09 October 2009

Ultimate Singles Jukebox [Slot 101]

b/w "Dr. Feelgood"
Aretha Franklin
Atlantic Records, 1967
Produced by Jerry Wexler & Arif Mardin
Written by Otis Redding

Before she was rightly dubbed "The Queen of Soul," Aretha Franklin more than paid her dues in the musical trenches. The daughter of a popular preacher in Detroit, Michigan, Franklin first came to the gospel forefront when she was 14 years old, singing in her father's church. It was through the Detroit Baptist choir that Aretha came into contact with the greatest gospel singers of the day: Mahalia Jackson, R. H. Harris and Marion Williams. But there were two gospel kingpins that influenced her the most: Sam Cooke and Clara Ward. Much like Dylan breaking from the folk scene, Cooke had busted loose from religious music, blazing a trail of commercial success and triumphing in the secular music world, a feat Franklin would one day realize herself. And while Clara Ward never "crossed over," Aretha modeled her pinpoint style in the recording studio to make records so pristine that they defied the "gut bucket" imprint of Atlantic Records and sounded more like they were produced at Motown over on West Grand Boulevard in native city.

Franklin had toiled away at Columbia Records for six years without making much of a splash in the popular music scene. But Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic saw something different in her and put Aretha in the hands of now legendary producer Jerry Wexler, a man who had worked with Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner and Otis Redding and was a major reason that R&B had came to the forefront of American popular music. So what was his idea for recording this woman with the towering voice but no hits? Put her in a studio in late 1966, originally in Muscle Shoals, Alabama with a band of mostly white musicians who had already played some of the hardest rocking soul hits of the day. They would be eventually transported to New York City to record one of the most seminal recordings in popular music history.

The song in question was written by Redding and originally released as a 45 over a year earlier on August 15, 1965 (Volt 128). Listening to the single now, it is a dynamic performance punctuated by the pleading insistence of the Memphis Horns and the unforgettable rhythm bottom of Al Jackson on drums and Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass. Like most records by Redding, the feeling transferred to the listener is deeply emotional. It was a decent hit for Otis, rising as high as #4 on the R&B chart and #15 in the Hot 100.

But then, in a quote attributed to Redding in a conversation with Wexler, "that little girl done stole my song." According to Dave Marsh in The Heart of Rock & Soul, Aretha and her sister Carolyn apparently were fiddling with "Respect" in the studio when they "began pulling threads of tempo and phrasing together in a way that suggested putting them on tape." One of the most important differences in Aretha's version is the presence of a bridge; in Otis' original there is none. Speculation is that Franklin and Wexler lifted their idea for that portion of the song from Sam & Dave's "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby."

Observers say there have been few more precise tacticians in the recording studio than Aretha Franklin. She did not waste takes; rather, she came in the studio having done her homework. "Respect" is one of those examples that perfectly corrals Aretha's powerful voice, criticized by some for being too over-the-map in a concert setting. (For what it's worth, I think this complaint is overblown; it just shines the spotlight on how great so many of her records were, especially those under Wexler's tutelage.)

One of the session men on "Respect," Charlie Chalmers (one of the saxophonists), recently provided an eye-witness account of the session recording environment:

NEIL CONAN: Well, set the scene for us. The record was recorded Valentine's Day, 1967.

Mr. CHALMERS: Yes. And we recorded that at Atlantic recording studio in New York. And we were in the middle of finishing up an album on Aretha, and that was one of the songs in it of course. And it was a history in the making no doubt.

CONAN: And when it was being made, did people look around at each other and say, oh, my gosh, this is important.

Mr. CHALMERS: Yes. After the record was finished, which are about five minutes on the playback after we recorded it, because back then, we recorded everything, just about everything live, because the technology was not what it is today. And so, one of the second thing that was done after the track and the vocal was done, which Aretha sang and played piano, at the same time, did her main vocal right on the spot with the rhythm section and the horns. Those were not over dubbed. And - but she and her sister, Carol, did the back-up vocals right after the record was complete. And that afternoon, everyone was just really freaking out over what a groove it was. And it was just a natural. There was no doubt about that.

"Respect" hits you immediately in the solar plexus. Every time. Even after 40 years. A crack horn section of Floyd Newman, Chalmers, Wayne Jackson and the incomparable King Curtis provide the intro with Chips Moman's guitar. Aretha enters: this is no longer the plaintive coaxing of Otis' lyrics. This woman singing is insistent that she definitely has what the man wants and demands proper respect in return. One of the revelations on close listening is the underlying driving piano of Franklin herself, a vastly underrated musician in this regard. The call and answer, gospel style, between the lead and the background singers demands that the listener PAY ATTENTION. As Marsh astutely observed, "there's not a 'Hey Baby!' or 'Mis-tuh' that's accidental." As if this filling the air weren't thrilling enough, smack in the middle comes one of the most sublime sax solos ever recorded by King Curtis. It deservedly hit #1 on both the R&B and Pop charts in 1967.

Some say it is the most perfect 2 minutes and 26 seconds ever transferred to wax, and The Night Owl finds it hard to refute that opinion. "Respect" belongs on the Mount Rushmore of popular music and rightfully takes its place in the poll position of our Ultimate Singles Jukebox.

Other links:
Aretha performs "Respect" live in 1967
The New York Times review of Jerry Wexler's memoir (1993)

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