FAME, Swampers played big role in Aretha Franklin's career
FAME, Swampers played big role in Aretha Franklin's career
Aug. 17, 2018
MUSCLE SHOALS, Ala. (AP) — With her career in question, a 25-year-old Aretha Franklin came to FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals in January 1967, and in a tumultuous, abbreviated recording session recorded the hit that would propel her on a decades long career as a soul music icon.
Franklin, 76, died Thursday at her home in Detroit, Michigan, after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
While she will be remembered as one of the greatest soul singers of all time, Franklin was also a civil rights activist who enjoyed numerous television appearances, and a brief role in the hit movie "The Blues Brothers."
She was a multiple Grammy Award winner, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section members Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, Roger Hawkins and Spooner Oldham were involved in the recording sessions initiated by Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, who believed bringing Franklin to Muscle Shoals would move her career in another direction.
FAME Recording Studios founder Rick Hall served as co-producer.
"That was the first session he did with her," said Paul Wexler, the late producer's son.
The session produced the hits "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)" and "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man."
Paul Wexler said his father wanted Franklin to record in Muscle Shoals, where musicians often recorded using "head arrangements" — a loose, organic "from the head" style rather than using pre-written charts for each musician.
"My father realized there were musicians down South that were doing this new approach not doing charts," Paul Wexler said.
The session included Johnson on guitar, Oldham on keyboards and piano, Hawkins on drums, and Hood on trombone and in later sessions the bass guitar.
American Sound Studios alumni Chips Moman, Tommy Cogbill and Gene Chrisman provided guitar, bass and drums, respectively.
Hood recalled that while Franklin wasn't a big star at the time she came to Muscle Shoals, she was impressive in the studio.
"She really kind of blew our minds," Hood said of the session. "She was very inspirational in her performing. She played piano and sang in church and that was reflected in her music."
Johnson said Jerry Wexler had Franklin play piano during the sessions, something that hadn't happened before.
"She was basically very introverted," Johnson said. "In our business, most people are huggers. Aretha didn't hug anybody. But she treated us good. She wanted to work with us, and we wanted to work with her."
Jerry Wexler, he said, wanted Franklin to sing the Otis Redding hit "Respect," which became a huge hit for her. Johnson said Redding was invited to the recording sessions, which had moved to a studio in New York City.
He said Redding lamented, "She took my song from me."
"Nobody can outsing Aretha," Johnson said. "Etta James was a blues singer. Aretha was a soul singer."
After "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)," the musicians went on to record two more albums with Franklin in other studios.
"It was incredible to work with her," Hawkins said. "We had such a good feeling about her, a really honest feeling. She was an amazing artist."
Hawkins said he felt Franklin's vibe and it could have been because they got their start by playing music in church. Hawkins said church was where he first played drums.
During the recording of the song "Think," Hawkins said Jerry Wexler wanted to change a drum part, but Franklin said, "Jerry, it's just like I like it."
"It was the only thing I could feel to play on that song," Hawkins said. "We would look at each other and know between each other that we understood each other. In some ways we were entertaining each other."
Oldham said he played Wurlitzer electric piano, Hammond organ and an acoustic grand piano on the records he was involved in.
"Aretha Franklin was so inspirational to me," Oldham said. "We all wanted to do good."
He admiited he didn't know a lot about Franklin, but learned more about the singer through her music.
"She came with her best foot forward," he said. "She wanted to excel, and we all did."
Rick Hall's son, Rodney Hall, said his father was proud of the short, but productive session.
Rick Hall died Jan. 2 at the age of 85.
"He was very proud that cut was her first hit," Rodney Hall said. "He would have liked to have been involved with her going forward. It was great the guys could be involved in her career. He loved watching her career take off, and he was a big fan."
He said the date of Franklin's death will live forever, just like the date of Elvis Presley's death, which ironically, occurred on Aug. 16, 1977.
The reason the Muscle Shoals recording session came to an abrupt halt was because of an argument between Rick Hall and Franklin's husband at the time, Ted White.
In his autobiography, "The Man From Muscle Shoals — My Journey From Shame to Fame," Rick Hall said the session began to deteriorate after White became intoxicated and demanded the trumpet and saxophone players be fired for making passes and flirting with Franklin. Hall fired them both at Jerry Wexler's request.
"The whole session started to feel strange," Hall wrote in his book. "This was only the first day, and I had so hoped that these Aretha Franklin sessions would go great and be my next big breakthrough, but the tension was tearing everyone down and I felt doomed like I was on a runaway train."
Hall wrote that after the session ended, he had a drink and told Jerry Wexler he was going to the Downtowner Hotel in Florence to smooth things over with White. Wexler, he said, pleaded with him to just go home.
According to Hall's account of the incident, after he entered the hotel room, White began pointing his finger at him and the two men exchanged harsh words, and eventually began to fight. Franklin came out of the bathroom and she and White hustled Hall out the door.
He said Jerry Wexler came out of his hotel room and angrily told Hall he'd ruined his relationship with Franklin.
"I was livid," Jerry Wexler said, according to an article that appeared in Mojo Magazine. "We had only completed one song and had the beginnings of one other. Luckily, the finished one was one of the greatest songs ever recorded."
Despite the severity of the exchange, Paul Wexler said his father and Hall eventually buried the hatchet, and remained friends through the remainder of their lives.
Jerry Wexler died Aug. 15, 2008, at the age of 91.
"He absolutely regretted it," Hall said of the incident.
The musicians, however, were invited to complete the sessions in New York and continued to record with Franklin and Jerry Wexler.
Paul Wexler said his father was happy with the finished track.
"I remember very clearly when my father came back with the acetates from Muscle Shoals," Wexler said. "He was very excited. I remember hearing Spooner's keyboards very clearly. It was one of the most amazing things I've ever heard in my life. It's one of the great memories of my childhood."
While the album included the Top 10 hit "Respect," it was "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)" that was the track that helped Franklin become the Queen of Soul.
Since his father used Rick Hall's recording methods on the rest of the sessions in New York, Paul Wexler said you can't tell a lot of difference between the tracks recorded there and the ones recorded in Muscle Shoals.
Rodney Hall said his father's short time with Franklin was one of the high points of his illustrious career. Paul Wexler said the same about his father's time with the singer.
"It's a heavy blow to me, Aretha's passing," Paul Wexler said. "I believe she was one of the greatest singers of all time. She could break your heart."
Numerous musicians and celebrities have commented on Franklin's passing, including Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, who recently visited the Shoals to record a track at FAME.
"There was no one like Aretha. Nobody. No one," Tyler said during an interview on the "Today" show. "I just went down to Muscle Shoals and did a song and I was in a room that she stood in and she slept in because of what was going on back then. Got all the history of it. And, uh, Aretha's Aretha. She's one of a kind."
"I loved her, because of the way she made me feel," Hawkins said. "I think she liked us because of the way we made her feel."
Information from: TimesDaily, http://www.timesdaily.com/