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At 18, inspired by the example of former Gospel Singer Sam Cooke, Aretha decided to try the pop field. She started by auditioning for a New York manager named Jo King. "Aretha did everything wrong," recalls Mrs. King, "but it came out right. She had something—a concept of her own about music that needed no gimmickry. She was a completely honest musician." Groomed by Mrs. King, signed to a Columbia Records contract, Aretha began plying a sometimes seamy circuit of jazz and rhythm & blues clubs—with disheartening results. "I was afraid," she says. "I sang to the floor a lot." In the recording studio, she cut side after side with stereotyped pop arrangements —which sold indifferently. Deep down, she knew what was wrong with her repertory of standards, jazz tunes and novelties: "It wasn't really me."
Then 18 months ago she switched to Atlantic Records, which for two decades has specialized in bedrock rhythm & blues. Savvy Producer Jerry Wexler backed her with a funky Memphis rhythm section (which she ably joined on piano), and cut her loose to swing into the soul groove. Her first disk, I Never Loved a Man, sold a million copies. "It had looked for the longest time like I would never have a gold record," she says. "I wanted one so bad."
It was only the beginning. Aretha embarked on a remarkable year. She collected four more gold single records, sold a total of 1,200,000 albums, won two Grammy awards for record performances, and was cited by Billboard magazine as the top female vocalist of 1967. She toured Europe and was hailed in England as the new Bessie Smith—the first (1894-1937) of the great blues belters. Ray Charles called her "one of the greatest I've heard any time." Janis Joplin, 25, probably the most powerful singer to emerge from the white rock movement, ranked her as "the best chick singer since Billie Holiday." Her troubles were over.
Wrestling Demons. Professionally, that is. Personally, she remains cloaked in a brooding sadness, all the more achingly impenetrable because she rarely talks about it—except when she sings. "I'm gonna make a gospel record," she told Mahalia Jackson not long ago, "and tell Jesus I cannot bear these burdens alone."
What one of these burdens might be came out last year when Aretha's husband, Ted White, roughed her up in public at Atlanta's Regency Hyatt House Hotel. It was not the first such incident. White, 37, a former dabbler in Detroit real estate and a street-corner wheeler-dealer, has come a long way since he married Aretha and took over the management of her career. Sighs Mahalia Jackson: "I don't think she's happy. Somebody else is making her sing the blues." But Aretha says nothing, and others can only speculate on the significance of her singing lyrics like these:
I don't know why I let you do these things to me;
My friends keep telling me that you ain't no good,
But oh, they don't know that I'd leave you if I could . . .
I ain't never loved a man the way that I love you.