Like Ray (Charles), Aretha was a hands-on performer, a two-fisted pianist plugged into the main circuit of Holy Ghost power. Even though we produced Aretha in a way that we never produced Ray, she remained the central orchestrator of her own sound, the essential contributor and final arbiter of what fit or did not fit her musical persona.
—Jerry Wexler, Rhythm And The Blues, 1993, p. 206
I was happy with the songs for the first album, most of which she either selected or wrote herself. Pre-production went smoothly. Aretha worked on her Fender Rhodes at home, doing a rough outline of the songs. I would never dream of starting tracks without Aretha at the piano, that’s what made her material organic. She’d find the key, devise the rhythm pattern, and work out the background vocals with either her sisters, Carolyn and Erma, or The Sweet Inspirations.
The Sweet Inspirations became one of the pillars of the Atlantic Church of ’60s Soul. Led by Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mom), Estelle Brown, Sylvia Shemwell, and Myrna Smith were fabulous background singers who, like Aretha, instinctively understood harmonies. They could match vibratos, switch parts, and turn on a dime. And like the great King Curtis — our sax man, arranger, and in-house bandleader — they were always relaxed, fun, and ready to offer a suggestion or innovative passage.
—Jerry Wexler, Rhythm And The Blues, 1993, p. 208
The minute Aretha touched the piano and sang one note, the musicians were captivated. They caught the fever and raced for their instruments. “I’ve never experienced so much feeling coming out of one human being,” says drummer Roger Hawkins. “When she hit that first chord,” says Dan Penn, “we knew everything was gonna be all right.”
But everything wasn’t. The trumpeter was getting obnoxious and drawing (Aretha’s then-husband) Ted White into a dozens duel. They were ranking each other out while drinking out of the same bottle. A redneck patronizing a black man is a dangerous camaraderie. I dreaded a flash point, but somehow we completed the song. Listening to the playback, I couldn’t believe how good it sounded.
“It took two hours,” Penn recalls,”and it was in the can. It was a killer, no doubt about it. The musicians starting singing and dancing with each other, giddy on the pure joy of having something to do with this amazing record. That morning we knew a star had been born.”
—Jerry Wexler, Rhythm And The Blues, 1993, pp. 210-11
By noon, Ted had taken Aretha and split for New York. I was left with one completed song and a piece of another, Chips Moman and Dan Penn’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” for which we only had drums, bass, and rhythm guitar. No Aretha keyboards, no Aretha vocals. I needed her to finish “Do Right Woman” — in a hurry. And I couldn’t find her. Not in New York. Not in Detroit.
Finally, Aretha materialized. In fact, she came to the studio at 1841 Broadway and made a miracle. She overdubbed two discrete keyboard parts, first playing piano, then organ, she and her sisters hemstitched the seamless background harmonies; and when she added her glorious lead vocal, the result was perfection. Moman and Penn like to shit a brick when they heard the final rendition.
—Jerry Wexler, Rhythm And The Blues, 1993, pp. 211-12
I think of Aretha as Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows. Her eyes are incredible, luminous, and cover inexplicable pain. Her depressions could be as deep as the dark sea. I don’t pretend to know the sources of her anguish, but anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical aura. As we worked together — over the next 8 years we would do 14 albums — there were times when she would call me late at night and express some of the sorrow in her soul, intimating problems at home. Sometimes the calls would even have tender undertones.
On the whole, though, our relationship was restricted to the studio. There she never hit a wrong note, never showed a second of self-doubt. There I never pretended to critique her vocals, her judgment was impeccable, her execution miraculous, and all I could do was provide the right setting or offer the occasional suggestion. On a personal level, she remained private, apart, inscrutable, a woman of impenetrable solitude — yet she often displayed a great comedic talent.
—Jerry Wexler, Rhythm And The Blues, 1993, pp. 212-13