Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
When Aretha Franklin entered Fame studios in 1967, she was undoubtedly a prodigious talent, but she hadn’t yet found the voice that would crown her the Queen of Soul. While the sessions have gone down history as one of the studio’s must tumultuous, they also brought us the song which would carry Aretha Franklin to the top of the charts and kick-started the career which would inspired generations of musicians to follow – ”I Never Loved a Man (The Way that I Loved You)”
From her earliest years, Aretha Franklin had grown up around music. Her mother was a gospel pianist and singer, and her father was a minister in the New Bethel Baptist Church – filling Franklin’s earliest days with incredible music. Her father’s reputation as a powerful preacher allowed him to record sermons on more than 50 LPs, and brought celebrity gospel performers like Clara Ward, James Cleaveland, Mahalia Jackson, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke into his young daughter’s life.
Inspired by the music around her, Franklin began playing piano, by ear, at a young age, and by the age of 12, she was singing solos in her father’s church. In 1960, at the age of 18, Aretha signed with Columbia Records. She found some success in her time at Columbia, but became increasingly frustrated with the artistic direction in which she felt herself being pushed. In 1966, she joined Atlantic records, hoping to remain musically connected to her gospel roots. A year later, she found herself in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, recording the tracks which would change her whole career.
In January of 1967, Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records sent Aretha and her husband (and acting manager) Ted White, to FAME studios in Muscle Shoals to record with a rhythm section who were quickly gaining a reputation as one of the premier studio musicians of the time – The Swampers. Wexler and engineer Tom Dowd joined Aretha and White in the studios, where they met up with FAME owner Rick Hall, the Swampers, and a horn section hired by Hall for the sessions.
Hall recalled being unsure of the seemingly shy new singer, when she first entered the studio. Wexler had wanted to record a song written by Ronnie Shannon called “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” But the musicians struggled to understand it at first. Hall recalled thinking at first: “‘What’s this song all about? It sounds like an old waltz! It’s got a waltz beat, you can’t dance to it, it’s not gonna happen.’” But then Aretha sat down at the piano.
With Wexler’s encouragement, Aretha felt more artistic freedom than she had before, and with her singing from the piano, she was able to guide the musicians in gospel-infused 6/8 groove.Swampers bassist David Hood was playing trombone that day and recalled: “Aretha played the piano while she sang, rather than just standing there singing. Her piano feel really helped the feel the musicians got to play with her.”
With Franklin at the piano, keyboardist Spooner Oldham was able to switch to the Wurlitzer. Hood also credits Oldham with helping the group find that now-iconic groove. “Spooner came up with this great little lick and everyone fell in line with that, started playing, and that saved the song. It was minutes after that we did the horn parts.”
In addition to Oldham and Hood, the song features: Jimmy Johnson, and Chips Moman on guitar, Tommy Cogbill on bass guitar, and Gene Chrisman, and Roger Hawkins on drums. Melvin Lastie plays trumpet, and Willie Bridged plays baritone saxophone, while Charles Chalmers, and King Curtis on are credited on tenor saxophone. Carolyn Franklin, Erma Franklin, and Cissy Houston performed the background vocals on the track.
The powerhouse musicians create the perfect foundation for Aretha’s incredibly emotive singing. The song lyrics are emotionally heavy:
“You’re a no good heartbreaker
You’re a liar and you’re a cheat
And I don’t know why
I let you do these things to me”
Her performance perfectly captures the lyrical struggle to reconcile a love for a man who treats her so terribly (“But oh, they don’t know, that I’d leave you if I could”). This is the recording that showed the world the power of Aretha Franklin’s voice. As she digs into and pulls off each phrase, you get lost in the emotional turmoil of the song’s lyrics. Even if you didn’t know what the words were about, in her performance you can hear a painful longing. Her voice carries the text in a way that is truly unlike any other.
We can trace the true start of Aretha Franklin’s incredible output to her recording of “I Never Loved a Man” at FAME Studios, but unfortunately, it was the only time she would record there. It’s hard to know the finer details of what happened that day at the studio, but what is clear is that some of those involved in sessions, including Franklin’s husband, Ted White, had been drinking. According to Hall, White claimed that one of the trumpet players had acted inappropriately towards Franklin and demanded that he be fired. A little bit later, he demanded the saxophonist be sent home, as well. As tensions rose, Hall also had a few drinks and thought things could be settled outside the studio over more drinks.. Years later, he admitted that Wexler had warned him not to go, and regretted the fight that followed.
However it started, the conflict ended with Wexler taking Aretha back to New York to finish the record, never to return to FAME studios. For these New York sessions, which finished another song started at FAME – “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” – Wexler flew in several members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. This became the start of their move from being the Swampers to their official name as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, which they took on as they started their own competing recording studio (The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio) in 1969.
“I Ain’t Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Loved You)” was released as a single on February 10, 1967. The B side was the other song Aretha had recorded (but not finished) at FAME,“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” The single hit the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts and became Franklin’s first #1 Hit on the Rhythm and Blues charts. The song also provided the name for her first Atlantic LP – a powerhouse record which also included incredible tracks like “RESPECT” and “Dr. Feelgood.”
“I Never Loved a Man” kicked off the gospel-infused, soul sound which would crown Aretha its Queen. In 1987, she became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame and was named the #1 singer, on the Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest 100 singers of all time. And it was at FAME Studios in 1966, that she found that voice.
Watch below – Songs That Changed Music: I Never A Man The Way I Love You by Aretha Franklin