Jerry Wexler and Aretha Franklin in 1960 CREDIT: Redferns
In the new Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect, which chronicles the singer’s career from precocious child performer in Detroit to revered Queen of Soul throughout the world, an event is portrayed that was as crucial as any to the diva’s ascent.
At 24, Franklin had been cut adrift by Columbia Records after six years that had failed to provide any major hits. The label even wanted back some of the money they had spent on her. It was 1966: the moment at which Aretha was convinced to sign for Atlantic Records by Jerry Wexler.
Wexler, a partner in Atlantic with founder Ahmet Ertegun, was steeped in jazz and blues, bebop, and big-band swing and he was a fan of Aretha’s voice, with a sense that it had been wasted on the album after album of jazz standards. The Columbia years had produced singles such as One Step Ahead, the easy charm of which still shines down the decades, but they hadn’t even begun to tap into what Franklin was capable of. Wexler would tell her to “drop the Judy Garland cabaret act” and be herself.
The movie portrays their meeting as a collision of opposites: “I’m crude and you’re a church girl,” says the street-smart New York entrepreneur to the daughter of Baptist minister C.L. Franklin (himself known as “the million-dollar voice”), after he unintentionally offends her. She insists that he calls her “Miss Franklin” but she’s not coy about the price of her signature: “I want hits.”
Had Wexler been unable to convince Aretha that he could deliver them, we would be looking at an alternative version of musical history in which the flawless run of Top Ten singles that followed never happened. There would have been no I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) (which reached Number 9 in the US pop charts), no Respect (No 1), Baby, I Love You (No 4), (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (No 8), Chain of Fools (No 2), Since You've Been Gone (No 5), Think (No 7) or Say a Little Prayer (No 10).