How a trip to the funkiest studio in the States finally unleashed Lady Soul’s full potential

This article by Graeme Thomson appears in the current issue of Uncut, in shops now and available online here.

When Aretha Franklin first entered FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in January 1967, the 24-year-old singer was crackling with potential. “I hadn’t heard much about her,” recalls Spooner Oldham, the in-house piano player at FAME. “I had an LP by her, on Columbia, and I’d maybe listened to it once and put it aside. In my mind it was cocktail-bar background music. I ignored it, to be honest.”

Having grown up singing gospel at her father’s Baptist church in Detroit, at 18, inspired by Sam Cooke’s switch to secular music, Franklin had signed to Columbia Records, who had thrown her extraordinary voice at everything from jazz to easy listening to straight-out pop. She released nine albums for the label between 1961 and 1966, but nothing quite stuck. In November 1966, having been dropped by Columbia, Jerry Wexler brought her into the Atlantic stable.

Wexler was working on a hunch. Pair up Franklin with the hottest rhythm section in the business, take her to the funkiest studio in the country, and let her lead the session with her voice, piano and choice of material. “When Jerry brought her to us,” says FAME saxophonist Charlie Chalmers, “everything changed. It was a whole new ball game.” The first song she cut for Atlantic, and the only complete track she ever recorded at FAME, was a slow, sultry blues written by Ronnie Shannon. It was a slightly ungainly beast, rolling unsteadily in 6/8, and even FAME’s elite squad of musicians took time to crack its code. Suffused with a smoky, slow-building drama, graced with Franklin’s powder-keg vocal, it prepared the path for her coronation as the Queen of Soul, and remains one of her signature tunes over 50 years later.

The day was not without controversy. 
A contretemps between Franklin’s husband, Ted White, trumpeter Ken Laxton and FAME boss Rick Hall meant that her time at Muscle Shoals was cut short, and the sessions swiftly relocated to New York. No matter. Within three weeks of being cut, “I’ve Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” was on its way to becoming a Top 10 pop hit and No 1 on the R&B chart. It didn’t hurt that the single was backed with another Aretha classic, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”, cut at the same time. “It was the session that started her career, but which also stopped her recording in Muscle Shoals,” says trombonist David Hood. “Quite a day!”

CHARLIE CHALMERS (saxophone, horn chart): Rick Hall started FAME recordings and he’d had some success. The rhythm section had a sound that was very sought after in the blues and funky record business. I drove down there from Memphis to do the horns on Aretha. “I Never Loved A Man” was the first recording she had done there.

SPOONER OLDHAM (Wurlitzer electric piano) : That was the day 
I first met her, and that was the first song out of the chute.

CHALMERS: We didn’t know much about her. Jerry had just gotten her to sign to Atlantic. She had been with CBS and had been recorded in a jazzy kind of way.

DAVID HOOD (trombone): We usually didn’t know who we were working with. Other than me, I don’t think anybody in the studio knew who Aretha Franklin was. I had heard some of her Columbia recordings. 
I first heard her on a recording that Wexler and Tom Dowd played me, and she must have been 12 or 13 years old. She grew up in the church. She had such a great feel.

JIMMY JOHNSON (guitar): She was looking to be a star, but she wasn’t one yet. The excitement hadn’t happened yet. We were recording on so many artists; it was just another gig, really. I wasn’t in awe. It was like they were in awe of us – that’s why they were there!

HOOD: I don’t know where that song came from. Wexler and Aretha would go through several hundred songs and narrow it down to about 20. Wexler was really a song guy, and he wanted the artist to have a lot of input in the selection. So they would spend a lot of time in pre-production before we even saw them.

OLDHAM: She brought that song with her. I guess it’s 6/8 time. A little different from 
a waltz, but quite similar.

CHALMERS: Jerry let Aretha play us the song, he sat back and watched and let us do what we do. She just started playing it, and we’d kind of feel our way into it.

OLDHAM: Aretha sat down at the piano. Nobody was talking! We were seasoned veterans, and the best way to work with us was to turn us loose to do our own thing. It was sort of spooky, getting it started. I thought, ‘Well, this day may not go so well with this new artist we’re working with…’ We were having difficulty finding our groove, beat and tempo. That’s the way it started. Unsure. Luckily, we got it together.

HOOD: The song is in kind of an unusual tempo. It was an unusual song, really, and it was difficult to come up with a hook and an arrangement at first. They had no ideas for the song at the beginning. They worked on it for a while. The horns were just sitting back – we were waiting for them to get something together so we could do our bit. After a couple of hours Spooner hits on a Wurlitzer piano lick. He found that little opening riff, and it all fell together quickly after that, first or second take.

OLDHAM: I created that riff for the intro and throughout the song. Everybody was tuning up, getting the volume set, we were about to try the song. Everyone was sort of scratching their head, waiting for somebody to do something. Nobody had anything to offer, really. I was in the room with the others but I was off by myself, thinking about what I’d heard, and in my mind I started playing that riff – to myself, really. As soon as I got started on that, I heard Chips Moman and Dan Penn say, “Spooner’s got it!” The band started listening to me and playing along, and that’s the way it got started. Soon as we got it started it was a sure thing, everybody felt comfortable playing it.

