April 18, 1967
“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” by Aretha Franklin
#1 on the Billboard Hot Rhythm and Blues Singles chart, March 25 – May 12, 1967
So ingrained is Aretha Franklin’s status as the Queen of Soul that it’s difficult to imagine soul music without her, or her without soul music. Of course, like many of her soul brethren, she got her start in gospel, as evidenced by her church-trained shout and pew-rattling piano.
But perhaps less well-known is the fact that, between her gospel album Songs of Faith (released in 1956 when she was 14 years old) and her star turn with “Respect” in 1967, Aretha Franklin waited out the early soul years as a jazz-pop singer on Columbia Records.
Franklin had been inspired to go secular by Sam Cooke, who, as a member of the Soul Stirrers, had frequently crossed paths with her on the gospel circuit. But while Cooke was helping invent soul music, Franklin instead followed the lead of Dinah Washington, another former gospel singer, into a more traditional pop sphere.
Franklin managed to score a handful of hits on the R&B charts in the early ’60s. She even crossed over into the pop Top 40 in 1961 with “Rock-a-bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody,” a song Al Jolson, blackface performer and star of The Jazz Singer, had first made a hit in 1918. By 1965, she was popping up on the easy listening charts. For the future Queen of Soul, this was not an auspicious beginning.
After her contract with Columbia expired, Franklin signed with Atlantic Records in January 1967. Atlantic had been a major R&B hub for two decades at that point, home to such stars as Ray Charles in the ’50s and Solomon Burke in the ’60s. For years, Atlantic had also distributed the gritty, epoch-defining soul of the Memphis-based Stax Records, featuring such stars as Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Carla Thomas.
Shortly before Franklin signed with the label, however, Atlantic and Stax severed their relationship. Jerry Wexler, Atlantic’s producer/A&R man extraordinaire, instead began sending his artists to the nearby FAME Studios in northern Alabama. Wilson Pickett had recently scored hits with the FAME records “Land of 1000 Dances” and “Mustang Sally,” and Wexler figured that swapping New York for Muscle Shoals might help bring out the Memphis-born Franklin’s Southern-fried roots.
Tensions between Franklin’s husband Ted White and a member of the FAME horn section — and between Wexler and FAME owner Rick Hall — cut short her Muscle Shoals session with only one song completed. Nevertheless, it would be the most important thing Franklin had recorded in her entire decade-long career so far.
Written for her by friend Ronnie Shannon, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” would provide the fulcrum for her sound, pivoting from impersonal jazz-pop to earth-shaking soul.
“I Never Loved a Man” opens with a soft repetitive drum figure and an electric piano riff that paces back and forth. The simple backing serves to showcase Franklin’s voice, reintroducing it to the world. Her first line — “you’re a no-good heartbreaker, you’re a liar and you’re a cheat” — is immediately arresting, not only because of the no-holds-barred call-out but because of the sheer power of her voice, which threatens to blow out the microphone. Franklin’s fluttering phrasing isn’t just empty vocal runs of so many American Idol auditions, but a way of conveying uncertainty and ambivalence, of trying to take a stand against someone who has abused her heart, but who she can’t imagine living without.
As her fervor mounts, Franklin’s hammering piano and the horn section kick in for the chorus. It’s as if, having gained the courage to speak her mind in the first line, everything that has been building up inside has come surging out. Her confidence escalates to the point where the line “kiss me once again / don’t you never, ever say that we’re through” becomes not a plea, but a command.
“Guess I’ll never be free, since you got your hooks in me” she cries in the last complete line, but by now she’s in control, bolstered by an electric blues guitar and rollicking drums. “But this is what I’m gonna do about it,” Franklin ad libs, “I tell you I’m gonna –” But before she can complete her thought, her voice cuts off, as if she’s already left to do whatever it was she’s resolved to do.
Despite the difficult recording session at FAME, there was no denying the power of “I Never Loved a Man.” It swiftly became Franklin’s first R&B #1, a position it held for seven weeks, as well as her first Top 10 pop hit.
Franklin couldn’t go back to Muscle Shoals, but Muscle Shoals could come to Aretha — or at least the musicians of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who had been entirely apart from the earlier discord. For years afterward, the Swampers would commute to New York to cut tracks with Franklin, ensuring her songs would retain the raw power of “I Never Loved a Man.” While she would go on to have even bigger hits throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, it all started with that abbreviated session in Muscle Shoals.
It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.