Aretha Franklin - I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You
#83 on Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums Of All Time
#97 on Q's Top 100 Albums Of All Time
Most famous cock-up in musical history, anyone? Columbia Records, you should be ashamed. You had Aretha on your books for years and never even gave her the time of day. Then without thinking, you packed her off to Atlantic. And she released this - her classic springboard to becoming one of the very cornerstones of 20th century music. She achieved no less than 10 Top Ten hits in the next year, and even became a symbol of the civil rights movements. She was also the first woman to ever be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Columbia, you got OWNED, bitch.
I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You is routinely acknowledged as one of, if not THE greatest soul album of all time - it walked into the Rolling Stone Top 500 Albums Of All Time at #83 (one place above her own Lady Soul), and the Q Top 100 at #97. It's undoubtedly a landmark; a touchstone, even. No less an authority than Alicia Keys, the most recognizable and acclaimed voice of modern soul, has said that she considers a human being without an Aretha Franklin album only half a person. She also shares the almost unanimous opinion that this is the album to have.
By far the most famous track on the record is 'Respect', an absolute anthem of female empowerment. How ironic that it was written by a man (not just any man - Otis Redding, no less). Knowing that fact brings about an interesting theme in the album - one acknowledged by the very title. Considering just how massive this album was in the context of solo female singers, it's interesting to note how many of its songs were written by men. Three of its tracks - the three best tracks, for my money - are tributes to the most important men in the history of soul. Are these men - Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, namely - the men that Aretha loves so much? The title track, too, was written by a man, though a far less famous one (Ronnie Shannon).
The tie to Sam Cooke and Ray Charles alone may have been enough to secure the album's place in history. It grounds the album directly in history, marking the point when soul music's emphasis began to shift from men to women, and showing both where soul had been and where it was going. The new version of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" is a history lesson in itself. The original (one of the greatest songs of all time, by the way) was a riposte to Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind", a song Cooke took great inspiration from, and couldn't believe had been written by a white man. It condensed the history of the black people of America into a dramatic, string-heavy, heart-stopping ballad that carried with it the spectre of death (which was brought to the front by Cooke's subsequent murder). Aretha's version, by contrast, is full of life, and it seems to look to the future more than the original, the song's message becoming one of female emancipation as well as black. It's not as good as the original, if the truth is told, but that is nothing to be ashamed of. We are, after all, talking about one of the most perfect songs of all time. The fact that she even comes close to Cooke's original should be applauded and awed.
This is not a covers record, mind. Aretha contributed her own material in "Don't Let Me Lose This Dream", "Baby Baby Baby", "Dr. Feelgood", and "Save Me" - songs as consistently good as those on the rest of the record. Franklin was an unproved songwriter before this album - she came into her own here, and while she'll never really be remembered for the songs she wrote herself, she was far from a slouch when it came to her original material. In fact, the bluesy "Dr. Feelgood" in particular is a highlight of the record. Her paino work goes unmentioned an awful lot, too, which is a shame - she's fairly under-rated. Indeed, an awful lot of people don't even realise she plays the piano on her albums.
And do I even need to mention her voice? Well, here's an anecdote. Aretha famously burst into the Atlantic Records studios and told the Muscle Shoals session musicians, as a manner of introducing herself, 'Get your damn shoes on, you're getting someone who can REALLY sing.' The immediate reaction was one of jaded amusement - they'd heard it all before - and yawns. Then she sat at the piano and starting singing "Respect". They weren't jaded for long after that. The song was recorded with the crack rhythm section right there and then, and that take is the one you hear on this album. Tellingly, underneath the article I've quoted this anecdote from (Q's Top 100 Albums Ever, January 2003), there is a comment from one Sian North, via e-mail. "The greatest female singer ever - bar none!" Anyone care - nay, DARE - to disagree with that?
If nothing else I've said has hit you, then just wonder - how many soul albums are anywhere near as critically acclaimed as this is by both the rock critics and the soul community? This is vital listening if you want to understand the development of black vocal music. It's a landmark in every sense.
Within The Genre - 5/5
Outside The Genre - 4/5
Recommended Downloads -
The best of the Franklin originals on offer here. It's a slow, swinging, smoudlering cocktail blues - the sort of thing you might see soundtracking the sex scene in a film, provided the director has awesome taste in music. The brass and electric organ set the scene as Aretha swoops and croons. "After one visit to Dr. Feelgood, you'll understand why I feel good." Deeply sexy, yet utterly soulful.
A Change Is Gonna Come
"There's an old friend that I once heard say something that touched my heart. And it began this way...." And so Aretha launches into her devastating rendition of the Sam Cooke classic. That intro is key - it transforms the song into a tribute to Cooke. Still, the original message isn't lost. Her voice is as great as ever as it laucnhes into a field holler coda, before delivering an ending as key as the intro. The last words you hear? 'A change has come'. Not a change is gonna come, a change HAS come. Post-civil rights, that says it all about the importance of both Aretha and Sam Cooke. Up there with the best cover versions of all time.
What do you mean you've never heard it? You dirty liar. Get out of my review.
Sam Cooke - Portrait Of A Legend
Otis Redding - Otis Blue
Alicia Keys - Songs In A Minor