More Than Flesh And Blood (1978) part III: Do right man

by Jochen Markhorst

 

III         Do right man

 In a tour bus with experienced, thoroughbred musicians and the professional, soulful singers Carolyn Dennis, Jo Ann Harris and Helena Springs, cruising from gig to gig through the southwest of the United States, the Queen of Soul is inevitable. Especially from September ’79, when Dennis and Harris have been replaced by Regina McCrary and Monalisa Young, and Spooner Oldham has joined for Dylan’s first Gospel tour. The Spooner Oldham, Muscle Shoals’ keyboardist Dewey Lindon “Spooner” Oldham. The man who plays the organ and electric piano on “When A Man Loves A Woman” and “Mustang Sally” and dozens of other immortal songs, but most of all on Aretha’s breakthrough album, the man who pulls the superior Wurlitzer intro of “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” out of his sleeve and so subserviently plays the organ on “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”.

Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” is a song of the highest category and has a special history. It is January 1967, Aretha has just been dismissed by Columbia Records after nine okay albums, and the legendary Jerry Wexler sees his chance. He gets Aretha a contract with Atlantic Records and arranges a recording session in the famous fame studios in his hometown Muscle Shoals. The first day of recording is the last day too; after the end of a long, difficult and almost completed struggle to get the brilliant “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” properly recorded, and while recording “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”, Aretha’s then husband and manager Ted White gets into a fight with trumpeter Ken Laxton. Studio boss Rick Hall goes to the hotel that night to talk it out, which gets totally out of hand; Aretha and her husband leave and never come back to Muscle Shoals.

Wexler does not give up, books another session in New York, calls Aretha and takes his musicians minus trumpeter Laxton with him to record the rest a few weeks later; the album that will make Aretha Franklin the Queen Of Soul, the album with “Respect”, and “Soul Serenade”, and “Baby Baby Baby”, and all those other immortal highlights: I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (released March 10, 1967).

The only other song (partly) recorded on that first and last day in Alabama is also a classic. Pianist Spooner Oldham recalls:

“We did a skeletal track for “Do Right Woman”. That song was not finished, actually. Jerry told Dan [Penn] and Chips [Moman] that he would like to do it with Aretha, but it needed a bridge. It just had two verses. Dan was over there in the closet trying to write a bridge while we were recording the first song! Aretha offered a line, Jerry offered a line… If I remember, Dan was singing the vocal, because Aretha hadn’t learned the song yet. We were going to finish it the following day.”

But the row ensues during the recording, and that “following day” ends up being three weeks later in New York. In the meantime, Wexler has successfully pushed “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” with befriended radio DJs, so he is in a hurry with the single; “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” is completed on the first day in New York and quickly promoted to the single’s B-side (released February 10, 1967 – exactly one month before the album).

It has to be one of the most perfect singles in pop history, along with “Strawberry Fields Forever b/w Penny Lane” and “I Want You b/w Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”.

Etta, Aretha… Dylan tours America with articulate, extremely talented black singers, steeped in soul and gospel, and it becomes clear who picks the music along the way. Mahalia Jackson will probably drop by too, but one of the ladies apparently also has a cassette with Curtis Mayfield’s Curtis/Live! (1971), and no doubt they will be singing along harmoniously to “We’re A Winner”, the song Mayfield took from his Impressions repertoire.

“We’re A Winner” is one of Curtis’ signature songs, on the same Olympic level as “People Get Ready” and “Keep on Pushing”:

We're a winner and never let anybody say
Boy, you can't make it 'cause a feeble mind is in your way
No more tears do we cry
And we have finally dried our eyes

… and the only song in the canon to feature the phrase feeble mind, which then echoes in the second verse of “More Than Flesh And Blood”:

I see you at the party baby trying to converse
The room is going round and round and now it’s in reverse
Don't give in to the spirit, the spirit is adverse
Beware because your feeble mind will tear

Spirit is a “Curtis-word” anyway, and it just so happens that “round and round” also can be heard on this same Curtis album (in “Gypsy Woman”).

Moreover, Curtis/Live! was recorded in Dylan’s Greenwich Village, at The Bitter End on Bleecker Street, where Dylan regularly performs in the 1970s (one of Dylan’s most famous bootleg recordings, “Abandoned Love” was recorded there, 3 July 1975).

Anyway, Dylan must have listened to the live album with admiration. The excitement, the loaded songs, the messages, Curtis’ preachy raps between songs, the audience participation; these are all things Dylan is trying to emulate in his three Gospel Tours – and to which, according to Spooner Oldham, he is getting close. After the initial surprised, hostile and disappointed fan reactions of the first performances, it becomes enjoyable, the keyboardist says in an interview with Scott Marshall, 1999:

“All the shows at this point started to be pretty comfortable, everybody knew their part pretty well. In a sense it was becoming more enjoyable because the stress and insecurity about everything [was gone], it was becoming crystal clear that it was just a matter of getting out there and doing it. So the audience started feeling pretty similar, everybody seemed to enjoy it.”

Still, it doesn’t reach the raw excitement of a Curtis Mayfield performance in 1971, of course.

There is no live recording of “More Than Flesh And Blood”, but it’s safe to say that even Curtis himself could not have ignited his audience with it. With the music there is little wrong, obviously. Quite on the contrary – “good groove, strong hook,” as guitarist Billy Cross says. The lyrics, however, are not conducive. Just like the first quatrain, this second one is poetically not very uplifting, nor very expressive. Now that in itself is not a problem, of course. Mayfield’s “We’re A Winner” won’t win him a Pullitzer Prize for Poetry any time soon either – but Curtis does write short, powerful and incendiary slogan-like verses, the words don’t interfere, as Dylan words his own ideal of lyrics in 1978.

The Dylan/Springs verses here certainly do not have that quality. Although it is less laborious than the opening (The room is going round and round and now it’s in reverse is a rhythmically strong, tightly iambic line with a pleasantly assonating “ou”-sound in round-round-now), it is still empty: the lack of coherence between lines 1 and 2, and 2 and 3, and 3 and 4 does interfere.

And it will get even worse.

To be continued. Next up: More Than Flesh And Blood part IV: Exquisite corpse

Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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4 Responses to More Than Flesh And Blood (1978) part III: Do right man

  1. TonyAttwood says:

    It’s very strange – I don’t normally disagree with anything you write – on the contrary I learn a lot with each article – but I find myself doing it here again – just as I did in part one of this series (https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/18998).

    The line “The room is going round and round and now it’s in reverse” has always been one of my favourites, not least because of the commonplace phrase about a room (or indeed the world) being tipped upside down.

    While both phrases convey the notion of everything that we knew is now unknown, the idea of the room going in reverse adds the element of organisation to the mere chaos of tipped upside down.

    I don’t know if anyone has used it before, but for me, whoever came up with that, has a rare gift with the language. Thus I presume it was Dylan.

    So there we are – I’ve hardly ever (if ever) disagreed with you before, and now I do it twice in one song. How odd!

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    Lest we forget Dylan’s unreleased “Lament For Aretha Franklin”:

    We were homeward bound one night on the deep
    Swinging in my hammock, I fell asleep
    I dreamed a dream, and I thought it true
    Concerning Franklin and her gallant crew

  3. Larry fyffe says:

    And there’s Ray Bradbury’s “Something Evil This Way Comes” with its
    age-reversing carousel.

  4. Phil Woods says:

    Joan Baez sang Do Right Woman in the rain at Ft Collins football stadium. All the women on the field were standing, pumping their fists and singing along. Very much an anthem kind of moment.

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