In the summer of 1979, Conway Twitty earned his 22nd Number One hit with “I May Never Get to Heaven,” written by longtime friends Bill Anderson and Buddy Killen. Anderson had been enshrined in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame four years earlier, but has continued to have hits into the 21st century, including the multi-award-winning “Whiskey Lullaby,” written with Jon Randall. “I May Never Get to Heaven,” however, took a long, circuitous route to the top of the charts, yet along the way ended up being recorded by numerous artists — including the late Aretha Franklin, who cut it on the 1967 LP, Take It Like You Give It, her final album on Columbia Records before her move to Atlantic, the label for which she would record her most enduring hits.
Having previously recorded such country classics as Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart,” Franklin’s 1967 output on Columbia and Atlantic also included her versions of songs by Willie Nelson (“Night Life”) and Jimmie Davis (“You Are My Sunshine”). By the time she cut her sublimely tender version of “I May Never Get to Heaven,” it had been recorded by Wanda Jackson, and also relegated to the b-sides of singles by both B.J. Thomas and Don Gibson – whose version directly inspired Twitty’s. Franklin, whose gospel background informed so much of her material, delivered a truly mournful version of the heartbreaking ballad.
Anderson would write the lyrics of “I May Never Get to Heaven,” while Killen composed the melody, and according to Anderson’s autobiography, Killen told the songwriter, “Anderson, everything you write sounds like you stole the tune from the Baptist hymnal.” Killen’s observation, however, was less about the song’s vaguely spiritual content and more to point out that many of the young songwriter’s melodies at the time were strikingly similar.
“I was living in Nashville, but I really hadn’t moved here to stay,” Anderson would say later. “I had to leave and go back home to Georgia and finish some college courses that I thought I had finished but I found out that I hadn’t. And I’d been dating this girl and we’d broken up and I was just sittin’ around my little one-room apartment just thinking about our relationship. That lyric was pretty much right from the heart. ‘I may never get to heaven, but I almost did one time.'”
Anderson, whose biggest songwriting successes were in country, welcomed a version of one of his songs by an artist from a different genre. In Jake Brown’s book Nashville Songwriter, Anderson says, “I accept all of them, because I think a true artist is anybody [who] can trace a picture; it takes a great artist to paint one. And when I heard Aretha Franklin sing ‘I May Never Get to Heaven,’ or some of these wild, off-the-wall renditions that are so different, I take it as a compliment, I really do. It’s like this artist cared enough about what I wrote to put their stamp on it, and you don’t get paid a better compliment.”