Aretha Franklin’s “I’ve Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You” Reviewed
The New York Times recently printed an opinion piece by critic-at-large Wesley Morris, and here is Morris discussing the sounds that black musicians make (he calls them noise) that arrive from “the hue and timbre of an instrument”: “Little Richard’s woos and knuckled keyboard zooms. The dusky heat of Miles Davis’s trumpeting. Patti LaBelle’s emotional police siren. DMX’s scorched-earth bark. The visceral stank of Etta James, Aretha Franklin, live-in-concert Whitney Houston and Prince on electric guitar.” Notice how he leaves Aretha alone? What’s there to add when it comes to Franklin, it is beyond self-evident.
Arriving at album # 11 (if you include the Gospel one) Franklin’s Atlantic 1967 I’ve Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You and, what exactly, is there left to say? That the Columbia years were equal parts underrated and misguided, that Jerry Wexler’s “I just put her in front of a piano” is an asinine explanation for the breakthrough (Clyde Otis also just put Aretha in front of a piano, and lost a fortune on her), that it was kismet? Which, I guess, but the Muscle Shoals team of white session players were not an unknown element. That it was inevitable? Sure feels that way, just a question of when.
Helped by Aretha’s second single, a resplendent Otis Redding howl of black maleness self-determination, refitted to include the slaves of the slaves, “Respect” was a call to arms that united in the country under a groove. Even as Aretha was being bullied by her husband, Ted White, who hated Atlanta because it was too white, and causing chaos (and joined by sound engineer Tom Dowd, already a legend), Aretha was finding herself with white back-up performers.
The rest of the album is nearly as great as “Respect”, with “I’ve Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You” defined by Curtis Mayfield for her as “submission isn’t easy for me” some nine years later. Add to that two killer Sam Cooke songs, four Aretha originals, a Chip Moman co-write and eleven tracks altogether, all first rate, and two among Aretha’s best works ever. Gospel, blues, r&b, pop, she covered the terrain without getting into show tunes or jazz.
All of that is true, but all of that doesn’t express Aretha’s achievement: the voice of a strong. proud black woman crossover to mainstream pop charts and changing the perception of black rights and women’s rights while maintaining the complexity of love and pain at the highest possible levels. By definition: soul.
And more, everything that was driving Columbia crazy, as they shifted from genre to genre, lead Aretha to the vocal achievement here. Suddenly, what we had been hearing, that vocal range (three octaves and counting), the deeply felt, expressed of reality sound, the Southern baptist religious roar put across pop songs like a layer of faith over pain, it all came together. Aretha arrived with one of the greatest albums of all time.