HOOD: The first-time thing for Aretha was that Wexler was going to have her play the piano while she sang. On the Columbia recordings her piano wasn’t featured. That was a brilliant idea – it worked very well for the musicians, and for her. We needed the feel that she put into her piano playing while she was singing, and it affected the way she was singing. It was a brilliant move. All the other times I recorded with Aretha, she would always play piano and sing at the same time. Technically, it’s hard to do that. You can have the piano feeding into the vocal mic, there can be sound issues. There are some issues [on the record], I’m sure, but they were able to take care of that.

OLDHAM: Aretha was on top of her game. Listen to the record today: the electric piano and rhythm section are playing, and she’s just singing. She’s sitting at the piano, but she doesn’t play a note until the second verse. That’s her arrangement. Nobody told her to lay out, she’s just a genius that way. She was listening, she felt the dynamics building up, and she started playing. She’s wise that way.

HOOD: They cut the track and we overdubbed the horns. The horn players went upstairs. Charles wrote the parts, and we went down and put them on. We did it in one or two takes.

CHALMERS: The horns were in the corner, baffled off, the rhythm section were all around, and Aretha played piano and sang. I can see it laid out right now, just as it was. I wrote the horn parts out, and it came off really great. There were no overdubs, except that they might have put the back-up vocals on back in New York.

OLDHAM: It started a kind of formula for recording with Aretha. We would do the rhythm section with the live vocals. The horn players would be waiting, they would overdub their parts, and then the background singers would do their parts.

CHALMERS: Chips [Moman] had a song that he and Dan Penn had written together, called “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”. That was the second song we cut on the session. Wexler just kind of let Chips go ahead and produce that song.

OLDHAM: We did a skeletal track for “Do Right Woman”. That song was not finished, actually. Jerry told Dan and Chips that he would like to do it with Aretha, but it needed a bridge. It just had two verses. Dan was over there in the closet trying to write a bridge while we were recording the first song! Aretha offered a line, Jerry offered a line… If I remember, Dan was singing the vocal, because Aretha hadn’t learned the song yet. We were going to finish it the following day.

HOOD: They didn’t get a complete track of “Do Right Woman” – the horns didn’t play in Muscle Shoals on that song. They started it, but it wasn’t getting anywhere, and then the session was stopped – very late – and everyone went home.

CHALMERS: There was a problem. One of the trumpet players, he got a few drinks in him and he said something very racial to Aretha’s husband with his big mouth.

HOOD: We had a guy we didn’t know called Ken Laxton on trumpet. He was 
a trumpet-playing barber from Memphis! Some alcohol was being consumed. 
This trumpet player was drinking and making some remarks that he thought were cool and hip, jive talkin’ Aretha. 
I don’t know what was said, but Ted [White] took offence. I’m told that Ken 
was fired on the spot.

CHALMERS: A big fight broke out, it was a real terrible event. I wasn’t there, all I know is what I heard happened. During the entire session, Ted was complaining about the band being all white. He was in 
a bad mood anyway.

HOOD: It was an all-white horn section, and it’s not a good thing to have no black players in a room with a black artist. Wexler was mad that Rick had hired an unknown player who had stepped over the line, and so Rick gets in his car and goes to the hotel where Ted and Aretha are, trying to straighten things out. Apparently some kind of altercation ensued. I was told that Ted tried to throw Rick over the balcony of the motel. Names were called, words were said, and Ted and Aretha pack up and leave. We go back to the studio the next morning and there’s a sign on the door saying: Session Cancelled.

OLDHAM: The next morning I was there at FAME for 10 o’clock and the session is cancelled, and I don’t know really what happened. Only Aretha Franklin, Ted White and Rick Hall really know the truth. They were at the hotel and fireworks started.

CHALMERS: She decided she didn’t want to record down there any more. Wexler called me 
a couple of days later, after he got back to New York. He said, “Aretha don’t want to work there any more, can you come and we’ll finish the album up here in New York at our place?” Wexler still wanted us on those records, he just took us up to New York. And that trumpet player never worked again.

HOOD: Wexler moved the session up to New York and resumed recording Aretha with the FAME rhythm section. Rick got real mad about that! It was a big mess.

OLDHAM: While we were there, “I Never Loved A Man” came out and it caught on like wildfire. Wexler had a great promotional attitude. He got it to a couple of his friends on the radio, who gave it a spin, and there was no holding back then. They had to rush-press it, then rush to get an album finished.

JOHNSON: We really hit a groove on that record. It turned out phenomenally.

HOOD: I’ve played that song many, many times with different performers, and it’s one that I still have to stay on my toes due to the time signature. It’s an unusual thing. And wonderful, of course.

ARETHA FRANKLIN: THE ATLANTIC SINGLES COLLECTION 1967-1970 WILL BE RELEASED ON SEPTEMBER 28 BY ATLANTIC / RHINO

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