BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — It took coming to Alabama for the world to hear Aretha Franklin.
By 1967, Franklin had already released nine albums for Columbia Records. Despite growing up singing in the church, those albums didn’t draw from her gospel background, touching instead on jazz standards and pop tunes. Although her talent was undeniable on those early records, she was not reaching a wide audience.
In her own words, the 24-year-old singer was “not expecting miracles.”
“By 1967 I had been at the job of singing secular music for seven years,” Franklin wrote in her autobiography “Aretha: From These Roots.” “I was in it for the long haul and, by then, not expecting miracles. You can imagine my surprise when, in very short order, a miracle did occur. My career exploded.”
It wasn’t until she met Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records that things changed.
Wexler had found something that worked at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where he produced songs like Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances” and Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves a Woman.” Wexler credited the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the backing band for many of those songs, a key component to the strength of those songs.
“The more traditional way, of course, were orchestrations notated well in advance of the studio. In short, written music for the musicians to read. But the Southern boys just liked to jam—and God, did they ever,” Wexler said in David Ritz’s “Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin.” “Visionaries like Chips Moman, Tommy Cogbill, Roger Hawkins, Spooner Oldham, Jimmy Johnson, and David Hood might have looked like hillbillies, but they were secret geniuses of the good groove. They laid it down with neither preparation nor forethought.”
By the time Wexler entered Franklin’s life, her time at Columbia was over. Feeling there was more to her, Wexler wanted to sign Franklin and bring her to Muscle Shoals to make a record.
“Jerry understood Aretha, and he believed that Columbia was recording her all wrong as a pop singer doing light jazz ballads with huge string arrangements,” FAME Studios owner Rick Hall wrote in his memoir “The Man from Muscle Shoals: My Journey from Shame to Fame.” “Jerry understood her deep-soul roots in black gospel and down-and-dirty blues.”
Franklin and Ted White, her husband and manager at the time, were a little nervous about Wexler’s proposal. They had made their recording home in New York City and White didn’t feel comfortable taking his wife to the South.
However, Wexler sold Franklin and White on the Muscle Shoals band, whom Lynyrd Skynyrd would later immortalize as “The Swampers.”
“I told Ted my theory of preliterate geniuses—musicians who bypass mere notations because they hear it all in their heads,” Wexler said in Ritz’s “Respect.” “They can call out the parts. They can sing out the parts. They don’t need to write down notes. They can just play them by ear.”
That was enough to bring Franklin and White down to Muscle Shoals to record on January 24, 1967, a day recreated in “Respect,” the Aretha Franklin biopic starring Academy Award-winning actress Jennifer Hudson.
The turning point
Spooner Oldham has always been about the “hook,” the part of a song that grabs the listener from the beginning.
As a teenager, Oldham remembers listening to the radio and being gobsmacked listening to songs like Dale Hawkins’ “Susie Q” or Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” More than anything, he was mesmerized by how the hook could make the song timeless.
“It put an indent in my brain that I wanted to come up with something that would last a long time like that,” the keyboardist said.
Oldham was only 23 years old when he first met Franklin. By that time, the Center Star native had already played with Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Etta James, and all the other artists Wexler had been involved with at FAME.
Oldham remembers being confused as he looked at the schedule and saw “Aretha Franklin” marked down for the week.
“Nobody knew a whole lot about her,” he said.
David Hood, a bassist who played trombone on Franklin’s sole Muscle Shoals date, remembers that before Franklin came, Wexler played the band a recording of Franklin singing in her father’s church when she was only 14 years old.
“It just blew us away,” Hood said. “It was so different from the CBS recordings. He wanted to stay in that gospel style.”
That day, Franklin and the band started working on “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” a song she had worked out prior to coming to Alabama. However, several attempts to start it seemed off. That all changed with the opening riff Oldham came up with on the electric piano.
It was pretty clear Oldham was onto something the song had been missing. From there, it all seemed to come together.
“As soon as he hit it, everything about that track started coming together,” Hall said in “The Man from Muscle Shoals. “The combination of Aretha playing her gospel-sounding acoustic piano fill lines and Spooner’s bluesy riff on the Wurlitzer glued the whole rhythm track together and set the tone for Aretha.”
In Matthew Dobkin’s “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You: Aretha Franklin, Respect, and the Making of a Soul Music Masterpiece,” Wexler called Oldham the hero of that song.
“The way his Wurlitzer interfaced with her acoustic piano, you know, that’s the moment for me,” Wexler said.
However, what should have been a week’s worth of recording at FAME resulted in just a day after White got into a fight with Hall, leaving and taking Franklin back to New York with him. The only two songs they recorded in Muscle Shoals were “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and the basic track of “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.”
All of the drama was lost on Oldham, who arrived the next day at an empty studio.
“No one was there except me and the cleanup person,” he said. “That’s what I knew about that.”
Franklin would end up finishing “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” in New York, but brought along Swampers’ Oldham, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, drummer Roger Hawkins and the other musicians that had played that day.
“The method she’d begun in Muscle Shoals was continued in New York,” album engineer Tommy Dowd said in “Respect.” “She played the instrumentals with the band while singing a scratch vocal to help the musicians understand exactly how she was going to tell the story.”
Franklin had reached a turning point. “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” went Gold that year, climbing to the No. 2 spot on the Billboard charts and No. 1 on the Top R&B Selling chart.
Years later, Franklin said coming down to Muscle Shoals was the first step to “Arethaize” her music.
“The enthusiasm and camaraderie in the studio were terrific, like nothing I had experienced at Columbia,” Franklin wrote in “From These Roots.” “This new Aretha music was raw and real and so much more myself. I loved it.”
Compared to her larger-than-life personality she would be known for later on, those who worked with Franklin early in her career remember a very different singer, one who was often withdrawn, but still had flashes of genius. In Ritz’s “Respect”, drummer Roger Hawkins talked about how Franklin was very shy, calling each musician “Mister” and them calling her “Miss Franklin.”
“There was no small talk. She was all business,” Hawkins said. “That made me nervous because mostly we’d done sessions with singers who picked up our relaxed manner right away. Not Aretha. She stayed to herself. But when she sat down at the piano and began to hit those chords and that sound came out of her mouth, nothing mattered. I’ve heard a lot of soul singing in my time, but nothing like that.”
Hood was not part of the remaining recording on “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” but went on to play bass on several other Franklin recordings, such as “Spirit in the Dark” and “This Girl’s in Love with You.”
“Back then, we would try to get it as live as we could,” he said. “To me, that’s a better situation.”
Oldham, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, went on to play on several other Franklin albums like “Lady Soul,” “This Girl’s in Love with You,” “Spirit in the Dark,” and “Aretha Now,” where his work on signature songs like “Respect” and “Chain of Fools” can be heard.
“It wasn’t for fame or money,” he said on what made Franklin stand out. “I think she was doing what she did just for the love of it.”
Despite Franklin typically not socializing with the band in those days, Hood remembers seeing her passion come out through her music. One example was when they recorded “Call Me” for her album “This Girl’s in Love with You.”
“I remember that one was she was going through a breakup when she wrote that song and she was crying when she recorded it,” Hood said.
Having played with music icons like Paul Simon, Mavis Staples, Bob Seger, and Linda Ronstadt, Hood said he always knew Franklin was someone special.
“I would say that in R&B, it’s ‘Before Aretha’ and ‘After Aretha,” Hood said. “She classed it up but made it funky. She set a different pattern for others to go with.”
After decades of playing with everyone from Neil Young to Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, John Prine, and many more, Oldham ranks Franklin as the greatest singer he’s ever played with.
“I think she was a genius and she proved that in many ways,” Oldham said.