“They say that ‘it’s a man’s world,’ but you can’t prove that by me.”
When Aretha Franklin ventured down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama in January 1967, she was on a mission to get hers. After releasing 8 albums over the course of almost 6 years on Columbia Records, Aretha had no hit records to her name, and she was hungry for success. She’d just signed a contract at Atlantic Records and was ready for her luck to finally turn around. Her new label boss and producer Jerry Wexler had a band and a studio in Muscle Shoals where he planned to record most of her next album — and make it a hit or two. Unfortunately, conflict between Aretha’s then-husband/manager and a member of the band erupted and Aretha left Muscle Shoals after barely 48 hours. Less than two songs were completed for her new album. When finished, the initially-incomplete song would prove to be one of her most crucial and enduring records: “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.”
Jerry Wexler already had success working with the Muscle Shoals musicians on some Wilson Pickett songs and planned to record the bulk of Aretha’s Atlantic Records debut album with them in Alabama. During Aretha’s initial session “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)” was the first song recorded. It got completed in a few takes, and was a clear-cut winner. “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” was next up. Dan Penn and Chips Moman were two of the musicians on the sessions, and also happened to be songwriters. They crafted “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.”
“Take me to heart, and I’ll always love you,” the record begins. At the core, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” is a country song, which calls for respect and consideration for the woman in a relationship. It makes a simple demand: if you want a do-right woman, you have to be a do-right man. Penn and Moman had the song written to Aretha’s arrival, but something was missing. “It needs a bridge man. I need a bridge,” Penn remembered Jerry Wexler telling him during the session, so Penn scurried away to another room and worked out the bridge.
Time was of the essence, and Jerry was looking for a progress report on the bridge shortly thereafter. Initially all Penn had was “They say that it’s a man’s world.” Jerry immediately had the next line for him: “but you can’t prove that by me.” Then Aretha heard the two lines and tied them together: “But as long as we’re together baby, show some respect for me.” Just like that, the song was complete and ready for recording.
During the session they cut the drums, bass, and organ. Instead of the rest of the parts being recorded though, chaos ensued. “I Never Loved A Man”’s completion was followed by a now-infamous celebration that devolved into a brawl involving one of the musicians and Aretha’s then-husband/manager, Ted White. The details of the brawl continue to be murky, more than 5 decades later. Some accounts say that one of the musicians made a pass at Aretha, infuriating White. Others claim that White “hurt” Aretha, which led to one of the musicians stepping in. Whatever the cause, that infamous brawl resulted in Aretha’s abrupt departure from Alabama. After departing, Aretha went radio-silent. Jerry Wexler tirelessly attempted to track her down to no avail until suddenly, with no explanation Aretha materialized and declared that they would continue recording, but in New York City. Jerry brought the Muscle Shoals musicians to the Atlantic Records studios in New York City, and sessions for Aretha’s album resumed, this time without the presence of Ted White. After the first day’s sessions in New York, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” was complete.
This track is one of Aretha’s masterwork tapestries. She contributes multiple parts to “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” from the New York City sessions. On one layer, Aretha harmonizes with her lead vocal during the chorus. On another, Aretha and her sisters Erma and Carolyn provide a secondary layer of vocals to fill in gaps and create a rounded-out hook. An isolated “why don’t cha, why don’t cha” that injects itself into one of the choruses ties the whole thing together. And Aretha isn’t just backing herself up, she’s also doing double duty instrumentally, playing two keyboard parts. Overdubs allowed her to lay down both instrumental parts, sing the lead, and contribute to the background vocals alongside her sisters.
As a result of “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” being recorded at two studios, there’s a small gitch with the track. Each studio had its own machine for recording, and those machines operated at slightly different speeds. As a result, the piano part recorded in New York is a quarter of a tone sharp. The error isn’t immediately apparent to the untrained ear, but from time to time, it can be heard. Despite the slight glitch, the power of the record is unaffected.
“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” is a foundational Aretha record not just for its history, but also for its message. Penn and Moman did a powerful job of crafting a song that spoke in such relatable terms to the pains of relationships. It’s a plea for equality and fidelity. In an era where James Brown declared “It’s a man’s world, but it wouldn’t be nothing without a woman or a girl,” “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” flat out denies Brown’s declaration. Instead, Aretha outlines her rules for entanglement and her pledge of allegiance: “If you’re going to be with me, you’re not going to be with anyone else, and trust me, it will be more than worth your while to be a do right man because I am a do right woman.” At the same time, she also gives a clear-cut reminder that women are not to be diminished or treated as anything less than equals: “she’s flesh and blood, just like a man.” Aretha was clearly on a quest for her equality, evidenced by both her lyrical contribution to the song, “show some respect for me,” and what she would do in the studio just days later with Otis Redding’s “Respect.”
In both message and sensibility, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” is a bona fide soul record with a country core. That country DNA has lured numerous country stars to cover the record including Willie Nelson, Martina McBride, Miranda Lambert, and Chris Stapleton. It’s also been covered in the mainstream world by Cher and Etta James (who both recorded their versions in Muscle Shoals), as well as Sinead O’Connor. Regardless of genre, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” continues to resonate and inspire musicians and listeners alike more than half a century after it’s disjointed, multi-regional recording sessions birthed this beautiful record.
Based on the data I have from a library of more than one hundred bootleg Aretha concerts beginning in the late 80’s, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” was not a staple of Aretha’s live show. Only a few recorded performances of the song exist, including The Merv Griffin Show in 1968, James Brown & Friends: Set Fire To The Stage, filmed in 1987, and as a duet with Mary J. Blige on VH1 Divas 2001: The One & Only Aretha Franklin in 2001. During her final years of performing though, the song suddenly found its way onto Aretha’s setlist more than half a dozen times, including this 2015 performance:
Dobkin, Matt. I Never Loved A Man I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You: Aretha Franklin, Respect, and the Making of a Soul Music Masterpiece. St. Martin’s Press.
BBC’s Soul Deep. Episode 4. May 28, 2005