Aretha Franklin, Queen of Piano

For the house band at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., the recording session on Jan. 24, 1967, was going to be just another gig. The musicians had never heard of Aretha Franklin, the 24-year-old singer that Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler had booked for the session. When she walked in, the band barely paid her any attention. And then Franklin sat down at the Steinway, played one chord and instantly commanded the room. She had yet to sing a note.

“You could tell by the way she hit the piano the gig was up,” says songwriter Dan Penn in Peter Guralnick’s book Sweet Soul Music. “Everybody was just like little bees just buzzing around the queen.” Spooner Oldham, who had been hired to play piano on the session, begged Wexler to let him switch to organ so Franklin could stay at the Steinway. The record they cut that day, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” would become Franklin’s first major hit, and the album of the same name remains the most vivid showcase of her piano playing.

Throughout her career, Franklin was her own best accompanist. Her gospel-infused style was never flashy -- she rarely took a solo -- but it betrayed a deceptively complex rhythmic and harmonic sense. She knew better than any hired pianist how to kick off a vocal run, build momentum or make a sung note resonate just as she heard it in her head. Her rumbling basslines and sensual right-hand chords could alternately ramp up the emotion of her singing or provide an earthly tether for her soaring voice.

Her two instruments were so perfectly complementary because they were born together and grew up together, even if, in later years, her piano playing became more sophisticated as her vocal range narrowed. She is said to have learned piano by ear. But no schooling could beat the informal education she received at her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit or at the raucous late-night jam sessions he threw at their house in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Young Aretha would sit at the top of the staircase and watch the likes of Nat “King” Cole, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and Duke Ellington play the hell out of the family piano.

Perhaps Franklin’s most direct pianistic forebear was Ray Charles, who, like her, transposed the spiritual exaltation of African-American church music to the secular realm. But whereas Charles flirted with genres like jazz and country, Franklin -- at least at the keyboard -- never strayed far from gospel. With her piano, she could take a little piece of the church wherever she went.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 25 issue of Billboard.

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