The Memphis Sound
11:46 am
Mon July 8, 2013

Aretha Gets Her Propers

Aretha Franklin and Jerry Wexler

Reverend C. L. Franklin was no stranger to the recording business.  In fact, he was a pioneer in using broadcast and recorded media to expand the reach of his pulpit out into the world. His daughter, Aretha, was also no stranger to the business of recording as she grew up.  Born in Memphis, she followed as her father’s gifts and calling moved the family from New Salem Baptist Church, first to Friendship Baptist in Buffalo, New York, then to New Bethel Baptist in Detroit.

Not surprisingly, the daughter of the “man with the million dollar voice” would begin the search for her own voice singing in church. With Reverend Franklin as her manger, Aretha’s first recordings were gospel songs.  JVB Records released her first single, “Never Grow Old.” She paid her dues on the road with Reverend Franklin’s gospel caravans. Aretha was enamored by another singer on the tours, Sam Cooke.  As Sam’s career crossed over into pop music, Aretha was inspired to follow.

In 1960, the 18-year old was signed to a high-royalty contract with Columbia Records. She was placed under the care of producer John Hammond. (As a side note, and in retrospect, signing Aretha Franklin to a record label would be a career maker for anyone, but Hammond had already introduced Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Billie Holiday, was about to sign Bob Dylan, and would eventually snare Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Not a bad 50-years’ work.)  Aretha’s first single on Columbia, “Today I Sing The Blues,” placed her in the top 10 on Billboard's R&B charts.

Aretha’s early career was not a smooth road.  A March 1964 article in Ebony magazine detailed her dismissal of her personal manager and problems with booking agents. She also felt Columbia didn’t give the same promotional effort to her recordings as compared to label mates Robert Goulet or Barbra Streisand.

The problem is, what Aretha wanted to do wasn’t invented until Atlantic Record’s Jerry Wexler came into the picture.  He saw Aretha as an artist closer to Ray Charles than Barbra Streisand.  His vision was to move Aretha from behind a microphone in front of an orchestra, sit her down on the piano bench, and let her drive the songs.  History would attest that this was a pretty good vision.

When Franklin’s contract with Columbia Records expired, Jerry Wexler actually offered Stax Records in Memphis first right of refusal on Aretha. Wexler had worked magic in Memphis with Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, and imagined that Aretha’s artistry, backed by Booker T and The MG’s would be a match made in heaven. The catch was, Stax would have to cover her $25,000 advance. Owner Jim Stewart, still a banker at heart, thought that was a gamble he couldn’t afford to make at the time.

So Wexler took Aretha to Muscle Shoals instead, and recorded a single-and-a-half before Ted White, Franklin’s husband and manager, got into a late night fist fight with the studio owner. Weeks later, the project was back on track, this time in Atlantic’s New York studios.  The first single of the new era was the one side completed in Muscle Shoals.  “I Never Loved a Man” placed Aretha somewhere she had never been, in the top 10 nationally with her first million-selling record. The flip side, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” had a Memphis connection, written by American Studio’s Chips Moman and Dan Penn. 

The second single of the new collaboration became the defining song of Aretha Franklin’s career, and it also had a distinct Memphis pedigree.  Otis Redding originally wrote a ballad for Speedo Sims and the Singing Demons called “Respect.” When that group couldn’t get a good take on it, Otis sped up the arrangement, and Redding’s subsequent single made it inside the top 40. Wexler, Franklin and her sisters revisited this song, adding to the arrangement the spell out R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  That, Aretha’s take-charge delivery, and the “sock it to me” punch powered this single all the way to number one.