Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Sirius/XM 60s Gold TOP 1000 Countdown Chapter 2: "Ain't No Way” snubbed

By the end of 1966, Aretha Franklin had recorded 9 albums and 23 singles for Columbia records over a period of 7 years. None of them was commercially successful. Only 4 of the 9 albums sold well enough to appear on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart, the best effort a 1962 release that reach #69. None of the 4 albums spent more than 13 weeks after the chart. 

Of her 22 Columbia singles, only 9 of them made their way onto the Hot 100, most of them languishing near the bottom of the chart. In fact, three of her 1962 releases dropped off after one week. Columbia executives didn’t seem to know what to do with her. 

Throughout the 1950s, Columbia enhanced its reputation as a powerhouse in the recording industry with a middle-of the-road focus. Its roster of best/selling adult contemporary artists included Mitch Miller, Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, Doris Day, Tony Bennett, and Louis Armstrong. The company also achieved great success with original cast and soundtrack releases. The original cast album of “My Fair Lady” spent 450 weeks on Billboard’s Top 200 while the soundtrack of “West Side Story” logged a similarly impressive 455 weeks. Nearly 9 years! 

During Aretha’s six years with the company, she recorded cover versions of many standards — music from the so-called “American songbook”. Columbia executives tried to transform her with a sheen of adult-pop sophistication in the manner of Ella Fitzgerald, with a dash of Mahalia Jackson, a style that would appeal to white audiences. And, more importantly, its avid record-buying audience. This marketing plan proved to be an utter failure. 

In 1966, Aretha signed with Atlantic Records, a company with a large roster of talented Black artists that included Ray Charles, LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, Percy Sledge, the Coasters, and the Drifters. Ahmet Ertegun, founder of the company, became Aretha’s mentor and friend and gave her the green light to sit her down at the piano and let her do her thing. (“Ahmet Ertegen Earned Aretha's Franklin Respect”, NPR interview, 12/16/2006.) 

The result of this partnership was nothing less than stunning. In 1967 and 1968, Aretha recorded 4 studio albums, all of them reaching the top 5 on Billboard’s Top 200 and 2 of them spending at least a year on the chart. 

At the same time, she achieved similar success on the Hot 100 with 10 of her songs charting, all but one of them, a ‘B’ side, reaching the top 10. Yet just 5 of these songs earned a place on the 60s Gold Top 1000 Countdown, none reaching the top quartile and just 2 of them in the upper half of the chart. 

A case can be made for overruling all of these snubs, but the most compelling one can be made for “Ain’t No Way”, an epochal 4-minute-and-13-second love ballad unmatched in its intensity of feeling. Anytime that I was alone and heard this song on the radio during the final months of my senior year in high school, I stopped whatever I was doing and became fully absorbed in its story, mood and craft, mesmerized by soaring backup vocal of Cissy Houston, her voice sounding like an angel’s. I can’t be sure 54 years later, but I imagine that at times I remembered when I fell in love with Mardi Peroski in ninth grade, a love that wasn’t returned. (Ain't no way for me to love you / if you won't let me.) Nonetheless, we became friends the following year, socializing with a core group that defied classification, and have remained in touch ever since. 

I recently stumbled across a 6/29/2021 BBC article that gave me a deeper appreciation of the song, which, as I learned while reading, was written by Aretha’s sister Carolyn, who died from breast cancer at age 44 in 1988.  I’ll let the author of the article, Innocent Chizaram Ilo, make the case for the song herself. Ain't No Way stands out effortlessly in Carolyn's impressive portfolio as a songwriter. It was recorded by Aretha Franklin as part of her 12th studio album Lady Soul (which is on the list of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die). 
Ain't No Way spent eight weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 16. It's a quintessential love song, filled with yearning, passion, and the desire to love someone or be loved recklessly, without abandon. Described as “quite possibly soul music's finest ballad", it shines through with the rich and soulful lead vocals of Aretha Franklin. Carolyn Franklin and the Sweet Inspirations supplied the background vocals, with Cissy Houston (Whitney Houston's mother) belting the operatic notes during the bridges. 
Which brings us back to the Top 1000 Countdown. 

The above is a list of the artists with at least 8 songs on the list. Certainly, the Beatles and the Beach Boys holding the two top spots is no surprise. In 1964 alone, the Beatles released 11 songs that reached the top 10, considerably more than many artists can hope to achieve in an entire career.   And the Beach Boys had a nearly steady stream of hits from the fall of 1962 through the end of the decade. The Supremes and the Four Seasons had a slew of #1 hits. But 8 songs by the Monkees and just 5 by Aretha Franklin. And worse yet, 8 songs by Jay & the Americans and just 5 by Aretha Franklin. Oy! Did most of the votes from The Villages in Florida? 

But wait, there’s more! 

In the late 1960s, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap scored 5 songs in the top 10, and a sixth that came close. Every one of them received enough listener votes to make the countdown. Five of their songs, in fact, ended up in the top half of the chart. 

Let me provide full disclosure here. I’ve never been a fan of the group. Whenever possible, I avoided listening to their songs on the radio, reaching for the dial to change the station when one started to play.  And I thought their Civil War garb was a costume gimmick bordering on the cornball, especially at a time when groups were moving away from a ‘uniform’ look. 

People react to music in very personal ways. I understand that. And anyone’s list of favorite songs is going to be a subjective exercise. But in my musical world, it’s a travesty when Gary Puckett and the Union Gap end up with an average chart position of 397 while Aretha Franklin has to settle for 500. One of the defining voices of the 20th century has been been treated rather shabbily. 

Here’s another quote from Innocent Chizaram Ilo: 
In recent years, Billboard, Insider, Harper's Bazaar, and Cosmopolitan have ranked and curated a selection of the greatest love songs of all time. However, one song is conspicuously missing from these lists – the 1968 hit Ain't No Way.
Snubbed again.

Related posts:
Sirius/XM 60s Gold listeners give Barrett Strong's "Money" the short shrift. (2/1/2023)

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