ARETHA FRANKLIN / “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business)”
“Dr. Feelgood” isn’t necessarily my favorite Aretha Franklin song—I tend to prefer her more low-key efforts like “I Say A Little Prayer” and “Daydreamin’”—but it is certainly one of her more spectacular recordings. Plus, the 1967 I Never Loved A Man The Way That I Love You album track (surprisingly, it was never issued as a single) has both a beginning and an ending that might be the best in the entire Queen of Soul catalog. What’s so brilliant about the beginning? For starters, it begins in the middle of the story. Aretha sings “I don’t want nobody always sitting around me and my man” and you get the feeling that you’re catching the continuation of a conversation already in progress. This isn’t the first time, and probably won’t be the last, that Aretha’s going to explain her views on this particular subject. There’s no introduction, no preamble, no background. Aretha just puts it down right where it’s at. “I don’t want nobody always sitting around me and my man.” Period. End of statement. Second (and I’m still talking about the beginning), there’s the way Aretha lets her words develop. “I don’t want nobody,” she sings and then she pauses for a while. “Always,” she adds. Another pause. “Sitting around,” comes next and she extends that first ‘s’ sound way out, pronouncing the word like an accusation, as if ‘sitting’ belongs on the short list of the worst possible things that anyone could do to anyone else. Aretha finishes, “Me and my man,” and the possession in the phrase is undeniable. “My man,” she says. It’s a trick Aretha’s picked up from Baptist ministers like her father: picking words carefully, pronouncing them with particularity and frequently pausing for effect. The result is a rapt audience, an audience eager to hear and absorb anything the speaker—or in this case, singer—might have to say. The third brilliant bit of the opening is the way the horn section answers that first line. Aretha says her piece and then the horns come back: BLAAT! BLAAT! BLOOOTTT!!! The horns are both the choir and the congregation, hollering back an ‘amen’ to the singer/preacher’s sermon. If you were one of the few listeners still undecided about the truth of Aretha’s words, the horns are there to relieve you of your indecision. The horns are saying, “Yeah you right, sister” and “Sure ‘nough,” and “Tell it like it is!” As a listener, you can’t do a thing but agree, saying to yourself, I guess the lady has a point – I wouldn’t want some third wheel hanging around with me and my somebody either. (And you just know in Aretha’s case that the ‘nobody’ is another female. Probably a young one too. And cute. She doesn’t have to say all of that, you just know it.) Let’s fast-forward to the ending. Aretha has just finished explaining why she doesn’t go to medical doctors when she’s feeling ill. It seems she prefers the services of a private physician – a gentleman by the name of ‘Dr. Feelgood’ who requires but a single visit to erase any questions a patient might have about his unusual title. And then Aretha unleashes what may be the most deservedly famous vocal run in the history of soul music. “Oh, yeah!” she starts off and already you’re kind of leaning back in your seat, like, “Uh, oh.” But then the young singer reaches down somewhere deeper, way deeper, and comes out with a spine-tingling, gut-level “Ooo-oo-ooh!” that has so much feeling and passion in it that the good church ladies must’ve fanned themselves extra hard when they first heard it. Listening to that sound, Aretha doesn’t have to tell us what her ‘Dr. Feelgood’ does to “cure” all of her pains and ills. I think we can figure it out for ourselves. We’re up to the last line of the song now and Aretha doesn’t disappoint. “Good God Almighty,” she sings, “That man sure makes me feel real.” Remember, we’re talking about a preacher’s daughter here – a twenty-five year old singer who learned to perform in the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan. When Aretha says “Good God,” it’s hard for me to believe that she means the same thing a heathen like me would mean if I said it. For me, it’d just be a phrase. For her? Well, let’s put it this way. At the very least she has to be aware of what it means to many of her listeners. She’s messing with taboos and at the same time she’s pulling out every vocal trick in the book, a book that she probably read cover-to-cover while sitting right there in her Daddy’s church. And she’s not finished. After another brief but sermon-worthy pause, the Queen finishes with a single word, “good.” Except she pronounces it with so much emphasis that the single-syllable word ends up seven syllables long. And all I’m thinking is: “Damn. The man not only makes her feel real, he makes her feel goo-oo-oo-oo-ood too.” Dr. Feelgood. —Mtume ya Salaam The Development of Dr. Feelgood Ok, following your example, Mtume, I’m going to look first at the precursor and than at an extended live track. Both additional versions are only recently commercially released. The first version is a demo available on a new release called Rare And Unreleased Recordings. All the tracks are from the Atlantic years. What is interesting is that the structure seems to be improvised as if Aretha was composing as she was recording. When listening to the demo version, you can easily recognize the classic song but you can also easily hear the differences, such as at the end she says a la James Brown “I feel good.” Aretha starts out a la Ray Charles with a bluesy piano intro before jumping into the verse. The second difference is that here she says “I don’t need nobody…” rather than “want nobody.” Plus the middle section focuses on the “love is serious business” motif, an emphasis that is entirely elided from the classic version. Beyond the song structure and lyrics, the arrangement is also a major development of the song. Mtume, as you noted, the horns add a lot to the excitement of the song. Finally, the classic version is shorter than the demo. Perhaps, it would be more accurate to say the classic version is a succinct poem rather than the discursive personal essay of the demo. This brings us to the nine-minute live version taken from the limited edition (now out of print) 4 CD set, Aretha Franklin & King Curtis Live at Filmore West, which is also the source of the "Spirit In The Dark" tracks that include the Ray Charles feature duet with Aretha. All that needs to be said about the long version of “Dr. Feelgood” is well said by Aretha herself as she takes us to church, invoking the Holy Spirit in a version that just plain won’t quit, not even after the formal last note that comes at the halfway mark. Aretha just picks up the shouted “Yeah” and then moans and repeats the single word over and over, whipping the crowd into a frenzy as the music rising and falling in orgasmic waves. “I don’t know if you know what I know.” And then it’s back to hollering “Yeah-ya” accompanied by moans and hums. And then Aretha starts preaching. She’s no longer singing about her man. She feels so good, she goes to philosophizing about life. And of course the backing singers are right there with her, punctuating every syllable with clear strong soprano voices. It’s masterful. It’s archetypal. It’s a raw emotional release. As a bonus we follow with over 26 minutes of “Spirit In The Dark” during which Aretha calls Ray Charles to the stage and plays piano behind him before he takes over the piano and they collectively ride the rhythms for ten minutes or more. Aretha's debt to Ray Charles is warmly displayed. Ray in turn demonstrates why he is the progenitor of soul. When he arrives onstage, he can be heard requesting to start with the “slow part.” Ray doesn’t have all the words down but his rendition is classic. That man could sing an arrest warrant and make it sound wonderfully captivating. Soul music. Let the church say amen. —Kalamu ya Salaam
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