Saturday, August 18, 2018

Making Note of Some Aretha-Dylan Connections

When Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the former First Lady, passed away in May 1994 I was in a chat room on America Online when a person announced that Jackie O was dead, that she had died "20 minutes ago." It came from a nurse who was there, sharing news that had not yet been officially announced, producing a sense of immediacy. This confiding of that historical passing drew us in, even though we were strangers, and moved us in some uncanny way.

Nowadays when we see familiar names in Twitter's Trending feeds or headlines of other social media, though we don't know what happened we know something has happened. Prince, Bowie, Robin Williams, Phillip Seymour Hoffman... You see the name and it gives you pause.

So it was that on Tuesday or so I saw a notice that the First Lady of Soul was in hospice. My thoughts and prayers went out to her. Something inside me said it would be soon, and Thursday "Aretha Franklin" was trending.

No question she had a powerful impact on the music scene, was a force as a Black female vocalist in the Sixties. So many great songs she gave us, so many great memories.

Eulogies have been appearing everywhere because there are ample numbers of writers and publications desirous to acknowledge her achievements. "Stellar" is a suitable description. Some have focused on the hardships she had to overcome. I thought I'd draw attention to a few connections between Aretha and our Nobel laureate from Minnesota.

Bob Dylan's first reference to Aretha Franklin, that I know of, appeared in his experimental prose poem titled Tarantula: “aretha with no goals, eternally single & one step soft of heaven/ let it be understood that she owns this melody along with her emotional diplomats & her earth & her musical secrets”  This was written in 1965 or '66, an early nod to the great lady, who was born only a year after he was, both so very young.

The second connection that caught my eye was the connection both these great artists had to producer Jerry Wexler. Steve Chatterton's account on Medium gives backstory on one of Franklin's most iconic songs. "R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me."

Chatteron tells how "Respect" was an Otis Redding song that Franklin transformed into her own. He writes, In 1967, Franklin started working with Jerry Wexler, a producer at Atlantic Records. He suggested she try a version of “Respect,” thinking it would be a good fit for her voice. He wasn’t wrong, but the lyrics weren’t right, either.

By re-working the lyrics, the song took on new meaning.

“I don’t care how much money you bring in,” she seemed to be saying, “It doesn’t mean a thing if you think it gives you the right to boss me around.” She turns the tables, demanding respect in the words of a song originally written for a man. “Give me my propers when you get home,” she sings.

November 1979, Dylan at the Warfield in SF.
Photo credit: Bill Pagel. Used with permission.
Jerry Wexler began his career as a journalist, writing for Billboard magazine in the early 1950's. He's been credited for coining the phrase "rhythm and blues." In 1953 he became a partner at Atlantic Records, contributing significantly to its success. Over time he signed or produced some of the biggest names in the business including Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits, Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles and the Allman Brothers. He was the force behind the Muscle Shoals recording studio sound where he worked with Aretha Franklin and contributed to her career success.

Bob Dylan first met Wexler in the early part of the 70's . Later in the decade Dylan sought out Wexler to produce what would be the first of three albums in the new phase of his life after his conversion to Christianity. When he received the Grammy for his hit single "Gotta Serve Somebody" he proceeded to thank "the Lord, Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett, who believed."

According to Wikipedia, Dylan approached Wexler to produce the upcoming sessions. Wexler, who referred to himself as a Wandering Jew, had no idea at their initial meeting that the album was going to be wall-to-wall Gospel.

According to Scott Marshall, author of Bob Dylan, A Spiritual Life, Barry Wexler's phone call to co-producer Barry Beckett was "Bear, we're screwed. Dylan's gone Christian." Becket wasn't phased by the news, replying, "I think it will work out Jerry, if he doesn't get too schmaltzy on the lyrics."

Matt Wake of Alabama Entertainment goes on to share the role Mark Knopfler and Pick Withers of Dire Straits played in bringing Dylan and Wexler together.

For more insights on the production of Slow Train, check out this interview with Jerry Wexler upon the release of Trouble No More, Bootleg Series #13 featuring live performances from 1979-1981 and other material of that era.

To dive any further into all this would be a distraction from the real impetus for this blog post, to acknowledge the passing of another luminary. Thank you, Aretha, for all your gave, and for your resilience in the face of hardship, for all you overcame to make it happen.

Related Links
Aretha noted in Dylan's Tarantula
The Aretha-Wexler Connection 
Slow Train Coming Backstory

Aretha, you will be missed.  


Anonymous said...

I got as far as "... she was a force in the Motown sound."

Unknown said...

Many wrong facts I'm afraid. Aretha was not part of the Motown sound for starters ,correct that then move on to the others.

Unknown said...

Aretha was on Atlantic Records not Motown .

Ed Newman said...

Thanks for the correction on "Motown"... I knew she was on Atlantic Records and mistakenly said "Motown" because of her Motor City connection (Dee-troit).

I believe I still have one of her 45s out in my garage, Atlantic.

Blogging is a way to learn through researching. And embarrassing when we have to learn about mistakes after posting. The real aim was to pick up on the Jerry Wexler connection.