Over the years, there were Aretha albums where she penned multiple songs, and some where she only contributed one, or none. But on her 1967 Atlantic Records debut I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, Aretha wrote/co-wrote four of the album’s eleven songs. There are surely some gems amongst them. “Baby, Baby, Baby” is a beautiful ballad that closes out Side A of the LP. It’s also one of the only songs that Aretha and her younger sister Carolyn wrote together.
For a period of time, I had a strong love affair with this song. The simplicity of Aretha’s piano playing, the slow going nature of the tempo, and the strong, soulful vocal Aretha lays on top of the track are all magnetic. Luther Vandross went as far as to call “Baby Baby Baby” a “brilliant blues variation with a line that I wish I had written myself- ‘I’m bewildered, I’m lonely, and I’m loveless”. The line continues, “without you, to hold my hand.” It’s a simple, yet immensely striking sentiment.
It wasn’t a song Aretha reached back to frequently, but from time to time it did pop up in her live set. She performed it at the Jamaica World Music Festival in 1982, one of the last overseas performances she’d give before developing a fear of flying. More recently, the song popped up at a 2014 tour date at Artpark in Lewiston, NY. Aretha sat down at the piano and performed two songs she rarely played on the piano: “Sweet Bitter Love” and “Baby, Baby, Baby”. She slowed down the already slow ballad, and excludes the brass section for the performance. It’s incredible to hear her reach back to a deep cut like it in such a unique fashion.
Listen to that live version here:
Stream “Baby, Baby, Baby”:
“Never Loved.” Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, by David Ritz, Little, Brown & Company, 2014, pp. 376–377.
It’s always significant when Aretha changes her lyrics in live performance; it’s usually indicative of a change in character or personal growth. She goes from singing, “I’d rather hurt myself,” on the record to “I ain’t gon’ hurt myself,” in live performance, as though to say I love you, but I won’t be your fool anymore. One can’t help but wonder if she reflects on her troubled marriage to Mr. Ted White when she sings songs from the Never Loved A Man era.