I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You: Respect, and the Making of a Soul Music Masterpiece
By Matt Dobkin with a foreword by Nikki Giovanni
(St. Martin's Press)
In 1967, Atlantic Records released an album that changed the face of American music by an artist whose considerable talents became fully realized. It was a bold social and political statement that came to fruition due to the coming together of a number of factors, not least of which was providing Aretha Franklin with the proper framework for her gifts through sessions that, although tense and difficult, typified not only a new role for a strong, black feminine presence in popular music, but did so against a backdrop of supremely talented white session men in one of the last gasps of true racial collaboration in the name of great music before tensions exploded the following year with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.. It was an experiment that almost never happened, but we’re lucky that it did.
Matt Dobkin has taken it upon himself to trace the evolution of young Aretha Franklin the gospel singer to the pop superstar who raised the bar for all of soul music recorded since. He explores her background as the talented daughter of C.L. Franklin, the famous, explosive preacher who encouraged her daughter to follow her gifts both inside and outside the church. Franklin, who was signed to Columbia Records for six years without making significant waves, bided her time as producers, songwriters and record executives tried in vain to find a winning, hit-making formula for the young singer. When her contract ran out in 1966, Jerry Wexler, one of the masterminds at Atlantic Records who oversaw the transformation of Ray Charles into an international superstar, was almost ready to throw in the towel at Atlantic, believing that the label’s glory days were over.
Fortunately for us, Wexler saw tremendous potential in Aretha and jumped at the chance to sign her when her contract with Columbia expired, envisioning taking her to Muscle Shoals, Alabama and their crack team of good ol’ boys session men that had made hits for Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge. He wanted to bring Aretha “back to church”, allowing her to do what she did best—open up the true nature of her expression with that incredible, earth-shattering and soulful voice that Columbia had tried to reign in.
The first sessions were close to a disaster, as racial tensions were brought to a boil as the result of a drunken horn player’s alleged inappropriate comments and a nervous and defensive Ted White, then Aretha’s husband and manager. Sessions were halted for two weeks before the Muscle Shoals crew was flown to New York to complete the sessions and the rest, as they say, is history.
Dobkin, if occasionally a bit over-reverent, does a fine job of piecing together the historical and social context and subtext of this music. His historical facts are in order and he smartly shies away from the hearsay and mystery of what went wrong down south, preferring to let those who were there tell the story, contradictions and all.
This is the album that produced “Respect”, a cover of an Otis Redding number that became and anthem not only of feminist empowerment, but a demand for racial equality in a tumultuous time. “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You” combined the blues, gospel and the voice of mature woman exalting the complicated, enthralling and painful aspects of a love relationship between a man and a woman. “Dr. Feelgood” is an unabashed exaltation of feminine sexual desire and assertiveness to have that desire satisfied. In short, the album followed and blended musical and cultural traditions while breaking new ground in what female singers were allowed to express. This is the album that broke all the rules and created new ones to take their place.
Matt Dobkin has created a fine volume of a story that needed to be told, relying on interviews from Jerry Wexler, Ted White and numerous musicians who participated in the making of the masterpiece. Although the writing does, at times, become a bit lofty and perhaps overly romanticized, I Never Loved a Man… remains a great document of the creation of one of the most influential albums of our times. An essential reference for music fans.