Spooner Oldham Shares His Memories of Cranking Out Hits With Aretha Franklin In the '60s

Ebet Roberts/Redferns
Spooner Oldham performs at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Sept. 21, 2013 Saratoga Springs, N.Y. 

The proceedings of laying Aretha Franklin to rest began this week in Detroit, where she lies in state at the Charles H. Wright Museum for African American History through Aug. 29 before a private ceremony for close family and friends on Aug. 31 that will be broadcast live on TV and online. 

While we bid farewell to her physical being, the Queen of Soul’s spirit continues to comfort us like an old friend through marathon playlists celebrating her music and stories shared by those who worked alongside her.

One such figure is keyboardist Spooner Oldham, who performed on the first five Aretha albums for Atlantic, starting with her masterful label debut I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. Oldham would go on to gain renown as one of the most in-demand session players of the '70s, recording with Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Bob Seger, Bob Dylan, Gene Clark and many others. And at 75, Oldham continues tirelessly, having collaborated with the likes of Cat Power, Drive-By Truckers and even Frank Black over the last 15 years. 

The revered pianist and songwriter took time out of this most solemn week to share his memories of Aretha.

Do you remember the last time you saw Aretha?

I'm terrible with dates; my wife is better at them than I am. But I'm guessing two years ago in Cleveland. The Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame gave her a tribute, and also Case Western Reserve University gave her an honorary doctorate. I was a member of the house band for the concert. I hadn't seen her at that point in 20 years. I was in a little cafe/coffee shop thing in the building when she came through with her entourage of about 15 to 20 people and she had retired Detroit policemen as her security. I remember thinking she's going to be having a terribly busy day today with 100 things to do and I didn't want to slow her down much but I would like to say hello. So I sort of got in front of her and said hi to her. And she said, 'How long has it been?' I think I said 40 years and that was the truth. Then we got a Polaroid together and that was that. They went off into the dressing room and later her young lady assistant said you got a card, and then she came back out and said, you got another card. I think Aretha told the people in the room, and there was many, who I was and what I did, and they were getting excited and wanted to know more (laughs). My wife, she's cussed at me ever since because she didn't get the chance to meet her that night. 

When was the first time you met Aretha?

The first time I met Aretha was when I played on I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. I think I played on four other albums with her, I don't remember exactly. I think the second one I did was Aretha Arrives, then Lady Soul, then Aretha Now and then Soul '69. It was fun playing on those. 

What was Aretha like around the musicians?

She was very quiet and shy and didn't really pay any attention to us unless we were working. She was very into her music and all of us guys and girls she had working with her, she let us do our thing on those records. It was fun, because everybody in the room was so talented.

In looking at the personnel on not just the albums you're on, but all of her studio albums, she always worked with the top talent.

Yeah, that's true. She was very bright with her music. I remember, for instance, that day I met her when we recorded I Never Loved A Man, so what I noticed when I heard it later was like, 'OK you got a little Wurlitzer electric piano plus she's singing and then you got the drums going and the bass going.' Then I noticed in the second verse, she’s sitting at the acoustic grand piano there, and she waits until the second verse to play that instrument. She was dynamically in tune with what was going on around her in that studio. If she feels the need to do something, she does. If she doesn't feel the need to do something, she doesn't. It was never an ego thing at all with her. It was a music thing. She was brilliant in that way I think. 

Recording "Respect" must have been a real hoot.

That was done at Atlantic Studios in New York. But yeah, it was. I had barely heard Otis Redding's version of the song at the time, and it was nothing like Aretha's version. As a matter of fact, Jerry Wexler called me when he played it to Otis Redding in his office in New York and Otis said to him, 'That woman done stole my song!' He knew. He had written it, but when he heard her version he knew it was hers forever.

The way she turned the machismo of the Otis version and reconfigured it as a feminist call-to-arms was samurai level.

What blew me away the day we recorded it... well, I was constantly blown away by her and her music. But it followed a typical procedure of laying down the rhythm section with live vocals. She's playin'; we're all playin'. Then, if there were background vocals to be done, it would usually be brought up after the overdub. So I played my part to spec, Aretha was singing it well. And then these three sisters and cousins of hers came to the microphone, and we hadn't heard anything from them yet. So it was like, okay, let's try it. Then they started singing the chorus to "Respect" and I stopped in my tracks and was like, 'Man, this is a new beginning to something.' I never heard anything like that before. I think they had been practicing it at home with Aretha. They didn't make it up in the studio; it was already made up. 

The other song from I Never Loved a Man you could say she took as well was Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come.

I never heard a bad version of that song, but Aretha took it to a whole new dimension.

And to think of some of the amazing musicians you got to work with back then: King Curtis, Bobby Womack, Eric Clapton, Jerry Jemmott. Roger Hawkins...

Yeah, that's another thing. I was constantly getting introduced to all these people. I'm from Alabama, and I spent a couple of years in Memphis learning from the guys at Chips Moman's American Sound Studio. We did a record there with The Sweet Inspirations, and Cissy Houston sang on a song that I wrote. I had some great moments, you know. Then when I went to work in New York I met King Curtis. So it was a really wonderful inter-marriage of talented people from different parts of the country coming together to play with Aretha.

Are there any other funny stories or moments with Aretha you could share from those days?

I'll be totally honest; I never socialized with Aretha or her people. It sounds pretty cut and dry and unromantic, but I showed up at 10 o'clock in the morning and leave at dark or whatever, go eat something or sleep, and come back the next day. That was my routine during this time. Any experiences I had emotionally happened in the studio doing these songs. And there was many good feeling moments because we were cracking out nine hits in a couple of years that were on the radio. When you're in an environment like that, to me as a player, it makes you want to come back the next day. Yeah, I do understand the psychology of people wanting to hear stories. But my stories about most all these people I worked with, be it Aretha or Percy Sledge or Wilson Pickett, are mostly music oriented.