Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most overused word in the English language is the word “classic.” Nowadays, something can’t just be good, it must be a classic. It doesn’t matter if someone is talking about a book, cuisine, technology, a building or piece of art. Each and every one of these things which are now either popular, or populist, are now referred to as a classic. Everything from a vacuum cleaner and computer to paintings and books are classics. Nowhere is the word classic more overused than in music. Anyone who has the misfortune to read what passes for supposed cutting edge music journalism nowadays, will hear the word classic both overused and misused in each and every issue of these publications. In truth, very few of the hundreds of thousands of albums ever recorded, deserve to be called classics. However, one album that certainly deserves that accolade, is Aretha Franklin’s breakthrough album I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You.

By the time Aretha Franklin recorded I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You, she was not only a hugely experienced singer and recording artist, having released ten previous albums. Three of those albums Running Out of Fools released in 1964, 1965s Yeah! and Soul Sister, released in 1966, had all reached the top ten in the US R&B Charts. That however, was the extent of her commercial success. Her previous album 1966s Take It Like You Give It had failed to chart. All this would change considerably, in 1967, when she took a trip to Muscle Shoals to record her next album.

Aretha Franklin’s destination was the legendary Fame Recording Studios, where she recorded with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section who’d graced numerous Southern Soul hits. Once there, she recorded a track that would change her career I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You, a track where Aretha’s gospel influence shines through. On returning to New York, she cut the B-side of what would be her next single, I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You. The B-side Do Right Woman, Do Right Man. On the single’s release, I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You reached number nine in the US Billboard 100 and number one in the US R&B Charts, resulting in the first gold disc of Aretha’s career.

Following this success, an album was released, I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You, which had been recorded at the Fame Recording Studios n Muscle Shoals and Atlantic Recording Studios in New York, during January and February of 1967. With the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section Aretha recorded a total of eleven tracks, including a cover of Otis Redding’s Respect and Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come. On its release in March 1967, I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You reached number two on the US Billboard 200 and number one in the US R&B Charts. This lead to the album being certified platinum, having sold over one million copies. 

Although most critics loved the album, Rolling Stone magazine had a number of criticisms. Amazingly, they criticized the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section’s “lack of versatility,” with the drums and guitar incurring their wrath. Another person coming in for criticism was producer Jerry Wexler. His “production lacked polish,” was their opinion. Whether any of this either reached or bothered the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, Jerry Wexler or even Aretha Franklin, is unknown. After all, everyone concerned had just played their part in a platinum selling album. However, after a volte-face in 2002, the same magazine made the album number one in their Women In Rock: 50 Essential Albums  list. A year later, after their volte-face they included I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You at number eighty-three in their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Since its release, back in 1967, I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You is still perceived as one of the greatest albums Aretha Franklin ever released, and it’s that album I’ll now tell you about.

I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You opens with a cover version of the Otis Redding track Respect, albeit with a change in the lyrics. Whereas, Otis’ version was from the perspective of a desperate man, willing to do whatever it takes to please his woman, Aretha sings the song from the perspective of a confident, independent woman. She knows what he wants, never does him wrong and demands his respect. Making her point, she spells out R-E-S-P-E-C-T, while behind her, backing singers unite to sing “sock it to me.” The song became an anthem to the feminist movement, and earned Aretha two Grammy Awards in 1968. When the songs opens, it’s a combination of blazing horns, chiming, searing guitars and driving rhythm section that accompany Aretha’s sassy, confident vocal. Behind her, The Sweet Inspirations, Aretha’s backing vocalists unite soulfully. Their contribution really lifts the track, their voices a contrast to Aretha’s power and confidence. Together with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, they help drive the track quickly, along. The result is not only a fantastic sounding timeless, track, but one that became a feminist anthem. On its release as a single Respect reached number one in both the US Billboard 100 and the US R&B Charts, earning Aretha another gold disc.

Drown In My Own Tears was a track previously covered by Dinah Washington and Ray Charles. Here, Aretha reinterprets the track written by Henry Glover. It’s just a piano that opens the track, giving way to a hugely powerful and emotive vocal from Aretha. Drums join the piano, played gently, as they should be on this track, while Aretha injects both beauty and emotion into the lyrics. Later, rasping horns enter, and like The Sweet Inspiration, punctuating the rest of the track. Jerry Wexler’s arrangement is perfect, allowing Aretha’s vocal to take centre-stage, where it soars emotively and beautifully, as she offers up a beautiful interpretation of the song.

