4 Session Musicians Share Their Memories of Working With Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Aretha Franklin photographed in 1974. 

There isn’t a more definitive portion of the Aretha Franklin canon than the 12-LP run she enjoyed on Atlantic Records during her first six years on the label, a period which yielded such masterpieces as 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way that I Love You, 1968’s Aretha Now, 1970’s Spirit in the Dark and the 1972 gospel concert epic Amazing Grace.   

Yet the musicianship on display in her work from 1974 to 1987 -- her final recordings for Atlantic and the start of her successful run on Artista -- is not always given the same consideration, despite the period’s fair share of No. 1 hits and gold and platinum certifications. Just as her classics from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were elevated by the contributions of acclaimed musicians such as Duane Allman, Billy Preston, King Curtis, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Spooner Oldham and Jerry Jemmott, this Atlantic-Arista transition period saw Franklin collaborate with even more prolific names from the worlds of jazz, funk and rock.   

1975’s underrated You, for instance, features guitar giants like Lee Ritenour and Ray Parker, Jr., while 1978’s Almighty Fire was produced by Curtis Mayfield. Then there’s her Arista debut from 1980, Aretha (one of three LPs in her canon to be titled as such), which features an all-star session group that includes such names as Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Steve Lukather and Mike Porcaro of Toto, David Foster, David Sanborn, Steve Jordan and the Brecker Brothers, among others.   

In the wake of the Queen of Soul’s death from pancreatic cancer on Aug. 16, Billboard spoke to four musicians who worked with Franklin during this important transition period in her career:

Stanley Clarke, bassist

Renowned jazz-fusion bassist Stanley Clarke, who in 1974 was in the throes of an ascending career as a member of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever in addition to his own envelope-pushing solo work, played on several tracks off the singer’s 22nd solo album, Let Me In Your Life, joining a power squad of talent that included soul giant Donny Hathaway, Taxi keyboardist Bob James, acclaimed Brazilian composer Deodato, Steely Dan bassist Chuck Rainey and Whitney Houston’s mother, acclaimed gospel singer Cissy Houston.

In that early ‘72-73 era, we were still developing that jazz-rock combination with Return to Forever. But on the side, I was working as a studio musician. I got up every day and two or three sessions. And on one of those days, I go into the old Atlantic Studios and did this record with Aretha, Let Me in Your Life. It was a great experience -- probably one of the best recording experiences that I ever had.

The producers, they knew who all the young guys were, and they knew that I was personally interested in equipment. So for some reason, a lot of these heavyweight producers and engineers like Rudy Van Gelder, they’d always let me in the control room. And Jerry Wexler knew this. In those days, a lot of the best guys fell into the jazz or progressive R&B categories, and they were the ones who were on all the pop records. So for Let Me in Your Life, they used all guys like Bob James and Joe Farrell and Pretty Purdie and Cornell Dupree. Hugh McCracken. Deodato. Donny Hathaway played on one of the tracks I was on, and I wound up doing his next album, Extensions of a Man.

I remember it so clearly. There were so many great musicians, background singers, engineers, producers, and writers. It is one of my favorite recording experiences. There was a track called “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and also “I’m in Love” that really stick out in my mind from those sessions. She gave all of her heart on that entire album. Aretha Franklin was a bolt of the most beautiful and soulful light that only comes around every couple million years. Her ability was so immense.

“Blue Lou” Marini, saxophonist

Saxophonist “Blue Lou” Marini was a member of The Blues Brothers. He played on Jake and Elwood’s recordings and had a prominent role as the sax-playing dishwasher in John Landis’s acclaimed 1980 comedy -- see him during Franklin’s rousing rendition of “Think” in the diner, where his and Franklin’s characters worked along with her on-screen husband, blues great Matt “Guitar” Murphy.

At the end of that scene when she dismisses me by saying, “Go on, get out of here,” my friends and my ex-wife all said that they never saw that expression on my face ever again! [Laughs] We didn’t do much rehearsing on that part. I took off like a jackrabbit, man. She sent me up those stairs and into the car like nobody’s business.

One thing about that scene: I’ve watched so many movies where you would see a horn player in the background, and all he’d be doing is holding his horn with the mouthpiece not in his mouth, and yet you’d hear the saxophone or whatever playing on the soundtrack. I had learned to play my solo, because we pre-recorded [a new version of “Think”], so it would go along with the dance routine. And we had been rehearsing that scene in a dance studio with mirrors with a very cool choreographer named Carlton Johnson, who also worked on The Wiz. Then we went in to do the scene, and there’s a radical difference between doing a routine on the floor and then on that counter, which was not normal height. The stools were six or eight inches raised on a pedestal on the floor, so the counter itself was almost chest-high and it was also narrow. And when I stood up there, [with] all the stoves and that stuff behind me, it was a little nerve-wracking. [Laughs]. Meanwhile, Aretha was moving Matt Murphy all around beneath me. That experience was incredibly psychedelic. It was fantastic.

