The voice of God

By Sergio Ariza

Lady Soul was the record that made Aretha Franklin the Queen of Soul, giving the genre its perfect voice and definitive sound. Franklin proves on this album what the most famous couple from ‘Swingin’ London’, Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull said, “Aretha is the voice of God. Released in January of ‘68, Lady Soul is one of the most glorious classic soul records in history. In short, Martin Luther King was assassinated and soul, as all black music, would become much darker. Here you can still appreciate the optimism and boiling point of its classic period, recorded by some of the best musicians in the world, whether black or white, such as King Curtis, Bobby Womack, Spooner Oldham, Joe South, the Sweet Inspirations, or invited stars like Eric Clapton.  

Lady Soul was released on January 22, 1968, topping off one of the most magic years in the history of music. And really, despite being a veteran, having already recorded 10 albums, including one in 1956 when she was just 14 years of age, she didn’t find  her style until she signed with Atlantic Records and Jerry Wexler took her to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to cut I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) on the 24th of January 1967. Since then she had 5 singles among the top 10 in the charts (two on this album) and 2 LPs that landed among the top five. It was her third record in less than a year and topped the black charts at #1, #2 on the pop charts, and #3 on the jazz list. Everyone had fallen for the new queen of soul.

The record opens with the incredible tremolo sound of Joe Souths Gretsch 6120, one of the best session players of the day, (he played with Simon & Garfunkel and Dylan) and would end up writing songs like Games People Play, Hush, and Rose Garden. It’s a sound that would make Pops Staples proud, and then Aretha’s voice comes in and responds to the lovely chorus of the Sweet Inspirations and her sisters Carolyn and Erma, and there’s no stopping that vocal stream until the end of the record. The song was Chain of Fools, written by Don Covey for Otis Redding but Wexler decided it would be perfect for Aretha, and he wasn’t wrong. It was one of the singles they recorded before the rest of the record and reached #2 on the charts.


Another song that was recorded before was the fundamental (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. Wexler asked one of the best composer duos in history, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, to write a song about a ‘natural woman’ for Aretha. So they did, and decided to give part of the credit to Atlantic’s boss for making it happen. Franklin’s interpretation is one of the most heartfelt of her career and became a fixed number in her repertoire.  

But the bulk of the record was recorded in New York in December in 1967. That’s where an ‘allstar team’ of session players got together to accompany the most incredible voice on the planet. There were a few of the Muscle Shoals boys, the amazing rhythm section of Tommy Cogbill and Roger Hawkins, guitarist Jimmy Johnson (another guy who liked the sound of the Chet Atkins Gretsch) and pianist Spooner Oldham. In addition there was the saxophone giant King Curtis and Bobby Womack, , a friend of Aretha’s and was the composer of It’s All Over Now, on guitar, the Franklyn Sisters vocals, Erma (the original voice of Piece of My Heart) and Carolyn, and the Sweet Inspirations , who could just as well  sing backup to Van Morrisons Brown Eyed Girl, or Burning of the Midnight Lamp by Jimi Hendrix, and would wind up accompanying Elvis in his Las Vegas gigs, even participating on the legendary Dusty in Memphis. And to put the cherry on top, Ahmet Ertegun, another boss at Atlantic, invited Eric Clapton, who was with Cream, to play.  

The legendary English guitarist was so excited and intimidated at the same time by Aretha’s voice, he didn’t record his part with the rest. Yet, when he appeared at the studio, Aretha was there with her friend Bobby Womack, trying to get him to record his part for the ‘bluesy’ Good to Me As I Am Good to You. Clapton made his appearance with his ‘mop top’ hair, dressed in pink pants, and very likely with his SG ‘The Fool’, painted in psychedelic colours. Aretha, who didn’t know Clapton, broke out laughing, but when he started to play, the laughter turned to admiration. Poor Womach couldn’t believe it, a white dude was showing him how to play the blues. The song meets all expectations when one of the best voices in history gets together with one of the best guitarists.  


The record closes with another monument that will put your hair on end, Ain’t No Way, that starts with a sax solo by the great King Curtis and includes the incredible vocal contribution of Cissy Houston (Whitneys mother) of the Sweet Inspirations , which complements  Aretha’s heartfelt interpretation to perfection, which is why they called her “the voice of God”. The song was composed by Aretha’s sister Carolyn, and puts the finishing touch on one of the best records in soul (or any genre) history.

(Images: ©CordonPress)