The track that really launched Aretha’s career after eleven years and ten albums of trying was I Never Loved A Man (the Way I Loved You). Written by Ronny Shannon, and with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section backing her, it gave Aretha her first US R&B number one single. It’s that familiar combination of piano, organ and drums that open the track, before Aretha’s frustrated, angry vocal enters. She’s despairing at being in love with a no-good, good cheating guy, who treats her badly, but can’t leave him because of how he makes her feel. Rasping horns punctuate the track, while, the piano is key to the track and in the background the Hammond organ sits. Occasionally The Sweet Inspirations accompany Aretha, adding to the already emotive and dramatic sound. This is quickly added to when the horns accompany Aretha’s energetic, desperate soaring vocal as she sings how she’s never loved a man like him. In just under three minutes, Aretha covers a gambit of emotions from angry and frustrated, to lovestruck and desperate and everything in between. It’s a very real story the mistreating, cheating guy and the woman who would and should leave him, but can’t because she loves the way he makes her feel. However, no-one can tell the story like Aretha, her way is the best, on this seminal, career changing track.

After the brilliance of I Never Loved A Man (the Way I Loved You), Aretha changes things on Soul Serenade, which has a lovely tender vocal from Aretha. The track opens with just Aretha and the piano combining, before blazing horns and the rhythm section enter. They almost enter into call and response with Aretha. At the end of each line, they respond to Aretha’s vocal, with the horns at the heart of the sound. This is really effective and works really well, resulting in a great sounding track, albeit very different from its predecessor.

Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream sees Aretha’s vocal much stronger than on the previous track. Aretha co-wrote this track with her husband Ted White. It’s just a combination of the rhythm section, guitars and backing vocalists that accompany Aretha. Whether this song is autobiographical one wonders, given the lyric “if I lose this dream, it’s goodbye love and happiness.” That is but a matter of speculation, but if so, then everything was riding on the success of this album. Although the lyrics are good enough, they and the song don’t quite match the quality of its predecessors. It has the sound of 1967, and can be dated by that sound. Overall, it’s a pleasant enough track, thanks to Jerry Wexler’s arrangement and Aretha’s vocal but sadly is neither up there with Respect nor I Never Loved A Man (the Way I Loved You).

Side one of I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You closes with Baby, Baby, Baby a track Aretha and sister Carolyn Franklin co-wrote. It opens with a combination of piano and Hammond organ that accompany Aretha’s hugely emotive and sad vocal. She’s desperately sad that she’s hurt the man she loves. The rhythm section enter, as do The Sweet Inspirations who gently accompany Aretha on this slow, sad song. This is a far better track than the previous one, with the emotion and passion in Aretha’s voice almost tangible when she sings about the love she has for her man. There’s also a sadness and desperation that’s added to by the arrival of the rasping, blazing horns and the dynamic backing vocals who accompany Aretha. Overall, it’s a powerful track, full of emotion and energy thanks to Aretha’s realistic rendition of some hugely sad, but tender lyrics.

Side two of I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You opens with another track Aretha and Ted White penned. Dr Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business). Straight away, there’s a real Southern Soul feel to the arrangement, with a Hammond organ and piano combining, before the rhythm section and Aretha enter. They’re accompanied by bursts of horns and guitar, while Aretha gives a thoughtful, slightly angry vocal. She seems angry as she sings about neither wanting anyone, nor anything, to come between her and her man. Neither her family, nor friends. Again whether this is autobiographical, is open to speculation, but remember, Aretha had been in the public eye since an early age, and the constant intrusion in her life must have been frustrating. This track gets across the frustration and anger this must cause, perfectly. Aretha sings the lyrics with frustration, anger and passion, with her style and that of the arrangement combining soul and jazz wonderfully.

Aretha covers two Sam Cooke tracks on the album, the first of these is Good Times, where Aretha makes the song swing with the help of a brilliant backing band the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Together, they and some blazing horns combine with Aretha who gives a sassy, swinging rendition of Sam Cooke’s lyrics which she delivers in a jazzy style, albeit with soul. Accompanying her is a searing, chiming guitar solo which together with the piano helps the song swing. Add to this the blazing horns, and the result is a stunning, swinging track.