Marcus Miller, bassist

Veteran bassist Marcus Miller was all of 19 years old when he was recruited by producer Arif Mardin to play on Aretha’s 1981 LP, Love All the Hurt Away. But it wasn’t long before he became an indelible hub behind Ms. Franklin getting her groove back alongside Luther Vandross on 1982’s Jump To It and 1983’s Get It Right.

Luther and I both loved her, but especially Luther -- that was his idol. When we were younger, he would sit me down and make me listen to Aretha Franklin records, and he would break down for me how they were constructed. Luther just had his first hit, “Never Too Much,” [when] Clive Davis called him and said he’d heard he was a fan of Aretha Franklin and asked him if he’d like to produce her next album.

Then Luther called me and asked me to come up with some tracks, and up until that point I hadn’t done much R&B songwriting. I played on a lot of R&B records, but I was more into jazz and jazz fusion. So I told Luther, “I’m more of a fusion guy, man.” And he said to me, “Shut up, man. Quit throwing labels at me, you know what I need!” I sent him a cassette tape of the track that would become “Jump To It,” and he wrote it for Aretha. Then he called me and said, “Hey man, you know that Porsche you wanted that we joke about? Order it.” I asked him why and he goes, “I just wrote the first verse for this song for Aretha using the track you sent me, and it’s going to be a smash.” Then he calls me right back and says, “Make it blue with a brown interior, I just wrote the second verse.” He kept calling me every 20 minutes as he was writing the lyrics and the melody to “Jump To It.”

All the records producers were making for Aretha in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were all very reverential. They set up this very beautiful, incredibly produced background for her, and she would just bless the track. She was the Queen, and everyone was treating her like the Queen. When we began working with her, we wanted to go back to making her music a little more funky, a little more raw, a little more fun. And it turned out she really embraced that. She loved being youthful and saying stuff on the track like, “Girl, I gotta go!” [Laughs] I think the song was successful because you could hear the love and respect we had for her, but you could also hear that we were having fun and trying to make a record not to celebrate who she was or what she had done in the past, but who she was in 1982-83. I think it was the beginning of her resurgence and the start of Part IV of Aretha’s career.

Narada Michael Walden, drummer

Walden spent much of the 1970s establishing himself as one of the most in-demand drummers in the worlds of art rock and jazz-fusion, appearing on such era-appropriate gems as the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Apocalypse; Jeff Beck’s Wired; and King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp’s underrated solo debut, Exposure. Yet by 1985, he was playing a key role in helping Aretha stand toe-to-toe with the hottest R&B singer in the game -- Whitney Houston, whose multi-platinum eponymous debut he also worked on -- with a pair of chart-busting LPs (1985’s Who's Zoomin Who and 1986’s Aretha) as well as her international smash duet with George Michael, 1987’s “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).”

Clive Davis found the song “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” which was written by Simon Climie and Dennis Morgan. But it was my job to make it current and able to work in the ghetto and on the street. I would always ask myself, “How could I make it black?” Or as Quincy Jones used to say, “[How can I] give it an outhouse bottom with a penthouse view?” When you hit both those buttons, then it hits. So I make the bottom end work, for all the hardworking people in the world. Then on top of that, I put on some bells and a cool little melody that you can’t get out of your head.

Once Aretha and George started wailing on it, we knew it we had a hit. But the hard part about making that record was relaxing George, because he was really nervous. I had ten takes on the board, and he wanted me to go back over the first four takes, because he wanted to keep recording on account of his nerves. I had to tell him, “George, I can’t do it; those first four takes are your best, and that’s what is going to make the record.” And he was like, ‘I got more I gotta do!’ I had to send him home; he wasn’t used to having a producer, because he would produce everything himself. But he trusted me and went home to let me work on the song all night.

Then the next day, Aretha showed up with him to do the ad libs at the end of the song, and they had so much fun together. It was like fireworks, just going back and forth on the record. Aretha was trying to be nice about it and not scare him off, but she couldn’t help herself. She’s a diva. She reared back and let him have it, and you can hear it on the record where she just goes off, you know? George was stunned, but he was a fighter so he came back. Aretha was a pro at knowing how to knock somebody out. I don’t care who they put in front of her. It was part of her DNA.