“Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” are the passionate, gospel-charged classics with which Aretha Franklin is most closely associated. They were enormous, career-defining hits that earned her universal and eternal acclaim as the Queen of Soul, among other, more formal honors. What some fans may not realize, however, is that when Aretha recorded those hits, she was already 10 years into a professional career that would have been defined very differently had it ended before January 24, 1967. That was the date on which Aretha Franklin’s career was effectively reborn in a historic recording session at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Sheffield, Alabama.
The road to Muscle Shoals led through Columbia Records, where Aretha Franklin languished for six years without a breakthrough hit. Worse than that, Aretha’s recordings from 1960-66 showed almost no hint of her roots in gospel music. Columbia Records was as mainstream as mainstream could get in the 1950s and 60s, and their goal was to cast Aretha as an all-around pop entertainer in the mold of Johnny Mathis. The head of Columbia, Mitch Miller, was the man who nurtured the recording career of Doris Day, who passed on signing Buddy Holly and who led millions of Americans through songs like “Be Kind To Our Web-Footed Friends” on his proto-karaoke television show Sing Along With Mitch. Under Miller’s guidance, the closest Aretha came to pop success was with the song “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby (With A Dixie Melody)” in 1961.
When her contract with Columbia expired, Aretha Franklin made the pivotal decision to sign with Atlantic Records, the label that introduced the world to Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, LaVern Baker and the Drifters. Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler knew the direction he wanted Aretha to go, and he sent her to Sheffield, Alabama, as a first step. It was there that she recorded the blues ballad “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” backed by the now-legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. With the lush production Columbia had forced upon her stripped away, Aretha Franklin finally began sounding like Aretha Franklin. “They made me sit down at the piano, and the hits came,” Aretha would say years later of the career transformation that began at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios on this day in 1967.