“You only got 3 chords?” David Cross’ Jerry Wexler concerningly asks Cynthia Erivo’s Aretha Franklin in the second part of Nat Geo’s new series Genius: Aretha. Erivo’s Aretha is in the middle of instructing a group of musicians in a New York City recording studio when Wexler interrupts from the control room. In her head, Aretha knows exactly how she wants the song executed, something she was famous for. The song she’s arranging is “Save Me.” The show frames it as a commentary on the tumultuous marriage she was enduring with her then-husband/manager Ted White. To Wexler’s concern about the song’s simplicity, Aretha responds: “I, will make ‘em sound like a million bucks.” Some of that story was embellished, but one thing is true: Aretha certainly made them sound a million bucks.
Over those 3 chords Aretha Franklin turns a cry for help into a danceable groove. “Save Me” is the penultimate cut on her magnanimous Atlantic Records debut I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You). It’s another gem that Aretha co-wrote, but like some of her other self-penned cuts “Save Me” doesn’t get the shine it deserves. Part of that falls on Aretha. No recorded live performances of the song are known to exist. There’s also no evidence thus far to imply that Aretha ever performed the song live. In addition, virtually no other artists have put their own spin on the record. The only notable cover was recorded by the great Nina Simone in 1969. But back to Aretha…
In late January of 1967, Aretha began work on her Atlantic Records debut at Fame Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals Alabama. A week of sessions at Fame were planned, but the sessions broke up as a result of some legendary chaos involving Aretha’s husband Ted, a horn player, and Fame’s Rick Hall. After things simmered, Aretha, Jerry, and the Muscle Shoals musicians reconvened in New York City a few weeks later to continue work on the album. The New York sessions commenced on February 8, 1967, and the first and only record completed that first day was “Save Me.”
Saxophonist King Curtis also joined the group in New York, and his presence had a transformative effect on the sessions. He was already well known for his masterful sax work from hits like The Coasters’ “Yakety Yak,” to his own solo material. It’s his saxophone work that can be heard between verses on “Save Me” (during these sessions he also laid down the sax solo on Aretha’s “Respect”).
King Curtis is also the reason that “Save Me” exists. According to Aretha’s autobiography Aretha: From These Roots, King Curtis is the one who wrote “Save Me.” Aretha and her sister Carolyn apparently added some little bits, and “being a generous gentleman, (Curtis) gave Carolyn and (Aretha) credit for (their) minor contributions.” In reality, “Save Me” is based on a record called “Help Me” that Curtis wrote with Ray Sharpe and Cornell Dupree (who would go on to play guitar on many of Aretha’s other major hits). Sharpe released his record a year earlier in February 1966. It’s is almost identical musically to “Save Me.” if the Muscle Shoals sessions hadn’t broken up, Curtis may not have joined the sessions and Aretha’s version of this cut might not exist.
The song is unique because musically “Save Me” is a bare bones record that repeats those aforementioned 3 chords over and over again primarily on the guitar and bass, with percussion filling out the instrumentation. Curtis’ sax and the other horns break up the verses, which create the illusion that there’s more to the record. But in actuality it’s the most musically simplistic record on I Never Loved A Man. It’s also the sole record on the LP where Aretha isn’t accompanying herself on the piano, and it lacks a piano part altogether.
It’s vocally very stripped back too. Aretha carries “Save Me” completely solo. It lacks background vocals or vocal layering, which elevated many of her records to another level (including a few on I Never Loved A Man, such as the “sock it to me”’s of “Respect). But their absence creates no void on “Save Me”. If anything the single vocal furthers the message of the song. Aretha’s cries of “save me, somebody save me” go unaccompanied perhaps because she’s in this struggle alone, as she pleads for help from a man who wants to taunt her. She’s so in need of help from this man who abused her lovin’ that she even calls superheros “The Caped Crusader, Green Hornet, (and) Kato, too” in hopes that one of them may rescue her.
In the end though, Aretha saved herself from the turmoil that was her marriage to Ted White. They were divorced by 1969 and Aretha’s brother Cecil took over as her manager. No Kato, Green Hornet, or Caped Crusader intervention necessary.
Listen to “Save Me”:
“The Breakthrough.” Aretha: From These Roots, by Aretha Franklin and David Ritz, Villard, 1999, pp. 111.