By mid-1967, Aretha Franklin had released nine albums and 34 singles. Some were soul covers, most were schmaltzy and Bing Crosby-esque, and one (“Rough Lover”) was specifically about yearning for an abusive boyfriend. Most significantly, only one of those singles cracked the top 40, peaking at #37. Then, Ahmet Ertegun signed her to Atlantic Records, hooked her up with producer Jerry Wexler, and history took a sharp right turn.
Similarly, my own success with enjoying corn took a turn in 2001 when we first ventured to the Edmonton Corn Maze. Prior to that sunny afternoon, I’d consumed plenty of corn. Sometimes it was exciting (movie theatre popcorn), most times it was boring (slipping out the back door wearing the same disguise as the night before), and a few times (creamed corn) I really hated it. Then, a group of rag-tag husk-breeders grew their stash in a funky shape just west of the city and we discovered the sheer bliss of getting lost among the greenery.
Is it a stretch to compare the career trajectory of the Queen of Soul herself to my personal experiences with a common cereal grain? Of course it is, but stretches like this are the only way this weird project will work.
So off we went, trusted companion Liberty at our side, to walk through corn and contemplate the album that launched a career and changed the arc of music history.
We hadn’t hit up the corn maze since the pre-Covid times, so that first step into the columns of cobs and leaves was a triumph. Similarly, our album for this journey, Aretha’s Atlantic debut (I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You) cracks open with her mountainous cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect.”
With her cover, Aretha replaced Otis’s popping dance tune (in which he makes his relationship demands known to some ‘lucky’ lady) with an anthem of power. She and her sister came up with the idea to spell out the word in a fist-raising moment of pure intent, then to follow it up with the “sock it to me” refrain, thus cementing that term in the public lexicon. Rolling Stone magazine called this the greatest song of all time in 2021, and they weren’t talking about Otis’s 1965 original. So marching into the maze with this tune bouncing off our skull walls imbued us with confidence in our inevitable victory.
In the past, the Edmonton Corn Maze has handed out little slips of paper with clues in various categories, offering assistance at its numerous sign-post markers along the way. This year they’ve done away with murdering trees and simply dropped some clues onto the signs themselves. Great plan, but the clues operate at various levels, from trivia about our Food Bank down to “identify this animal” (it was a pig). We wanted nothing to do with clues – we were entrusting Liberty to guide us to the exit. If she failed, we’d drown in the corn.
Along those lines, “Drown In My Own Tears” is the next track on the album – a song we know well when sung by Ray Charles, but which achieves a slow, sexy power when it blasts through Aretha’s vocal chords. And like the first track, this one features her sisters oomphing some emphasis in the background.
Up next comes the title track, and the first single to drop from the album. “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” is bluesy and wonderful, building up to each chorus like a deep inhalation, then quietly tempering its energy as the title is breathed out in a heart-mangling confession. This was the song that bumped through my brain-ears throughout most of our corn voyage. Sure, “Respect” is the titan of this album, but the title track is the real gem. Recorded at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the musicianship on this track is profound. It’s humbling, just like meandering through multiple kilometers of towering corn stalks.
A cover of King Curtis’s “Soul Serenade” comes next, a song I’d never heard with lyrics before. At this point, it becomes increasingly more difficult to walk through corn without a bit of a rhythmic swagger in each step. Up next we get a weird deviation into a samba beat for “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream”, the first of two songs written by Aretha and her then-husband, Ted White. Ted was allegedly an abusive prick-hole to Aretha, so I guess her wish for a “Rough Lover” didn’t really pan out. This track didn’t spark the boogie in our tootsies, so we could instead focus more on the corn and the fact that Liberty was leading us in circle after circle. She was more interested in scooping up dropped kernels of popcorn than finding the exit.
With “Baby, Baby, Baby,” written by Aretha and her sock-it-to-me sister Carolyn, we can hear her commitment to this sexy and potent version of soul she was inventing. These tracks aren’t the tightly-packaged soul of Detroit, nor are they the uncooked funk-pockets coming from Stax in Memphis. Aretha was doing her own thing, and she was way better at it than we are at navigating through corn. That’s okay; we can live with this minor character flaw. Time to flip the record.
Aretha and Ted did concoct some brilliance on this album. “Dr. Feelgood,” which bears no similarity to the Motley Crue song of the same name, is another sexy bluesy number, its heartbeat propelled onward by Spooner Oldham’s fantastic Hammond playing. No doubt Ted felt he was Aretha’s Dr. Feelgood. But fuck that – he was as deluded as we were in putting our faith in a hungry golden retriever to figure out the intricacies of a maze.
“Good Times” comes next, a classic Sam Cooke tune about appreciating said times, and (when necessary), letting them roll. From the triumph of emerging from corridors of corn, we kept the good times rolling by wandering over to maze #2, which consisted of sunflowers. At this point our souls were soothed. We were in the groove. We were following the lyrics of this tune magnificently, but the thought of “staying here if it takes all night long” didn’t quite reflect our mood.
The brightest spot on side 2 is the Dan Penn / Chips Moman song “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” First of all, how cool is the name “Chips Moman”? I’m just saying, some names fit the music industry like a sparkly glove, and Chips’ name is one of them. This tune was begun at FAME studios, but due to Ted the Schmuck getting into a fight with trumpeter Ken Laxton, the gig was cancelled and the sessions moved to New York. This tune is similar to “Respect,” in that it places the onus of a relationship’s success on the dude behaving well. Aretha had her priorities, and Ted wasn’t living up to them. We also cut short our trip through the sunflower maze, partly because Jodie’s knee was arthritically rebelling, but also because the sunflowers were only about four feet high, so the challenge level wasn’t great.
We needed no saving, but “Save Me” is the next track. Aretha and Carolyn did the bulk of song writing on this one again, and they’ve no doubt made some good money from it. I’m sure it has been used in a few commercials, though I can’t recall any of the products or services it was shilling. After the sunflower maze, it was Liberty who needed saving; she met her first goat, saw her first turkeys and pigs, and she wasn’t having any of it.
Lastly, I won’t disrespectfully link any of our corn experience with “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the single greatest (in our opinion) civil rights song ever put to wax. I’d rank Aretha’s version of this above Otis’s (sorry Otis), but as much as her voice is quite possibly the most fantastic musical instrument this planet has ever experienced, I’m giving top marks to Sam Cooke’s original. It’s just a perfect recording, period.
In the end, we were gratified to have landed on two such tremendous selections to start this project – both date-wise and tunes-wise. We also learned a few things: corn kernels are technically fruits, so if you want to justify stopping by your local multiplex to simply purchase some popcorn for dinner, you can! Also, we learned that, while the Edmonton Corn Maze is still a top-notch way to spend an evening, it really should be called the Maize Maze. How do you pass up on a pun like that?