baby I got it” — her piano can be heard hitting like a second drum kit, adding a percussive boom to the entire song.

According to Wexler, the idea to cover Respect and the arrangement were Franklin’s. Upon hearing the song that many now herald as a feminist anthem — rather than a song about a relationship — Otis Redding, who wrote the tune, infamously told Jerry Wexler: “That little gal done took my song.”

The rest is history.

Adam Gustafson is an instructor in music at Pennsylvania State University. This article was originally published on theconversation.com

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Advertisting

Border walls don’t stop viruses, but a blanket amnesty might

Why South Africa should consider amnesty for undocumented migrants in the time of the coronavirus outbreak.

Mail & Guardian needs your help

Our job is to help give you the information we all need to participate in building this country, while holding those in power to account. But now the power to help us keep doing that is in your hands

Press Releases

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world

SAB Zenzele special AGM rescheduled to March 25 2020

New voting arrangements are being made to safeguard the health of shareholders

Dimension Data launches Saturday School in PE

The Gauteng Saturday School has produced a number of success stories