1969 is a year of change for Aretha. After the non-stop activity of 1967 and 1968, with eight gold singles (six of which are No. 1 US R&B chart toppers and all eight of which are US Top10 pop hits), her first Grammy Awards, a touring schedule that would be gruelling for any artist – literally as Aretha declares – living out of a suitcase and her first triumphant performances in Europe, Aretha needs to slow down.
This is all happening against a backdrop of personal challenge with her husband/manager Ted White, who has been actively involved in her career since 1962. 1969 kicks off with recording sessions in New York City, with a total of seven songs recorded of which five gain release, one the mysterious ‘Stuff You Gotta Watch” to which no lead vocals are added and which in fact bears the same title as a recording by Atco labelmate Arthur Conley completed in December 1968 and released on his 1969 LP, “More Sweet Soul.”
In May, Aretha’s back in the studio and over three days, the Atlantic logs show six recordings with one without a vocal (a version of the Tommy Edwards 1958 hit, “It’s All In The Game”) and two others left in the vaults for decades. Aretha’s physical and emotional health is clear: listening to the weariness in her voice on one of the tracks, “Taking Up Another Man’s Place” - previously recorded by a Detroit friend of Aretha’s, Mable John (sister of late ‘50s/early ‘60s hitmaker Little Willie John) for Stax Records in 1966 – it’s not surprising the track didn’t gain release around the time of its recording.
During the five months that follow, Aretha is recuperating from exhaustion and is ending her eight year marriage with Ted White. Atlantic producers Jerry Wexler, Tom Down and Arif Mardin in tandem with Aretha, decide a new recording location is called for and between October 3rd and 6th, Aretha is at Criteria Studios in Miami, Florida with The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who have recorded with her consistently since 1967.
Two other Atlantic artists have been to Criteria in August 1969, King Curtis and Wilson Pickett, and the change of scenery, the sea breezes and a completely different vibe from the Atlantic studios in New York results in a marathon nine-song session for Aretha, accompanying herself at the piano, with familiar faces Barry Beckett (on electric piano and organ), Eddie Hinton and Jimmy Johnson on guitar; David Hood on electric bass and Roger Hawkins on drums; while emerging star guitarist Duane Allman is featured on one track (“Pullin’”).
The mood is good, Aretha cutting seven songs and with cousin Brenda Bryant, Cissy Houston (of The Sweet Inspirations) and Pat Lewis providing truly soulful harmonies for the third song on the session. It’s a Franklin original, “Call Me” which will in hindsight become a great way to begin 1970 for Aretha, as a No. 1 US R&B and Top 20 US pop hit. It’s clear that Aretha’s selections for her October 1969 Florida debut session seem to have a personal slant – “Dark End Of The Street,” sister Carolyn’s tune “Pullin’,” and an attempt at The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (which remains unreleased for many years).
When released as a single and as track on Aretha;s “This Girl’s In Love With You” LP in January 1970, “Call Me” sounds to most of Aretha’s growing global audience as a personal statement reflecting the end of her marriage. In a 1971 interview for Britain’s Blues & Soul magazine, producer Jerry Wexler notes, “She was in a transition period in between problems with her husband, and was adjusting to being without him.” For years that narrative was held to be true until Aretha herself explained the song’s genesis in a Rolling Stone interview in 1974: “There were two people on Park Avenue (in New York), a couple. And they were just getting ready to leave each other, going in different directions. And as he got across the street, and she was on the other side, he turned around and said, ‘I love yoooooo!’ and she said, ‘And I love you toooooo!’ He said, ‘Call me! The moment! That you get there! She said, ‘I w-i-i-l-l!’ And they just stopped traffic on Park Avenue, and everybody was checking that out. Romance on Park Avenue!”
Aretha’s recording became a best-seller, a part of her live repertoire (included on her “Live At Fillmore West” sessions in 1971) and was covered by another Detroit legend, Diana Ross on her 1970 LP “Everything Is Everything,” also featured as a finale in her live shows.
Included on the ‘ARETHA’ 4CD box set is a slightly different take/mix of “Call Me,” one of four takes of the song from the October 1969 session, where arranger/producer Arif Mardin’s strings are ‘up’ in the mix…
Check out these two amazing videos of Aretha performing the song from 1970 and 1971…