This is the eighth installment in David Hewitt’s guest blog series chronicling his legendary career working with some of the biggest names in music. Today, David writes about working with the legendary Aretha Franklin, and the long lasting impression her music made on the world. If you missed his last post, you can read it here.
Like so many of us around the world, I felt a deep loss with the news of Aretha Franklin’s passing. She was such a formative part of my musical life, starting in the 1960s.
My family was stationed in Europe with my Air Force pilot father. I remember sitting in a German Bar listening to the jukebox playing Aretha and the guy sitting next to me was singing along, almost in tune. He had on jeans and a leather jacket; I assumed he was an American GI, so I made some remark about the song. He grinned and said “Ich spreche nicht Englisch,” he didn’t speak English, but could sing the lyrics! The Beatles recorded some early records in German, I don’t think Aretha did.
Later when I returned stateside and became involved in live music recording, I would have many opportunities to hear her perform. Her power and charisma delivered on stage is just astounding!
Working for Record Plant Studios in New York, I became a specialist in live recording. One of my first gigs (as an assistant engineer) was dashing around New York recording the Newport Jazz Festival shows, spread all over the city in different theaters! I know we recorded Aretha, because she’s on the album… but frankly I don’t remember it in the blur of multiple artist shows.
I do remember recording a later 1974 show at the magnificent Radio City Music Hall for Atlantic Records. This time she played a full set and brought the house down, I became a life long believer.
Funny the things you remember; in rehearsal I had run out of cigarettes (yeah, we all still smoked in the control room then) so Nesuhi Ertegun, the Atlantic Records Producer, went out and bought me a fresh pack!
Image courtesy of David Hewitt.
My most cherished memory of Aretha was recording her 1987 return to gospel albums with One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. As it says on the album sleeve, Aretha had “Sole Creative Judgment” for Clive Davis’ Arista label. As her Engineer, I would speak with her directly on all aspects of the recording.
I flew out to Detroit to advance the recording location, which was her late father’s New Bethel Baptist Church on CL Franklin Blvd. It was very disheartening to drive through areas of Detroit that were still ravaged by the riots of 1967. Many wounds were not yet healed. As I was introduced to the Church officials and was given the tour to plan our recording, I was aware that I was the only white person there. It was a relief to be warmly greeted by the musicians and choir, who figured I must be there to help. I witnessed a joyous service with a great performance by the band and choir and I flew home inspired and eager to help Aretha make her record.
When I returned on July 26th, 1987 with the Black Truck, we quickly set up to record the next three days of performances. After introductions by Rev. Cecil Franklin, Aretha was joined by The Franklin Sisters, Clara Ward, and a soulful five-piece band. I can’t begin to describe the power of their combined spiritual joy.
Later, Aretha would be joined by Mavis Staples and Edwin Hawkins for classics like Oh Happy Day. The entire congregation becomes one with the choir and the VU meters are dancing on my API analog console and Ampex 1200 tape machines.
There were politics as well, Rev. Jesse Jackson was speechifying (he would later run for President) and Aretha was always heavily involved in many causes. Appropriately, Aretha sang Higher Ground with Rev. Jaspar Williams to a fully supportive audience.
Aretha closed the three days of performances with Mavis Staples and Joe Ligon of The Mighty Clouds of Joy with The Franklin Sisters. The song was Packing Up, Getting Ready To Go. Reluctantly, we did, it had been a singular experience we would not soon forget.
If you have a chance, look up One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. It is available again on CD and downloads, if you can’t find an original vinyl.
Thank you Aretha, for a lifetime of soulful music.
– David W Hewitt