The Secret Jewish History of Aretha Franklin – By Benjamin Ivry | Haaretz

The Secret Jewish History of Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin

To understand the close ties between the singer Aretha Franklin and Jewish musicians, writers, and performers, one need not have seen the 1982 TV special starring Rodney Dangerfield

The Forward, The Associated Press and Benjamin Ivry | Haaretz

Aretha Franklin, the long-reigning “Queen of Soul” who sang with matchless style on such classics as “Think” and her signature song, “Respect”, died Thursday at age 76, said her representative, Gwendolyn Quinn.

The cause was advanced pancreatic cancer.

To understand the close ties between the singer Aretha Franklin and Jewish musicians, writers, and performers, one need not have seen the 1982 TV special starring Rodney Dangerfield (born Jacob Cohen) in which the comedian who famously got no respect feigns singing backup on Franklin’s 1967 recording of the song “Respect”.                 

The concept of respect was as vital in reality to Franklin as an African-American woman as it was in jest to Dangerfield’s onstage character. The song which it inspired would again be featured by Dangerfield during the end credits for his comedy film “Back to School” (1986).

Franklin’s choice to cover “Respect”, originally written and recorded as a macho demand for domestic deference by Otis Redding, was due to the American Jewish producer Jerry Wexler (1917–2008), born in the Bronx of Polish and German ancestry. Wexler, who also played a significant role in the early career of Ray Charles, among others, has been called the “funky Jewish king of black music”.

Stephen Whitfield’s “In Search of American Jewish Culture” points to the empathy that Wexler felt for the African American struggle for civil rights, quoting him as follows:

“As a Jew, I didn’t think I identified with the underclass, I was the underclass.” Wexler’s astuteness and understanding made a difference in many music careers, not least Franklin’s. Working with her sisters Erma and Carolyn as backup singers, Franklin added to Redding’s original song the spelled-out word R-E-S-P-E-C-T, the significant abbreviation TCB (for taking care of business), and the raucous choral interjection, “Sock it to me, Sock it to me, Sock it to me.”

Wexler’s further interpolations included the majestic tenor saxophone playing of King Curtis, who would perform with the organist Billy Preston on Franklin’s 1971 album “Aretha Live at Fillmore West,” galvanizing American pop music.

As Michael Billig’s “Rock and Roll Jews” notes, Wexler also alerted Franklin about American Jewish songwriters, including Burt Bacharach, whose “I Say a Little Prayer” she covered in 1968. Even more indelibly, in 1967 Wexler invented the song title “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”.

In a memoir, Wexler recalled how after having had this brainstorm, he assigned two Jewish songwriters, Carole King (born Carol Klein) and Gerry Goffin, to produce a tune for Franklin based on the title. The result was yet another iconic pop anthem. Franklin’s blend of gospel roots and glamorous, alluring vocal texture made “Natural Woman” into a giant hit.

Other Jewish songwriters and African-American performers shared similar collaborations. Franklin’s sister Erma, an elegant singer with a relatively brief career, was the first to record the love song “Piece of My Heart” by Jerry Ragovoy, of Hungarian Jewish ancestry, and Bert Berns, of Russian Jewish roots.

According to Jon Stratton’s “Jews, Race and Popular Music”, Erma Franklin drew on the gospel background which she shared with her sisters to make “Piece of My Heart” into an emotional, quasi-spiritual plea. Despite the attractions of her 1967 version, the song became a major hit only a year later, when it was covered by Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin as lead vocalist.

In 1971, in yet another unforgettable cover, Aretha Franklin recorded “Spanish Harlem”, a song created by three Jewish pop music stalwarts, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and the now disgraced Phil Spector. As these shared cultural experiences accumulated with her acclaimed recordings, some listeners drew ethical or moral conclusions from Franklin’s creative and interpretive accomplishments.

In a book about parent-child relationships which appeared in 2011 from the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Rabbi Michael J. Broyde, professor of law at Emory University and former member of the Beth Din of America, explained how he was inspired by Franklin’s song “Respect”.

Rabbi Broyde concluded that respect should be the essential component of the parent-child relationship from a Jewish ethical standpoint, even surpassing love. He added in a footnote: “To my dismay, this is also the first citation to Aretha Franklin in my work or, as far as I can tell, other works of Jewish law.” A useful precedent may have been set for interpreting halakha.

Another Jewish response to the songs of Aretha Franklin can be found in the playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s “An American Daughter” (1996). In Wasserstein’s play, one character chides another that “there is actual music past Aretha Franklin and the Beatles,” to which the reply is: “But I don’t like music past Aretha Franklin and the Beatles.”

Without necessarily sharing this viewpoint, music lovers today may concur that Franklin and other African-American performers, in close collaboration with Jewish colleagues, reached an apogee in popular music that is unlikely to be surpassed.

