Sledge had popped in during one of Pickett’s recording sessions at the Muscle Shoals Fame Studios, and as his name would suggest, began to sledge Pickett, telling him first he sounded like Otis Redding, and then like James Brown.
That’s the best way to annoy a singer, apparently. Tell them they are derivative of someone else.
Unless you the singer is Bjork, of course, when you just need to say “Welcome to Bangkok”…
Not that Sledge used the word “derivative”.
“I say Wilson old chap – you’re a little derivative, don’t you know?”
We can safely assume he was a little more forthright, and Pickett was having none of it.
Jerry Wexler, the head of Atlantic Records was also present and was looking at two of his prize assets about to murder each other.
This might not go down well with the shareholders, he decided, and he stepped in.
The Wicked Pickett flung him out of the way.
An impressive show of force from Pickett, but Sledge was a former boxer…
Who would win, in this heavyweight boxing contest between two of the most celebrated RnB singers of all time?
We will never know, because right at that moment the phone rang. Wexler politely told them both to “calm the f— down”, and answered.
The story of Aretha Franklin’s first Atlantic Records album hinges on two phone calls. This was the first.
On the other end of the line was the message Wexler had been waiting six years to hear.
Aretha Franklin was ready to join Atlantic Records.
Franklin had spent a frustrating hit-less six years at Columbia and was desperate to cross over to the mainstream. She had a couple of ideas that might help her do that already. In particular, a revamped version of an Otis Redding song she had been working on.
It was called “Respect”. Aretha had this little piece that wasn’t in Otis’ version where she would spell out the word. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. It was catchy. And don’t get her started on the “sock it to me” bit she had dreamt up with her sister…
Looking back at Aretha’s later success, it all appears inevitable.
It was anything but.
The first album very nearly didn’t get made at all.
Wexler’s idea was to take Aretha to Fame studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the scene of Sledge’s recording of “When A Man Loves A Woman”. Rich Hall, the owner, was a big personality, but had recorded some wildly successful hit songs. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything. That’s what.
It was fine at first. Dan Penn and Chips Moman – two of the musicians at Muscle Shoals – wrote a song on the spot: “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man”. The first day’s work went so well, some celebratory drinking took place.
Then it all went wrong. An argument began with one of the trumpet players, Rich Hall got involved, Aretha’s husband Ted White – a difficult personality whose relationship with Aretha was later described as abusive – only made things worse and in no time at all Aretha and her husband bolted, and would not be persuaded to return to Muscle Shoals.
It looked like a disaster for Wexler. His new signing had run off, and he was responsible.
All Jerry Wexler had in the can was half a version of “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man” and a completed “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)”.
Aretha’s first recording session for the new label with a team that had produced a succession of hits for other artists – who had produced magic and a feeling that hadn’t been replicated anywhere else – and there had been a massive fight.
Ted White was seething that Wexler had insisted they record there.
Music. Bloody Hell.
Wexler had no album. All he had was one and a half recordings, and his artist was refusing to come back to record any more songs.
So Wexler acted decisively.
He printed twenty or thirty acetates of the finished song, “I Never Loved A Man…” and sent them to key DJs, who immediately played the song on the airwaves.
Radio listeners loved the new Aretha sound.
Distributors cried out for copies of the song to sell. Wexler stalled.
It was 1967. To release the single, he couldn’t load it up on iTunes. He needed two songs, an A-side and a B-side. And the problem was, he only had one and a half songs.
The good news was that on their first attempt Wexler and Aretha Franklin at last had a hit. The bad news was that it was only a hit on the radio.
He spent ten nervous days avoiding calls from irate distributors unable to get copies of what looked like a certain hit.
And then came the second phone call of this story.
Aretha had been impressed by how much her song was gaining significant radio play, and finally called Wexler. She told him she would agree to record more songs, and to play with the Muscle Shoals musicians.
But in New York.
Wexler’s gamble had paid off.
Jerry Wexler no doubt breathed a huge sigh of relief and prepared for the recording session in the big apple.
This time, in New York, there was no more nonsense. Aretha meant business. She walked in, sat at the piano, played over the half-finished “Do Right” track, sang harmonies with her sisters and then sang the lead. Once.
She may only have been 24 years old, but she was on her eleventh studio album and in complete command.
The finished song became the b-side to “I Never Loved A Man…” and Aretha – in just two songs and two days in the studio (not counting the two weeks in between) – had the top ten hit she had waited six fruitless years at Columbia for, mixing with The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” and The Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday”. “I Never Loved A Man…” sold a million copies.
The rest was plain sailing. The next single, Respect hit the top spot in the pop charts and won two Grammys, catching the mood of the times. The album “I Never Loved A Man…” was impressive. What’s more, some of the best songs on the album were written or co-written by Aretha. “Save Me”, “Dr Feelgood”, “Baby, Baby, Baby” and “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream”.
It’s a classic.
Can you find copies to buy now? And for how much?
As a reminder, all this talk about Aretha Franklin has another purpose. Can we track down her albums, and are they cheaper on eBay or in used record shops?
I was feeling good about this one. I had snagged a nice UK mono original copy of the LP for £10 at Spitalfields Record Fair in London, which I thought was a bargain. There hadn’t been many copies in the used record shops I had travelled to over the past six months and those I had seen tended to fetch £20 or more.
I had also sneaked a look at Discogs. Discogs (for the uninitiated) is probably the largest online seller of vinyl. Indeed, many used record shops sell their stock on Discogs also. It helps those shops to reach a wider market place, and is extremely useful for those less able or willing to trawl around the country trying to find old records.
Discogs has a useful statistics section showing the average of the last ten copies of any individual record sold. Aretha’s Atlantic debut averaged £16.94 for the last ten copies, which, when you add postage, took the average price to around the £20 mark. They had a couple of copies still on sale as cheap as £10, but not in acceptable condition, and with postage on top, there was, I reasoned, little chance of Chris finding a cheaper copy than mine. On eBay, a mint UK first pressing had fetched £122.
“I spent a tenner” I gloated in front of Chris. “How much did you spend?”
“£8.50” he replied.
“Rubbish!” I said. Actually that wasn’t my exact retort but this is a family website.
I examined his album.
It wasn’t a UK mono pressing. It was a brand new pressing. He’d cheated!
“We never said anything about not buying new ones” protested Chris. “If you wanted to go about buying original copies you should have said so! eBay is perfect for picking up stuff like this – a fiver plus postage. It’s a total bargain!”
“How are we supposed to compare prices scientifically if you go around buying different versions?” I argued, not unreasonably.
But there it was.
- eBay: £8.50 (for a new pressing in NM condition)
- Record fair: £10 (for a UK original)
I reckoned I had scored a moral victory.
But this was just the first album. What about the rest?
More next time…