by Ryan McKeeman

Aretha Franklin started as a gospel singer before landing a record deal with Columbia Records in 1960 at the age of 18. And while she achieved what many musicians would consider a career of success while at Columbia, she never had a #1 hit nor a platinum record there.

Aretha Franklin's first 8 albums, all released by Columbia Records

Aretha Franklin's first 8 albums, all released by Columbia Records

I doubt most of us would recognize those early recordings as the Queen of Soul; her records with Columbia were a much smoother variety of R&B that crossed over into Easy Listening and Jazz-Pop.

In January 1967, however, Aretha decided not to renew her contract with Columbia and signed with Atlantic. This was the defining moment in her career...at least, it is for us, the audience. Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler had a relationship with Rick Hall, owner of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama (make sure you check out the documentary). Wexler immediately sent Aretha down to Alabama to get started recording - they all needed a hit record. Fast.

The Muscle Shoals Swampers

The Muscle Shoals Swampers

Within days, Aretha recorded "I Never Loved A Man (the Way That I Love You)" with Rick Hall and the Muscle Shoals "Swampers." Pictured above, the all-white R&B rhythm section - keys, guitar, drums and bass - were the backbone behind the soul sounds we all know and love: "When A Man Loves A Woman" by Percy Sledge, "Mustang Sally" by Wilson Pickett, "I'll Take You There" by The Staples Singers, "Making Love (At The Dark End Of The Street)" by Clarence Carter and countless others from the 1960's and 1970's.

The record was released in March 1967 with "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" on the B-side. And the rest, as they say, is history. "I Never Loved A Man" shot to #1 on the R&B charts, the album sold over a million copies, Aretha earned a grammy for Album of the Year and The Queen of Soul was born.

Listen to the difference in the energy of the instrumentation on "I Never Loved A Man." It's like hearing synchronicity between the vocalist and the instrumentalists. The instruments serve both as a soundscape to hold and support the vocals AND they do their own singing, especially the theme established by the keys in the intro and the horns blasting in the breakdown at the end.

Thank you, Rick Hall and the Muscle Shoals "Swampers." Thank you Jerry Wexler. And thank you, Aretha Franklin, for your voice and your art. And for finding it.

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