Despite more than a decade of performing and recording, Aretha Franklin had yet to find her voice. Everyone around her knew that she had a phenomenal tone, and one that could blend worlds of gospel, pop, and jazz in ways that few others could match. However, the material she was singing failed to rise to her level. Part of the blame rested on the young and untested Franklin, part of the blame rested on her manager and father C.L., and part of the blame rested on her label, Columbia Records.
By the mid-1960s, Franklin was beginning to find her footing. Emphasising her gospel roots, Franklin began to spearhead the nascent genre of soul, along with performers like James Brown and Otis Redding. But Columbia wasn’t evolving with her, and after nine albums with the label, Franklin opted to seek out a label that would work better for her more hard-edged sound. She decided to jump to the same label that had previously housed genre forerunners like Ray Charles and LaVern Baker, Atlantic Records.
The first order of business was to shed Franklin of the jazz standards of her past. Instead of the lighter orchestral pop that had been part of her previous sound, Franklin carefully chose her covers that allowed her a greater amount of personality and control. When it came to picking songs from other songwriters, Franklin similarly chose more pointed material. Although it wasn’t explicit, Franklin was crafting one of the first feminism-centred albums in pop music with I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You.
It all starts with the album’s first track, Franklin’s take on the Otis Redding number ‘Respect’. Rather than embodying a figure who is fine with a philandering partner, Franklin flips the song on its head and demands to be treated as the only one in her man’s life. Franklin is in complete control, steadfast in her knowledge that she is the end-all, be-all that can be found in this particular union. Whether it was from transferring to a new label or the growing independence she felt from her husband, songwriter, and manager Ted White, Franklin exploded into an entirely new level of confidence on ‘Respect’.
Backing her up is the F.A.M.E. Studios Rhythm Section, later known as both the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and The Swampers. Although tracking originally began at F.A.M.E. Studios in Alabama, an altercation between White and studio owner Rick Hall resulted in production halting after only the album’s title track was recorded. Franklin decided that she still needed the white boys from Alabama to bring her newly emancipated sound to life, so she flew them out to New York, where sessions resumed at Atlantic’s in-house recording studio.
The secret to I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You lies in two more prominent features that had yet to be explored on Franklin’s previous albums: Franklin’s own signature piano playing and her insistence on using her sister Carolyn and Erma as her backing vocalists. Franklin played piano rhythmically and aggressively, a style that was followed by The Swampers behind her. Meanwhile, her hooks were accentuated by the preternatural blend that the Franklin sisters had.
The lesser songs on I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You are the most fascinating to revisit 55 years later. ‘Soul Serenade’ is a nod back to the jazz origins of Franklin’s style while adding a noticeable groove that had been missing up to that point. Drummers Gene Chrisman and Roger Hawkins developed a pocket that had never appeared on Franklin’s previous records, and it allowed her to dig into a song’s arrangement in more primal ways, belting vocals straight from the piano as she emanates heartbreak, love, frustration, and self-assuredness.
‘Don’t Let Me Lose This Train’ would be a jazz-lounge track if not for Franklin and her sisters’ soulful vocals. I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You didn’t start as a major departure for Franklin from the jazz styles of her past, but thanks to the new band and new surroundings that she found herself in, soul began to replace jazz in a natural progression as Franklin became more comfortable finding her brassy voice. It would be her greatest asset, and it only took a decade to find it.
For the first time on her recordings, Franklin found herself at the forefront of the recording process. In previous works, Franklin had to contend with lush orchestrations, dense arrangements, and inflexible producers who believed they knew what was best to mould Franklin into a success. I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You is one of the first feminist albums not just because of the words Franklin is singing, but because of the autonomy that she now had over her own music.
Tellingly, Franklin never loses the thread when she jumps from topic to topic. She can take on both ends of Sam Cooke’s discography, from his breezy party-rock track ‘Good Times’ to his impassioned call for racial equality ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, without contradicting herself. Instead, she embodies all sides of life, including the good and the bad in equal measure. Love is a difficult proposition on the album, as it was for Franklin in her real life, but it was never straightforward or twee like it was on Franklin’s previous records.
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You was more than just a change of pace for Aretha Franklin. It was an announcement that everything had changed, from her style to her sound to her image to her attitude. It was a seismic declaration of independence and self-actualisation, complete within 11 songs that had a new groove and rhythm that was leaps and bounds beyond anything that Franklin had done before. With Atlantic, she had a course set for the future that would allow her to indulge in soul and gospel, the synthesis of which would become her signature sound. But more importantly, she had found the sound within herself, a sound that was always there but was just waiting to find the right vehicle to come out. I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You remains a treat for the ears, the brain, and the soul to this day, completely untouched by more than five decades of musical change. Few records are as timeless and consistently relevant, and that’s the way it will stay for the next five decades to come.