Another of the best know and best tracks on the album is Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, co-written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman. Although this track has been covered by hundreds, if not thousands of singers, Aretha’s version is to me, the definitive version. Part of what makes the track so brilliant, is the gospel influence, which continues to the bridge. it’s just the piano, Hammond organ played by Aretha, rhythm section and guitars that accompany Aretha’s gospel tinged vocal. Behind her, The Sweet Inspiration contribute their best backing vocals on the album. They sing tight, united gospel drenched backing vocals throughout. During the song, Aretha urges men to treat women as their equals, as well as treating them well, not cheating on them or abusing them, and certainly, never to take them from granted. The other theme is temptation, and how women can be tempted towards infidelity, but resisting temptation, it can have its rewards. This fidelity should be a two way thing though, with a man respecting a woman, and staying faithful. Not only is Do Right Woman, Do Right Man one of the best tracks Aretha ever recorded, but a song  with a message to both men and women, that follows on from the message of Respect penned by Otis Redding. When the song was released as a single, having previously been the B-side to I Never Loved A Man (the Way I Loved You), it reached number thirty-seven in the US R&B Charts. Why the song was only considered good enough for a B-side by Atlantic, astounds me. If it had been released as a single on its own, it would’ve given Aretha another huge hit.

Save Me is another track that Aretha and Carolyn Franklin co-wrote, this time with Curtis Ousley. Searing guitars and rhythm sections accompany Aretha’s pleas, as she almost screams for someone to save her, to love her and take away her hurt. Later, short, sharp bursts of horns punctuate the arrangement, while the guitars and rhythm section drive the track along. As the track progresses, Aretha’s pleas become even more desperate, full of emotion, sadness and passion. This results in a track that’s drenched in drama, emotion and desperation.

I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You closes with the second Sam Cooke on the album, A Change Is Gonna Come. Of all the songs Sam Cooke wrote, this is a song that became hugely important for the hope it spoke about, especially the lyrics that although “it’s been a long time coming, but I know a change in gonna come.” These powerful words came to exemplify the rise in the civil rights movement with brave people like Dr Martin Luther King Jr willing to risk his life to bring about change, right wrongs and fight injustice. Although the song was only a minor hit for Sam Cooke in 1963, the song’s impact was huge and important. When it’s sung by either Sam Cooke or Aretha Franklin, it has the capacity to bring a multitude of emotions to the surface. It makes you sad, frustrated and angry at the injustice of the early sixties when the song was released by Sam Cooke, but happy and joyous that by 1967, slowly change was indeed coming. Fast forward just over forty years, and change had come with Barrack Obama the United States President. However, when Aretha sings the song, it’s just piano that accompanies her tender, but determined, thoughtful vocal, before the Hammond Organ enters as her voice soars. Joining it and the piano and the rhythm section and guitars, as Aretha brings life and meaning to Sam Cooke’s lyrics, her voice soaring from tender to a powerful, emotive and impassioned style. The effect is hugely emotional and very beautiful, with the song having a spiritual quality among the hope in its lyrics. Here, The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section really surpass themselves, playing with a similar emotion and passion as Aretha. By the end of the this outstanding, hugely emotional paean of hope, you can’t failed to be moved and be uplifted by this beautiful song, which is a fitting way to end the album. Nothing else could come close to this.

Of all the many albums Aretha Franklin has recorded over her long career, and among the many great albums she recorded for Atlantic Records I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You is my favorite, it’s a stunning album, with some hugely powerful music on it. Respect, I Never Loved A Man (the Way I Loved You), Do Right Woman, Do Right Man and A Change Is Gonna Come. Four outstanding tracks that feature some of the best vocals on the album. Witness her sassy performance on Respect, and compare the confident, independent Aretha, to the Aretha on Never Loved A Man (the Way I Loved You) that’s been mistreated, cheated on, but still can’t stand to leave and the difference is huge, but the portrayal very real. Then there’s the message of equality on Do Right Man and the positivity and emotion of A Change Is Gonna Come, and you see how Aretha Franklin could bring a song to life, make to you believe in the lyrics and emotions behind it. Although I’ve just mentioned these four songs, there are many other great tracks on the album. Aretha’s interpretation of Henry Glover’s Drown In My Own Tears is both emotive and very beautiful. Overall, the album is one of the few that deserves to be rightly called a classic album. Nowadays, this accolade is given to too many unworthy albums. However, I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You richly deserves the accolade. On the album her vocals were stunning, The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section played brilliantly and Jerry Wexler’s production plays an important part in the album’s success. With their help and some wonderful songs, Aretha Franklin recorded I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You, which transformed her career and deserves to be called a classic. Standout Tracks: Respect, I Never Loved A Man (the Way I Loved You), Do Right Woman, Do Right Man and A Change Is Gonna Come. 


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