Aretha Franklin has always been a greatest hits artist for me. I love her, but I’ve never sought out one of her albums, relying instead on various hits collections and her 1992 box set. So I wondered if listening to an album instead would recontextualize Franklin’s songs in a different way.
Here’s what I found out, though, at least when it comes to this album: it might as well be a greatest hits collection! Of the album’s 11 songs, fully nine of them appear on the box set. The only ones not included are “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream” and, for some reason, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” This last one is a bit inexplicable — it’s a marvelously powerful interpretation of a song already written and made into a classic by Sam Cooke, a far better song than, say, “Drown In My Tears.” (Not that the latter is bad — Aretha could pretty much do no wrong in this period — but if you’re only going to leave two songs off the box set, why would you keep “Drown” to lose “A Change”?)
Something fascinating about Franklin’s version of “A Change Is Gonna Come” is the way it covers the song but creates a distance between Franklin and Cooke, with Franklin standing aside from Cooke’s story. For instance, the Cooke version begins, “I was born by the river, in a little tent.” Franklin’s version starts like this:
There’s an old friend that
I once heard say
Something that touched my heart
And it began this way:
I was born by the river, in a little tent
If she had begun with the river line, she would be telling the story as her own, but instead, she leaves the story to Cooke, telling it as an extended quotation. In fact, there are times she diverges from it specifically to disagree with its ambiguity. Where Cooke sings, “It’s been too hard livin’ / But I’m afraid to die / ‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there / Beyond the sky”, Franklin sings, “He said it’s been too hard livin’ / But I’m afraid to die / I might not be if I knew what was up there / Beyond the sky.” Where Cooke expresses fear and doubt, Franklin replaces it with faith, albeit a faith that still is undogmatic enough to say, “I might not be.”
And then the story truly does become her own. In Cooke’s third verse, he goes to a “brother” and asks for help, but that brother “winds up knockin’ me back down on my knees.” Franklin’s version frames the encounter differently:
I went, I went to my brother
And I asked him, brother could you help me please?
He said, good sister, I’d like to but I’m not able
And when I, when I looked around, I was right back down
Down on my bended knees, yes I was
It’s in this verse that Franklin clearly identifies herself as a woman dealing with a man. Whereas in Cooke’s song the “brother” might have been seemingly sympathetic white people, engaged in a dialectic that is strictly about race, in Franklin’s version gender has entered the picture, and the object of supplication identifies himself as powerless — probably not a white man, but rather a black man whose own subjugation has rendered him unable to help black women. Through her own identity, Franklin is able to add a layer of meaning to Cooke’s masterpiece, and her own hope that a change will one day arrive for her, both as an African-American and as a woman.
Aretha’s womanhood matters in this song, just as it matters in the album’s other bookend, her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” This song has become so iconic, so ubiquitous, such a signature for Franklin, that it’s quite difficult to hear it as it must have sounded in 1967. But let’s try. Redding’s version emerged in 1965, becoming a top five hit on the Black Singles Chart, and crossing over to reach number 35 on the Billboard Hot 100. In Redding’s song, he’s a breadwinner who says, “You can do me wrong while I’m gone,” but pleads for respect when he comes home with money.
Franklin tells a different story. In it, she is the breadwinner, and a loyal one at that who says, “I ain’t gonna do you wrong while you’re gone / Ain’t gonna do you wrong, ’cause I don’t wanna.” In this song, she is asking for his respect when he comes home, and makes it clear that this respect is the condition upon which she’ll give him her money. She makes the stakes clear in the end: “Stop, when you come home / Or you might walk in and find out I’m gone.”
This had to be a fairly stunning reversal when it was first released. Casting a woman as a breadwinner was unusual for the times, but even more unusual was her confident demand for respect. Where Redding begged for just one thing, respect from his woman, and was willing to allow infidelity in order to get it, Franklin brooks no alternative from her man. Not just as a woman, but as a black woman, “Respect” was her declaration of her own rights, and it’s delivered with such passion that it’s no wonder it has inspired civil rights activists of all stripes for years.
Not that I Never Loved A Man is such a political album. Aside from those two songs, most of it deals with matters of the heart, or in the case of “Dr. Feelgood,” matters of the body. Over gospel instrumentation of piano, organ, horns, and soft drums, Franklin delivers a stirring testimony to attraction and lust. A soulful beat underscores her impatience to be alone with her man, and the lengths to which she’s willing to go to get “my mother, my brother, or my sister” out of the house so that she can be alone with him.
Franklin’s vocals throughout this album are astonishing, but for me nowhere more so than on this song, which takes the blues AAB lyric structure and makes it sound like she can’t help but repeat herself, just from the strength of her own feelings. The windup of the song, the “oh!”s and “yeah!”s, and most especially the final “good”, are quite simply the heady, overwhelming passion of new love turned into sound.
Look at this, I’ve gone on for ages and only touched three songs on this album. I’m going to stop before I fill up my night and this blog with exultation. Suffice it to say that there’s a reason why this album is so massively represented in her hits collections: I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You is Aretha Franklin at her absolute best, and considering what a legend she is, that peak reaches above pretty much every singer, ever.