Aretha Franklin, who died on August 16th at age 76, recorded more than 40 full-length albums in her six-decade career. It’s a deep catalog, crowded with indisputable classics and hidden gems. Rolling Stone’s music staff is paying its R.E.S.P.E.C.T.s to the Queen with tributes to our favorite Aretha LPs. First up: Jon Dolan on her 1967 breakthrough.
Aretha Franklin’s first album of genius bursts with the unstoppable freedom of an artist finally allowed to be herself, which is only one of the dozens of reasons its opening cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” is such a milestone. Franklin had recorded some somewhat supper-clubby albums for Columbia in the early Sixties, releases that restrained the preacher’s daughter’s vocal scope and power. But Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler brought her onto the label with the goal of letting Aretha be Aretha. “I took her to church,” he said, “sat her down at the piano, and let her be herself.” The result – recorded at iconic Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama – was a new kind of soul power, pulling from gospel, R&B and rock & roll. This was the album that made her a legend, inaugurating a run of LPs for Franklin on Atlantic that’s up there with any other series of records by any solo artist ever.
It opens with “Respect,” her first Number One single and one of the greatest album openers of all time, flipping Otis Redding’s scolding barnburner into an explosive Technicolor anthem of self-determination and pride that connected the Civil Rights and feminist struggles. On songs like the achingly subtle “Soul Serenade” and effortlessly smooth “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream,” she gracefully kept one foot in pop. “Good Times” is the party starter, “Save Me” the downhome rocker. But the heart of this album lies in slow, pleading songs where it’s Franklin and her piano, taking us to church but also to a new school of emotional possibility. As a co-writer and performer, she presents a young woman putting her real feelings, desires, hurt, hope, ambitions and doubts at the center of her art. You can hear that sense of empowerment on “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” essentially the other side of “Respect,” with Franklin breaking down the everyday politics of a relationship for a guy who clearly doesn’t get it, or maybe never had a smart woman sit him down to let him know that getting it was an option. “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business)” and “Drown in My Own Tears” make the familiar peaks and valleys of love seem like new terrain in the way she wrings every bit of passion out of every line.
The obliterating high point is “I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You),” in which her voice distorts as she rips into the lying, cheating, no-good man she can’t resist, adding fire to some of the wickedest sensual torment ever documented on tape. When the first chorus hits, Aretha fires off the word “never” in one violent post-lingual gunshot syllable, as if she’s arrived at a place where the old conventional forms of expression just aren’t enough for this moment’s heartache. That song gave the album its first single, and its title. They could’ve called the LP Respect, after its obvious knock-out track, or Soul Serenade, which sounds more classy. But I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You is more striking – like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Piper At the Gates of Dawn, similarly revolutionary classics with long titles released just months after Franklin’s masterwork. It puts the emphasis not just on the great songs, or the amazing music, but on the person speaking them, her world, her story and whatever journey she’s on in life. It rings out like revealed truth happening in real time, a declaration of independence.