Aretha Franklin’s electrifying debut for Atlantic, I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You), pulled off a couple of amazing feats. First, it opened with a version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” that wasn’t so much a cover at it was a usurpation: from that day forward, hardly anyone ever again would refer to it as anything but an Aretha original. Second, it made almost everyone forget that it was, technically, her eleventh album: she’d done ten LPs for Columbia, the undisputed giant of American labels, all of which had gone mostly unnoticed.
From The Steve Allen Show, 1964; Aretha had charted with that old standard (at #37) in 1961, and that was still her biggest hit three years later. Columbia wasn’t sure what to do with this singer they’d signed, and let her contract lapse; Jerry Wexler took her to Muscle Shoals and got the hell out of her way. The rest, as they say, is history.
And here, on “Border Song,” Aretha nearly does to Elton John what she did to Otis.
But maybe this statistic says everything that needs to be said. Aretha won the inaugural Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 1968, for “Respect.” She won again in 1969.
And the next four years. Natalie Cole finally won one in 1976, the first year Aretha wasn’t nominated.
We are honored to have been alive when Aretha was in her prime, and centuries from now, people will envy us for having been so fortunate.