Her biographer Mark Bego cites an interview given by Franklin to Jet Magazine in November 1970. Advocating a melting pot or tzimmes of identities and influences, she rejected categories or rigid identities in her music. Rather than stark identity politics, what mattered to Franklin was the communicative virtue of soulfulness, which she must have sensed in Jerry Wexler and other valued Jewish colleagues.

This melding of cultures, styles, and sensibilities was somewhat ambiguously articulated in the article, which quotes Franklin as saying: “It’s not cool to be Jewish, or Negro, or Italian. It’s just cool to be alive, to be around. You don’t have to be Black to have soul.”

Franklin’s point was that roots alone were no guarantee of coolness. Identity per se was not to be admired unless other positive elements accompanied it. These favorable aspects, as possessed by Wexler and songwriters in Franklin’s entourage, were essential for the shared public discourse which the world prized in her singing.

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  • Clyde Duncan  On August 19, 2018 at 2:04 am

    Franklin’s sister Erma, an elegant singer with a relatively brief career, was the first to record the love song “Piece of My Heart” by Jerry Ragovoy, of Hungarian Jewish ancestry, and Bert Berns, of Russian Jewish roots.

    According to Jon Stratton’s “Jews, Race and Popular Music”, Erma Franklin drew on the gospel background which she shared with her sisters to make “Piece of My Heart” into an emotional, quasi-spiritual plea. Despite the attractions of her 1967 version, the song became a major hit only a year later, when it was covered by Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin as lead vocalist.

    TODAY, “Piece of My Heart” is sung by Beverley Knight of the UK:

  • Clyde Duncan  On August 19, 2018 at 2:24 am

    Another Jewish response to the songs of Aretha Franklin can be found in the playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s “An American Daughter” (1996). In Wasserstein’s play, one character chides another that “there is actual music past Aretha Franklin and the Beatles,” to which the reply is: “But I don’t like music past Aretha Franklin and the Beatles.”

    Following that train of thought, one concludes that there are exceptions, George Michael’s “One More Try” comes to mind, a song about a boy who has been spurned by an older lover — a pain so great, he considers opting out of romance altogether. But by the end of the song, he decides to give romance one more try.

  • Clyde Duncan  On August 19, 2018 at 4:17 am

    The Day Aretha Franklin Found Her Sound – and a Bunch of Men Nearly Killed It

    In Muscle Shoals in 1967, the Queen of Soul recorded her first hit – despite swirling clouds of drink, jealousy and masculine competition

    David Taylor | The Guardian UK

    It was the tumultuous recording session in which Aretha Franklin found her voice – and a controlling bunch of men almost screwed it up.

    The consequences would help define modern music, not only launching Franklin but sparking a feud at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which started a wave of creativity that helped define music in the 1970s, bringing a stream of superstars to the cluster of four towns on the banks of the Tennessee river.

    But first, there was a bottle of VODKA.

    Before she was the Queen of Soul, Franklin had a false start, singing in quite a controlled way on poppy, jazzy releases for Columbia Records. Atlantic picked her up and in early 1967 sent her to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, where a hard-charging wannabe impresario named Rick Hall had made his first No. 1 hit the year before. The singer of what became a soul classic, “When a Man Loves a Woman”, was Percy Sledge. When the song was recorded, he was working as a hospital orderly.

    Franklin, aged 24, was at a grand piano in FAME’s wood-panelled Studio A, trying to turn an idea into a song. Session man Spooner Oldham was fiddling around with a five-note riff on a Wurlitzer electronic piano.

    Oldham got the intro and by the time Franklin broke loose with “You’re a no good heart-breaker / You’re a liar and you’re a cheat”, her first big hit was on the way. I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) made it to No. 9 in the Billboard 100 and became the title track of Franklin’s breakthrough album. The raw power which made her famous was unleashed.

    But in many ways, the session was an absolute disaster.

    Hall died in January this year, aged 85 and widely acclaimed for his remarkable contribution to music. In an interview in 2013, at the control desk of Studio A, he told the story of the day Aretha came to town – and the extraordinary consequences for modern music.

    Hall recalled that Jerry Wexler, the legendary producer from Atlantic Records, had told him: “I got this girl, I’m thinking of signing her, I’d like to bring her down here.”

    “Course, I’d never heard of her,” Hall said. “She couldn’t get arrested. She’d never had a hit record, I didn’t know whether she could have a hit record. She came in here and she had her song down and she sat at the piano here, right by the window … and played Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You. We were immune to that. What’s this song all about? It sounds like an old waltz! It’s got a waltz beat, you can’t dance to it, it’s not gonna happen.”

    But Hall wanted Wexler’s business, so he said to himself: “We’re gonna make it happen.”

    Franklin had married at 19. Her husband, Ted White, was also her manager. They divorced the following year and a later biography suggested they often had ugly fights. Some have assumed her breakthrough song was about their troubled relationship.

    Hall said: “He brought in a bottle of vodka, or sent out and got a bottle of vodka, and he began to drink and pass the bottle around to some of the horn players. Well everything was groovy until about two o’clock in the afternoon. And he started getting pretty loopy.”

