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I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You): The Story Behind The Aretha Franklin Song
In Depth

I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You): The Story Behind The Aretha Franklin Song

The first song to capture the real Aretha Franklin, I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) began one of the most important eras in music.

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No agony as exquisite, no horror so seductive. On the first song Aretha Franklin recorded for her new label, Atlantic Records, she brought home the pain and pleasure of loving somebody so hard that you sacrifice your sense, your humanity, your judgement. Released as a single on 10 February 1967, I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) compressed Franklin’s tumultuous history with men, sex, faith and music into two minutes and 47 seconds of pure soul genius.

Listen to the best of Aretha Franklin here.

“Aretha was on top of her game. She’s a genius that way”

Franklin’s ability to portray a complex emotional chessboard in one roar is unique in popular music – but, at the time of recording I Never Loved A Man, that quality hadn’t yet become her signature. In fact, it hadn’t even really begun until she signed to Atlantic late in 1966. Aretha had been with Columbia Records for the previous six years and, though her early albums had contained flashes of brilliance, she had been underused, undersold and underappreciated.

The core problem in those Columbia years wasn’t her voice; Aretha could sing the corniest or wispiest of tunes and make it flesh and blood. The problem was more that singing wasn’t the only thing she could do. She was a skilled pianist and arranger, with strong opinions, and knew that using those talents was as important as her voice. Since Columbia had treated her mainly as a vocalist rather than as an artist, it wasn’t a hard decision for Franklin to sign with Atlantic when her Columbia contract ran out. “I felt a natural affinity with the Atlantic sound,” she said. “To me, Atlantic meant soul.”

Celebrating his new signing, Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler didn’t want to waste time. I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) was written by Ronnie Shannon especially for Franklin, and the singer had already spent some time working on it. The song would be recorded on 24 January 1967, at FAME at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, owned by Rick Hall. Memphis-born Aretha was heading back to the South.

“The enthusiasm in the studio was terrific, like nothing I had experienced”

The Muscle Shoals session musicians were, by now, renowned. Known as The Swampers, Jerry Wexler described them as “a rhythm section of Alabama white boys who took a left turn at the blues”. The Swampers knew they were good, and had a bit of the stand-offish arrogance that went along with that talent. Franklin proved her musical intellect to them straight away, by simply sitting at the piano and playing an unusual chord. Then, in the words of Dan Penn, a regular at Muscle Shoals, “The guys were like little bugs, they just ran for their instruments.”

“Many of the arrangements were done on the spot, in what we called head sessions,” Franklin later recalled. “This was worlds away from how I had worked at Columbia, far more spontaneous and free-flowing.” As the musicians created together, Franklin played acoustic piano, and Spooner Oldham played electric piano; the five-note riff, so central to the song’s inventiveness, was something Oldham created out of that jousting. It was the key to unlocking the song, and the arrangement of I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) fully fell into place from there.

“This was raw and real and so much more myself. I loved it!”

“Aretha was on top of her game,” Oldham said of the session. “That’s her arrangement. Nobody told her to lay out, she’s just a genius that way. She was listening, she felt the dynamics building up, and she started playing.”

All was going well: “The enthusiasm and the camaraderie in the studio were terrific, like nothing I had experienced at Columbia,” Aretha recalled. “This new Aretha music was raw and real and so much more myself. I loved it!” Spirits were getting high, and Ted White – Aretha’s then-husband, who had accompanied her to Muscle Shoals – began to drink vodka. The horn section, elated with the way the session was going, shared the bottle.

“The next morning, I went to the airport alone”

With I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) finished, a B-side was needed. The recording of Do Right Woman, Do Right Man began. But, by now, the vodka was loosening tongues and tempers, and Ted White took offence at one or more of the musicians. The actual circumstance is contested – stories range from White believing a musician was hitting on Franklin, to a racial slur being spoken. Whatever the cause, White successfully got a trumpet player and a tenor sax player sent home. Do Right Woman, Do Right Man was shelved until the next day, when bodies and minds would hopefully be calmer. Aretha and a very unsettled Ted left for the day.

FAME owner Rick Hall, who had also started drinking after the session, then made a miscalculation of his own. Either thinking to play the diplomat, or to continue the argument, he went to the hotel where Aretha and Ted were staying. Reports of what actually happened between Ted and Rick range from a brawl to a shootout to Ted hanging Rick off the motel balcony. Aretha herself claimed, in her 1999 autobiography, not to recall the details – but she felt uncomfortable enough to know she couldn’t return to Muscle Shoals. “The next morning, I went to the airport alone,” she said. “As soon as I got there, I ran into White. Obviously he was leaving without me, and I without him. We flew back to New York together, with neither of us saying anything about the previous night.”

The hit she wanted, on terms she dictated

This abrupt end to the session left Jerry Wexler and Atlantic with a problem. They had a dynamite song but, without a B-side, it couldn’t be pressed and sold. As a stopgap, Wexler quickly manufactured single-sided copies of I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) for radio; DJs loved it, and played it endlessly – an early indication of its status today among the best Aretha Franklin songs. Aretha heard it, and liked the reaction to her new sound. She agreed to more sessions with the Muscle Shoals musicians, on one condition: no more Muscle Shoals or Rick Hall. Franklin insisted on finishing Do Right Woman, Do Right Man with The Swampers, alongside the rest of album – which would be released in March as I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You– in New York. There were no further problems. She got the hit she wanted, on the terms she dictated.

Topping the US R&B chart and hitting No.9 on the Billboard 200, I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) was the first song to truly capture the real Aretha, crowning her the “Queen Of Soul” in the process. She revealed her emotional truth as if preaching from the pulpit, with her own presence and musicality at the centre. Over half a century later, I Never Loved A Man is the sound of freedom – and discipline – from an artist finally expressing her own reality, and it began one of the most important periods in music history.

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