Aretha Franklin’s piano introduction to “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” nothing short of overtook me from the first time I heard it. There’s something about those broken chords that is positively mesmerizing. Played by Aretha, those strokes of the piano open not just “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied) but also the accompanying album 1970’s Spirit In The Dark.
Written by Atlantic Records chairman Ahmet Ertegun and Ben E. King’s wife Betty Nelson, the song was initially a hit for King years earlier, but as always, it’s Aretha’s version that became the standard, and bigger hit. While King’s version applied the same “50’s progression” which drove his iconic classic “Stand By Me”, Aretha’s version is a complete departure from the original.
Once again it’s her brilliant piano playing that anchors, structures, and drives “Don’t Play That Song”. The piano even goes as far as to refocus attention onto itself by repeating the introduction in the place where a bridge should be. An acoustic guitar strumming chords and walking bass line, along with modestly placed brass and percussion accompany subtle yet poignant strings which fill the song with a bittersweetness. Meanwhile Aretha bestows on this song yet another solid background arrangement. The singers echo and compliment Aretha during the verse, and then those same echoes become a prominent piece of the chorus, contributing to the song’s wide-reaching appeal.
Clearly I’m not the only one who was struck by Aretha’s take on the Ben E. King hit. “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” became yet another notch in Aretha’s #1’s belt. The song reached the summit of the R&B charts for 5 weeks, while just missing the top 10 on the Pop charts, landing at #11.
Aretha avoided accompanying herself on piano on “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” in her later years. But during the song’s first few years of existence in Aretha’s realm, it got performed (and recorded live) numerous times, with Aretha almost always at the piano. There’s a 1970 performance from The Cliff Richard Show that possesses an exorbitant level of power. She unfurls intense vocals as she delves deeper and deeper into the tune.
It wasn’t the only time she gave such an impassioned performance of the song. After unleashing the song on a more-than-receptive audience of Flower Children during her historic 3-night run at San Francisco’s Fillmore West she retorted, “Wow… It’s a good thing I ate chitlins this morning”.
I’d seen Aretha a few times and the song had yet to make it into the setlist, so I started to really crave hearing it live. I had such a love for the song that I managed to hunt down the sheet music from 1970 and learned the piano part myself. Yet, for years she seemed to stray away from performing it. That changed after she performed the song at the 2007 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in a tribute to Ahmet Ertegun. Suddenly the song found it’s way back into her setlist. My wish to hear “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” live was granted multiple times, but first on March 22, 2008 at Radio City Music Hall. She gave a rousing performance of the song. Of course I had to record it. It meant the entire world to me to hear it, my hand shaking as I tried to maintain the audio.
Hear that live audio here:
Stream “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)”: