John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“Do Right Woman-Do Right Man”

Aretha Franklin turned Chip Moman’s subtle song into a powerful anthem for women.

By - Jun 26th, 2014 03:32 pm
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email

The lure of the soap box for songwriters is great — but rarely are great songs written from that lofty pinnacle. When the irresistible urge felt by tunesmiths everywhere calls them to uplift the masses and correct long standing social evils, the song will almost suffer. The weight of the subject and the need to be perceived as noble will short circuit the more seductive elements in a song. This has been proven time and again by people who should know better. It is especially tempting for young songsters who might be more into the role than the actual process of songwriting. The good ones learn how to infotain to avoid preaching to an empty room.

In the category of all-medicine-no-sugar, songs like I Am Woman, by Helen Reddy, seem more like demographic calculation than music. You see, a song needs a compelling musical reason to exist before you can load it up with significance. Dan Penn, from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, might seem an unlikely candidate to write a feminist anthem, but his soul music credentials guaranteed any message would be delivered in a compelling song.

When Penn stood in front of the playback speakers at Atlantic’s New York studio and heard Aretha Franklin’s voice floating out from the monitors, delivering the definitive reading of his and Chip Moman’s song, Do Right Woman-Do Right Man, I don’t have to guess he was walking on air — he has already said so. It would be any writer’s dream to hear the Queen of Soul wringing glory from one of their songs. (Video Note: Please ignore the insistent visual plugs for The Merv Archives in this video, the live performance is electrifying and well worth watching)

Aretha made many records for Columbia Records, but the work she did for them is rarely heard. It wasn’t bad, it’s just that the supper club sophisticate they tried to turn her into was a miscalculation. The daughter of a famous Baptist Preacher, she grew up in church and was not groomed to blend into background accompanied by a lightly tinkling piano. Aretha was a born firebrand and pretty much announced it with her first hit on the label that finally got what she was doing, Atlantic Records. Otis Redding was right when he said she stole his song Respect. Her version lit up the airwaves and announced to the world a new age, one that coincided with civil rights, one in which women were equal, deserving some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Dan Penn was not a fiery character like Aretha. His blued eyed soul was lazy, warm and about as country as the farmer’s overalls he wore. He lived in the studio at Muscle Shoals, writing and producing some of the greatest southern music ever heard. And he had been doing it since his teenage years. Aretha’s sessions for her first Atlantic album started there, but quickly moved to New York when a trumpet player let a stupid, racist remark slip and got into it with Aretha’s husband. The producer, Jerry Wexler, took quick stock of the situation and flew most of the band up to the city, bringing the distinctive groove and leaving the more troublesome aspects of Alabama behind.

To say the New York sessions went well would be an understatement. The Muscle Shoals vibe traveled well and even thrived at Atlantic’s home turf. You can listen to any cut on her first soul outing and receive first-rate thrills. My favorite is I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You), featuring Spooner Oldham on Wurlitzer electric piano and Aretha, a magnificent player, on piano. The song is one long crescendo, with a brilliant bridge that releases enough energy to power a mid-size city for a year. Soul music crossed over that year, it was a new thing and every bit as exciting as the Beatles or Hendrix.

Do Right Woman-Do Right Man is an oasis of quiet on this record, the kind of quiet that means much more after you‘ve experienced the limitless power of that voice. Drama equals dynamic range and hers is immense, going from a whisper to scream and all points between with precision. The lyrics to this song transform the personal to the political with laid-back ease. In every song she sings, Aretha is always a great actress. Listening to her is enough to convince anyone she is singing from experience.

Take me to heart and I’ll always love you
And nobody can make me do wrong
Take me for granted, leaving love unsure
Makes willpower weak and temptation strong

A woman’s only human
You should understand
She’s not just a plaything
She’s flesh and blood just like a man

If you want a do right, all day woman
You’ve gotta be a do right, all night man

Yeah, yeah, they say that it’s a man’s world
But you can’t prove that by me
And as long as we’re together, baby
Show some respect for me

If you want a do right, all day woman
You’ve gotta be a do right, all night man

A woman’s only human
This you should understand
She’s not just a plaything
She’s flesh and blood just like her man

If you want a do right, all day woman
You’ve gotta be a do right, all night man
You’ve gotta be a do right, all night man
Chips Moman / Dan Penn © EMI Music Publishing

Deceptively simple, yet astoundingly straight forward and affecting. Try to write something like this and I guarantee you will fail. Nobody is hiding here, it just comes out and grabs you with that first line: “Take me to heart and I’ll always love you.” Nothing coy, clever, dark or, thank god, remotely pretentious. The song has an unusual structure that threads out with little repetition. You won’t hear the first verse paraphrased and repeated three times. Instead, there’s a pre-chorus, which is kind of rare, and a chorus, then it’s bridge, chorus, pre, chorus and out. Rules lay shattered on the ground around this song, but you never sense that it’s somehow weird or experimental. It just had to be that way to be great, which it undeniably is. It’s also a woman asking for the same damn thing everybody wants: Some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *