Aretha Franklin coughs, someone, probably a studio technician, is chatting away and leaves the studio for a cup of coffee. He doesn’t even seem to know that this will end up as something, anything at all, worth keeping. Aretha stops playing. Finally, she starts again. A drummer, no one seems to remember his name, looks at his watch but still, with a yawn he does as he’s told and follows the singers every syllable when she attacks her piano and sings the first few lines from Sweet Bitter Love, a ballad written by Van McCoy.
It’s just before Christmas 41 years ago.
Aretha has just spent the whole day recording the first versions of some of the songs that in just a couple of months will transform her from a way too young has-been jazz singer into the most chersished female voice in soul music.
Everyone else has gone home to their loved ones. To decorate the Christmas tree or gather around the telly for, I don’t know, a Frank Capra film.
Aretha has one more song to sing. A song that no one else is meant to hear. It really is so obvious that we were never supposed to listen to this, I almost feel embarrassed now, like I’ve been eavesdropping, stepping over some kind of line, into her private sphere. I am somewhere I’m not allowed to be.
She is not singing this song for us, she’s just singing it for herself. Everything about it, and this particular performance of a song which she revisisted many times, both in an unremarkable jazzy take in the very early sixties and then one of those billion selling – but still remarkably anonymous – albums she did in the eighties.
Those other versions have nothing to do with this one. In this one I literally find myself trapped in someone else’s broken heart.
Listening to it again and again this last week I do sincereley feel I have never ever heard – or seen or even read – anything as monumentally sad and beautiful as this – these previously unheard five minutes and twelve seconds of Aretha singing Sweet Bitter Love on the new Rare & Unreleased Recordings From The Golden Reign Of The Queen Of Soul (Rhino)
“Sweet, sweet bitter love, what a joy you taught me.” A cleaner walks into the studio and sweeps under the piano, not really caring there’s a woman sitting in front of it.
“Sweet, sweet bitter love, what pain you brought me, so short a stay”. Aretha doesn’t care, she just has to sing this song. The session player on bass packs up his instrument half way thorugh the recording. The singer doesn’t even seem to notice.
“My magic dreams have lost their spell, where there was hope there’s an empty shell”. Here, during the cold Michigan winter of 1966, she builds her own secret Taj Mahal of deep soul ballads.
No one else, not even those present in the studio it seemed, got to hear it until now.