As a producer, I almost always addressed phrasing and enunciation with the singer, but in Aretha’s case, there was nothing I could tell her. Not only could I not help, I would only be getting in her way. Nowadays, singers who want to be extra soulful overdo melisma. Aretha only used it a touch and used it gloriously because her taste was impeccable. She never went to the wrong place.
It wasn’t her gospel training. Most young African-American singers get their musical training in church. Training can give you form, can give you tradition, can give you the cadence. When genius gets good training, it can expedite the process, but training isn’t genius. Genius is who she is, how everything is filtered through her consciousness.
“Respect” had the biggest impact, truly global in its influence, with overtones for the civil-rights movement and gender equality. It was an appeal for dignity combined with a blatant lubricity. There are songs that are a call to action. There are love songs. There are sex songs. But it’s hard to think of another song where all those elements are combined.
Aretha wrote most of her material or selected the songs herself, working out the arrangements at home and using her piano to provide the texture. In this case, she just had the idea that she wanted to embellish Otis Redding’s song. When she walked into the studio, it was already worked out in her head.
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Otis came up to my office right before “Respect” was released, and I played him the tape. He said, “She done took my song.” He said it benignly and ruefully. He knew the identity of the song was slipping away from him to her.
Aretha had a minor career at Columbia before coming to Atlantic. I don’t think Columbia let her play the piano much. It’s always been my belief that when a singer plays an instrument, you should let them play it on the record, even if the singer is not a virtuoso, because they’re bringing another element to the recording that is uniquely themselves. In Aretha’s case, there was no compromise in quality. She was a brilliant pianist, a combination of Mildred Falls, Mahalia Jackson’s accompanist — and Thelonious Monk. In other words, Aretha brought a touch of jazz to her gospel piano. And it was all instinctual. I don’t think she had any classical training. She just put it together. It was part of her genius. No one could copy her. How could they? She’s all alone in her greatness.
This story originally appeared in the April 15th, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone