In the Queen’s Service: A Look at Aretha Franklin’s Bassists

Aretha Franklin's Bassists

Like the rest of the world, we’re in mourning over the passing of the Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul’s incredible vocal talents put a stamp on her generation while also giving her music a timeless quality that continues to be relevant today. Her career had highs and lows, but she was always a staple of the music world.

We’re celebrating her life and legacy by taking a look at some of her hits from the low end perspective. Franklin always had a top notch band in the studio and that includes some of the world’s greatest bassists: Marcus Miller, Nathan East, Stanley Clarke, Tommy Cogbill, Ray Brown, Ron Carter, Jerry Jemmott, Randy Jackson, Abe Laboriel, David Hood, and many more. Here are just a few of her hits and the bassists that provided the groove.

“I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” – Tommy Cogbill (1967)

Franklin’s breakthrough albums were recorded for Atlantic Records in Muscle Shoals, Alabama by the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler brought in bassist Tommy Cogbill for the sessions after his work with Stax. The mighty studio band would quickly create a flurry of hits with “Respect”, “Chain of Fools, and “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)”, which No Treble contributor Ryan Madora examined in her Bass Players to Know feature on Cogbill:

“[His] approach to this song is like ‘Bass Playing 101,'” she wrote. “Come in at the right time with simple, yet definitive notes. Hang back during the verses but provide direction when moving from chord to chord. Use rhythm to bring up the dynamics when going to the bridge. Open up towards the end of the song to match the intensity of the vocalist and other players. Cogbill executes perfect chromatic lines, skillfully directs the band back down to the root at the end of the phrase, and knows exactly when and how to pedal a note.

“Think” – Jerry Jemmott (1968)

1968’s Aretha Now saw Wexler moving the recording back to Atlantic’s home studios in New York City. Cogbill stayed on board in the studio with Franklin but switched to primarily playing guitar. He largely passed the bass torch to a young Jerry Jemmott, who told us about recording the number one hit “Think” in a 2012 interview.

“This is the tune that got me in the door when the band from Muscle Shoals, who got stuck trying to make this into some kind of a Rhythm ’n Blues groove,” he shared. “Usually I would never go for the the obvious groove, but in this case I had no choice. It was straight ahead Country & Western. When all their attempts at something slick failed, Jerry Wexler told me to ‘go in there in see what you can do.’ The late, great Tommy Cogbill – the original Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section bass player – gave me his seat and he played the guitar. Boy, was I impressed. He was killin’. Miss you Tommy. I went in and did my thing, playing in two with a subtle pickup to beat three. It was over and done in two takes.”

“Rock Steady” – Chuck Rainey (1972)

Franklin continued to pump out music with two albums in 1969 and 1970 that featured Cogbill and Jemmott as well as bassists Ron Carter, David Hood, Tommy McClure, and Harold Cowart. It was 1972’s Young, Gifted, and Black that brought famed session bassist Chuck Rainey into the Queen’s fold. His use of extended techniques to further the bass’s dimension in the music was a game changer, especially on the track “Rock Steady”. Rainey let us in on a secret during a Stories Behind the Songs interview.

“Most people don’t know that ‘Rock Steady’ is a demo recording,” he said. “We recorded it before Jerry Wexler [Aretha’s producer] and Tommy Dowd [engineer] arrived. That morning, their limo picked them up late and ours picked us up early. Aretha sat down at the piano and taught all of us the song and Gene Paul [Les Paul’s son] recorded it for us as a demo to work on later. There were no overdubs. When the top brass finally arrived, they charted out the song and arranged it. We worked all morning trying to do the song their way, but we could not duplicate what we had done early that morning on our own. If you listen closely, you can tell it’s a demo.”

“Jump To It” – Marcus Miller (1982)

After a period of label troubles in the late ’70s, Franklin came roaring back with Jump To It. The album was produced and written by the dynamic duo of Luther Vandross and Marcus Miller. “That was one of the first records Luther and I wrote together. And that kind of got us going on the songwriting thing,” Miller told Theater Times. “All of a sudden people realized she was still the Queen and she could still do contemporary music. Up until then, she had been doing a lot of records that were like homage to Aretha records. Then she took off again and did ‘Freeway of Love.’”

Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Aretha Franklin.

With a career spanning over 50 years, there’s plenty of great music to remember. What are some of your favorite bass lines on Aretha Franklin songs? Share your favorites in the comments.

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