Is soul’s long-reigning monarch about to hang up her floor-length fur coat? For five decades the throne has been reserved for just one Queen: Aretha Franklin. A galaxy of pop stars have built their careers by drawing from her ravishing R&B and punchy messages of empowerment, but they all bow down when Lady Soul enters the room.
In keeping with a singular career that has included over 130 singles, two Blues Brothers movies and at least one president’s tears, Franklin is preparing to step out of the arena on her own terms. The 74-year-old last month announced her intention to retire from touring after the release of her next album. If this is to be the final act of her sparkling career, it’ll end a royal rule that began 50 years ago today with the release of I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. It wasn’t the first Aretha Franklin LP, but it was the first LP when she truly sounded like Aretha Franklin.
Let’s go back to the beginning: Franklin, the daughter of a preacher man, came up making churchgoers feel the spirit. As a gospel singer, she moved from the chapel aisles to the recording booth at the age of 14. Her father, the Baptist minister C. L. Franklin, actually turned down Berry Gordy’s advances to sign the young Detroit-based talent to Motown. In an alternate universe, Hitsville USA gets to decorate with a dozen more platinum plaques. In our world, Aretha eventually put pen to her first pop contract with Columbia in 1961.
Those early Franklin records have some nice moments, but are mostly lacking the magic of her later classics. She safely took on a lot of soul standards, but in an era of relentless inventiveness, she sounded like an also ran, forced by stuffy executives to conform to rigid outlines she could never flourish within.
Enter Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler—producer, industry veteran, coiner of the term “rhythm and blues” and early ally of Ray Charles and Ruth Brown. Under Wexler’s guidance, Franklin took a stylistic swerve and accelerated out of the pack. Her first album for the label, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, was recorded at Atlanta’s own hit factory Fame Studios with a band that included seasoned studio guys like King Curtis, Jimmy Johnson Chips Moman and Tommy Cogbill. The LP fully lays out the pair’s groovy vision in glorious Technicolor. These are songs that tackle real life complications with all of gospel’s feverish power. Once the needle drops and the hot horns and funky guitar licks of opening track “Respect” roll out in full flow, the table is set. As a siren call, it doesn’t get any more iconic.
“Respect” is so woven into the cultural fabric, so programmed into our collective hardwiring, it’s easy to take for granted what a rum punch of a pop single it is. Franklin’s voice soars over Wexler’s smoldering cool-hand production. It’s an extraordinary vocal performance—loose, confident, almost conversational. The rising queen’s delivery feels informal and wholly relatable while still filling all four corners of the track with indomitable soul power.
It’s also one of the greatest track jacks of all time. Casual fans might be surprised to find out that Otis Redding cut the original in 1965. In his hands, “Respect” is the sigh of a desperate lover. Redding doesn’t want love or even fidelity. All he wants is his respect when he walks through the front door.
Franklin reimagines the song as one woman’s demand for all due honor. Her version rippled through late-‘60s America like a sledgehammer to the chest. “Respect” was an anthem for female empowerment, fuel for Black America’s quest for civil rights, and a chant for anyone embittered by feelings they were being treated with disdain. Aretha wasn’t interested in pleading to a man to “be my little baby” or worrying about whether or not he still loved her tomorrow. This was about taking control. Attention must be paid to Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and others who had daringly attacked the same topics. Yet the concept was so revolutionary, Franklin literally had to spell it out: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”. Sock it to her.
While “Respect” finds Franklin’s fist clenched with defiance, the song “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” is a complex blend of contrasting emotions. Aretha simultaneously condemns her cheating lover, asserts her position in the relationship (“Baby, you know that I’m the best thing that you ever had”) and admits she just can’t walk away. It’s what the best pop music frequently does—cramming deep humanity into compact verses and irresistible hooks. With her impassioned performance, Franklin voices the emotional gauntlet that is all turbulent relationships.
Similar themes echo throughout I Never Loved a Man… “Do Right Woman Do Right Man” preaches commitment and urges men to respect women as “flesh and blood.” Think of it as the anti-“Wives and Lovers,” the sexist-as-hell Jack Jones single written by Bacharach and David a few years previously that advised wives to watch their appearance if they didn’t want their husbands to creep.
Elsewhere, Franklin covers Sam Cooke’s moving civil rights anthem “A Change is Gonna Come.” I’d never put another version over Cooke’s original, but Aretha does it better justice than most. Stripping away the original’s strings, the song is built around Franklin’s voice, gently tinkled piano and just a handful over other elements, giving it a gentle potency. As with much of the album, she sounds like an elderly 24-year-old. Aretha had been a mother at 14 and again at 16. By 1967, she was half way through an abusive marriage with first husband Ted White. Her vocal here is seeped in trying experiences. When she sings, “There’s been times when I thought, I thought I wouldn’t last for long/ But somehow right now I believe I’m able, I’m able to carry on,” it’s hard not to read it as drawing from her own personal trying times.
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You runs the stylistic gambit without feeling Franklin is doing things just for show. The album isn’t trying to function as a resumé of her skills. Genre shifts feel organic and natural. “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream” is built on a bossa nova groove, while “Do Right Woman Do Right Man” has a little country ballad flavor. “Dr Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business)”—one of four songs penned by Franklin herself—is a bluesy belter. She might have been Queen of the genre, but pigeonholing Franklin in soul is like calling Sugar Ray Leonard just a welterweight. She could shuffle through styles as smooth as velvet. Everything is stamped with her own distinct character.
Aretha put out plenty more classics, with Atlantic and others. I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love Youwas the genesis. The coronation of a queen. The first chapter of blessed doctrine studied by everyone from Betty Davis, Al Green and Stevie Wonder through to TLC, Beyonce and Rihanna.
The album’s reach feels secondary when you press play though. Instead it’s about sliding into those moments when the band is revving up, Wexler’s behind the boards, smoke is floating through the studio and the Queen is at the mic. “Take care, TCB,” she croons on “Respect.” And nobody took care of business like Aretha.