    White came into the studio’s console room and told Hall: “I want you to fire the trumpet player. He’s making passes at my wife.”

    The trumpet player was sent home. A couple of hours later, after another complaint from White, the tenor sax was fired too.

    “So tension begins to get thick in the studio and people start to get a little antsy and they know things aren’t good and they wonder what’s going on … Jerry said, ‘Let’s just call the session off.’ We’d done one song and were into the second song.”

    Halfway through recording Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, the session was stopped.

    “So to settle my nerves,” Hall said, “I had to have a drink or two of vodka myself and I said to Jerry, ‘I’m going over to the hotel where they’re staying and work this out. We’ll have a drink together and we’ll talk it out and everything will be fine tomorrow.’

    “And he said, ‘Oh God, please don’t Rick, don’t go over there, it’ll be trouble.’
    So I went.”

    Wexler was RIGHT.

    Hall continued: “So I went to talk to Ted, and we came to blows. Jerry said, ‘I’m leaving this town, I’ll never come back, I’ll bury you.’ I said, ‘You can’t bury me, you’re too old.’

    “So it was war from them on. I hated him and he hated me, they hated me and I hated them. It wasn’t good for the industry, it was not good for me, I made a terrible mistake going over there and getting into it with Ted, and for all that I was sorry, but you know, things happen.”

    David Hood, a bass player who worked with Etta James, Mavis Staples, Sledge and many more, was playing trombone that day at FAME. Speaking this week, after Franklin’s death, he told the Guardian: “Working with her was one of the highlights of my career.”

    “On that session I was part of the horn section. I’m not a great trombone player but I could do that. She was a very shy, introverted lady at the time, I think she was probably a little nervous at the start of it.”

    Never Loved A Man was “kind of a strange song”, Hood said, and the session was going nowhere. But then, he said: “Spooner came up with this great little lick and everyone fell in line with that, started playing, and that saved the song. It was minutes after that we did the horn parts.

    “Aretha played the piano while she sang, rather than just standing there singing. Her piano feel really helped the feel the musicians got to play with her.”

    Hood recorded his part of the second song but was oblivious to the trouble.

    “The rest of the guys didn’t really know what was going on. I wasn’t drinking in a recording session. You don’t go to work and drink. None of the rest of us knew about all this, we came back in the next day to start the session and there was a sign on the door saying session was cancelled.”

    Wexler took Hall’s musicians to New York to finish the album, then set them up as rivals on Hall’s turf, buying a building across town at 3614 Jackson Highway, where the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio started.

    Director Greg Camalier’s great documentary Muscle Shoals, the story of a small town with a big sound, has a moment when the phenomenal output of the new studio set up by guitarist Jimmy Johnson, bass player Hood and drummer Roger Hawkins is brought home. Key 1970s albums are piled up – among them Rod Stewart’s Atlantic Crossing and Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming.

    Paul Simon, Willie Nelson and Elton John all came to record. The Rolling Stones recorded Brown Sugar and Wild Horses here, but couldn’t stay for the full Sticky Fingers album because Keith Richards was banned from the USA. Lynyrd Skynyrd first recorded there – their manager gave the studio band their nickname, the Swampers. They are remembered in the lyrics to Sweet Home Alabama.

    Hall, not to be outdone, did a deal with Capitol Records and turned the Osmonds into a global success.

    Muscle Shoals became a music hub to rival Detroit and Memphis, having managed to start Aretha Franklin on her way.

    In Studio A, the grand piano and Spooner Oldham’s Wurlitzer are still there, side by side.

  • Clyde Duncan  On August 19, 2018 at 8:12 am

    Funny how they love to ride on the backs of our achievements and successes. It is as if they have a loathing in accepting that we are a uniquely and singularly talented race of people that need no props to manifest our greatness.

    We should not allow any of this nonsensical posturing to deflect from her intrinsic creativity and diverse superstar qualities and acclaim.
    ________________________________________

    Eddie, UK

  • Clyde Duncan  On August 19, 2018 at 8:37 am

    Diversity is good. We need each other’s ideas.

    Elizabeth Lesser

    Each one of us has lived through some devastation, some loneliness, some weather superstorm or spiritual superstorm, when we look at each other we must say, I understand.

    I understand how you feel because I have been there myself. We must support each other and empathize with each other because each of us is more alike than we are unalike.

    Maya Angelou

    It may be that it is not given to us to know when we are angels. We may only be given to know when others are. This may be one of the reasons we need each other so much.

    Michael Ventura

    We have had in our nation a well-celebrated Declaration of Independence. But our success as a country will depend upon a new ‘Declaration of Inter-dependence.’ A belief in how much we need each other, how much we share one common destiny.

    Cory Booker

    Dogs and humans are symbiotic species. We need each other.

    Cynthia Heimel

    azquotes.com

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