I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)
Aretha deserved every encomium she’s received, alive or dead.
But I found it curious, in the wake of her recent passing that I didn’t read much that really tried to place her in time–it was as though she was always there, or bound to be there. Her simultaneous arrivals at Atlantic Records, the altar of Artistic Genius, and the apex of Soul were noted but only as signposts along some inevitable road.
There was nothing “inevitable” about it.
When Jerry Wexler took his latest signing down to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the first weeks of 1967, hoping to catch some of what Percy Sledge had laid down there a year earlier, he had already pronounced that he was going to “let Aretha be Aretha.”
A fine sentiment, but it was no-wise clear, to him or anyone else, what that even meant.
Aretha had been a gospel prodigy, then a semi-successful purveyor of supper club pop, gaining a reputation as a singer’s singer while releasing nine modest sellers at Columbia records in the first half of the sixties.
The record on how committed she was to making it as a pop singer is mixed–my guess is Aretha would have been more than a little satisfied if those records had sold well enough to make her the new Sarah Vaughn.
But there was a world beyond her (or anyone’s) ambition, and the world of 1967 was roiling with social and political cross-currents that left a lot of people wondering if the center would hold.
In the year of there’s something happening hear what it is ain’t exactly clear, and Janis, Jimi and the Who torching (literally and figuratively) the stage at the Monterey Pop festival (Rock and Roll America’s first serious turn toward paganism, coming soon to a theater near you!), not to mention relentless bad (or anyway nervous) news from Viet Nam, the inner city, the college campus, I Never Loved a Man was a strange sound indeed.
When the white boy critics who still make up the vast bulk of the crit-illuminati write and speak of Gospel, they have a habit of setting if off from the world, as though it were some form of exotica, like third-world cuisine or the day they discovered the Kama Sutra.
One more way Black America is both eminently exploitable and not-quite-real.
Dollars-to-doughnuts not one of them is capable of holding the meaning of “gospel” (or Gospel) in his head for more than five seconds.
Adding a few actual black people (or women) to the mix has not altered this dynamic in the least.
They’re all still proudest of their atheism (i.e., their distance from belief).
I Never Loved a Man is, among many other things, the last shout of the gospel-based Civil Rights Movement. (By 1967, the old, non-violent, New Testament coalition was already strained at the seams by the New Militancy. Whether Martin Luther King could have held it together is an open question. Making sure it stayed open long enough to become a faded, not-quite-real, memory was the biggest reason so many people who had means, motive and opportunity wanted him dead.)
That’s appropriate enough. Gospel means the same whether it’s lower or upper case.
It means Christian revelation.
Every day of the week, including Saturday night.
Since it entered History, it’s been the source of every move towards liberation History offers.
Same in 1967 as it ever was.
The preacher’s daughter knew. By 1967, she already had a lifetime of experience, in and out of the church.
“Respect”–Aretha “stole” Otis Redding’s song (his word, not mine) by taking the sound straight back to church and thereby lifting the lyric from the personal to the universal. If you listen deep enough you’ll hear why the Gospel message spread like wildfire through the ancient world from slave’s mouth to mistress’s ear. In the eyes of the new god, every man was suddenly a king, every woman suddenly a queen. Maybe the message had been around before. If so, it had failed to convince. No longer. R-e-s-p-e-c-t. Find out what it means to me in other words. And that’s not even counting the part about not wanting all your money.
“Drown in My Own Tears”–Sunday morning piano backing a confessional vocal devoted to worldly abandonment. You get it reverend.*
“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”–Sex presented as the thing Jesus most needs to save you from. The question stays in the air for the length of the song: Can He? Can even He? A decade later, singing “Belle,” Al Green answered in the affirmative. Aretha left it open-ended. Neither approach can ever wear out, because it’s an (if not “the”) eternal question.
“Soul Serenade”–Dave Marsh was one of the few critics who later picked up on the value of Aretha’s pop career. Church singing aims for abandonment, pop is built around avoiding that very temptation. This is a perfect blend. It starts quiet–a consummate display of discipline–and builds as if the singer and her audience…er, congregation…are lifted, moment by moment.
“Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream”–A reverie that almost slides by. Smooth right until the end, when she takes off for the sky.
“Baby, Baby, Baby”–Is reach out for me boy still directed at the man she loved the way she loved a man before? Either way, she’s the guilty one….but only if loving him is a crime. Believe me, that’s a Pentecostal voice. No surprise she wrote it with her sister.
“Dr. Feelgood (Love is a Serious Business)”–The church piano reasserts itself. There’ s no build. She jumps right in. Sometimes you have to grab ’em right off. Wouldn’t want anybody nodding off in the back pew…let alone the front pew. This is the Sex Sermon folks. Second Sunday of the month! Wake up!
“Good Times”–Perhaps its time to mention that the girl had guts. Taking on–and taking down–Otis Redding might be enough for some people, but not for Aretha Franklin in 1967. She set her sights on Sam Cooke too. And if nobody could ever take down Sam Cooke, she certainly looked him in the eye on the way to higher ground. With an Ode to Saturday Night of course!
“Do Right Woman–Do Right Man”–Great as the vocal is, a surer sign of Aretha’s command of the studio (doubtless another benefit of the Columbia experience) is the overdubbed organ and piano, both played by her. I Never Loved a Man wasn’t only a vocal triumph, after all. She was in the process of proving herself a brilliant keyboardist and arranger as well.
“Save Me”–If there can be such a thing as a hidden gem on an album this popular, epic and influential, this would be it. A gut-bucket lick. A wailing vocal. The simplest arrangement on the record…and it just explodes. And somebody–maybe even the record company–knew albums exist for set ups….And the only song that could close this epic was….
“A Change is Gonna Come” –After the heartfelt intro–he had been a family friend, she didn’t have to pretend–Aretha didn’t add anything to Sam Cooke’s original, either temporally or spiritually. No one could. She sounds like she knows it–this is as reverent of its source as “Respect” was irreverent. But she also sounds like she knows that the moment could add something–that, two years after Cooke’s death, the idea that change was not going to come, had already reasserted itself. To turn that reassertion on its head was, perhaps, to rage against the dying of the light. Else affirmation of the sinner’s doubt. Given all that was at stake, no one who felt the loss, then or now, could blame her for trying too hard.
Aretha Franklin used the I Never Loved a Man sessions to set herself free–to insist that anyone not reaching for Higher Ground will soon be walking on the Devil’s dirt. The brilliance–and the resistance to the tides of History–flowed for a decade before the weight of carrying a burden no one should have to carry alone overwhelmed her. Being Queen proved as lonely as being King. At some point she retreated to the safe harbor of professionalism. There was no long fall and she always retained the capacity to, now and again, lift the heart.
But every reason she ever mattered was born in 1967, at the sessions, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and New York, that produced this album.
Whether she–or any of the tiny number who could ever be called her peers– lived and sang in vain will, alas, be up to us.