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American Routes Shortcuts: Remembering Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin
American Routes
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After Aretha Franklin signed with Atlantic Records in 1967, producer Jerry Wexler brought her to record in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Known for its local recording studios, including FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound, the Tennessee River town produced many hits and allowed the black and white music worlds to coalesce.  In 1967, Aretha recorded her first big hit, “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” at FAME studios, but all did not go smoothly. Studio guitarist Jimmy Johnson tells the story. 

 

Jimmy Johnson: Well I didn’t know a lot about her when she got here. I knew that Jerry Wexler was extremely high on her, and he was like the number one guru in New York recording rhythm and blues/soul artists. The first place he brought her was right down here to Muscle Shoals to record her, and I think there were a lot of questions in her mind and her husband’s mind of where they were going and why, but I think, it’s just like how we felt when we heard her play piano. When we heard her open her mouth and start singing and playing, we knew we were in for something so special, and we knew why Jerry brought her there. 

Nick Spitzer: The musicians gave Jerry Wexler and Aretha Franklin the sound they were looking for, but her stay in Muscle Shoals was short. David Hood, the bassist, was hired to play trombone in the horn section, and Jimmy Johnson was playing guitar on the session. 

JJ: A trumpet player was brought in from out of Memphis that nobody knew, and it just so happened that that person had started drinking and had made some kind of slimy remarks to Aretha. 

David Hood: Aretha took offense, and her husband, Ted White, who was also her manager, took offense of it. And I don’t think there was anything said during the session. All we knew was the next day we got to the studio and the session was canceled, it was over. They finished that recording in New York.

JJ: In just one night and one day that we worked with her, we cut her first double-sided hit, “Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Do Right Man, Do Right Woman.” 

NS: Yeah so you came up to New York, and then you finished “Do Right Woman” up there. 

JJ: Yeah we actually finished the album, the whole first album, and we became a part- for three years we worked with her about every month and a half, two months, we’d cut new product. 

NS: Aretha stayed with producer Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records until 1979 and during that period recorded many of her biggest hits and received ten Grammys. The late Jerry Wexler remembers Aretha. 

Jerry Wexler: What we tried to do was provide her with a setting that would best serve her, the Muscle Shoals guys, I had a band in Miami, Cold Grits, I had the Dixie Flyers, and then ultimately King Curtis and the Kingpins. Secondly, I wanted her to play on her records. But what Aretha brought was not just adequate, but great piano playing. You have to remember that Aretha was a great arranger. When we decided on the material, she’d work it out at home, the key, the vocal arrangement, the background arrangement with her sisters or whatever group she had at the time. She’d come into the studio, and it was almost like painting by the numbers, just fill it in because she brought it in. If you and this audience would kindly listen to her record of “Going Down Slow,” an old blues by St. Louis Jimmy, it is the Pericleanblues record. She shows, that she’s not just the best soul singer; I believe she’s the best blues singer. 

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.