Great love songs convey a sense of joyous celebration without the syrup, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman certainly meets those requirements. It's a beautifully written song with a sense of maturity and realism, people who listen to the song can relate to it's lyrics. Of course the song takes on a new meaning in the hands of Aretha Franklin who carries that sense of joy in her vocals, her voice has such strong spirit and passion.
I've been reading a book called The Memphis Boys which is essentially about the musicians behind the music that emanated from Chips Moman's American Recording studio. Along with some of their alumni from Muscle Shoals' FAME studios these were the musicians who played on Aretha's first sessions for Atlantic, it's a fascinating story. Aretha had orginially been signed to Columbia by famed producer John Hammond in 1960, but from the outset Columbia were unsure how to record Aretha and the material oscillates from show tunes to lifeless R&B tunes which fail to capture her brimstone and fire voice. At the end off 1966 when her contract expired Aretha was quickly snapped up by Atlantic Records under the direct supervision of Jerry Wexler who had always admired her voice and had a succinct plan on how to record her. Having a established a relationship with Rick Hall at FAME studios through previous sessions with Wilson Pickett, Wexler decided to take Aretha to Muscle Shoals to record her first sessions, this one session produce her first Atlantic single I Never Loved A Man(The Way I Love You) but they were unable to capture a recorded B side due to a heated argument with one of the studio horn players (accounts vary on the nature of the dispute). Aretha and Jerry departed for New York, but with I Never Loved A Man Becoming a hit more material was needed so Wexler bought up the players from Muscle Shoals as well as bassist Tommy Cogbill and Chips Moman from the Memphis studio.
On those New York sessions the line-up was Roger Hawkins on drums, Tommy Cogbill on bass, Jimmy Johnson and Chips Moman on guitars and Spooner Oldham on keyboards/piano. Things went smoothly until Rick Hall got wind of the subterfuge and ordered his players home just before the recording of Natural Woman. So another Memphis drummer Gene Chrisman was sent up, Chrisman had cut his teeth playing with Jerry Lee Lewis as well as playing sessions at Hi studios. Chips Moman had headed back to Memphis so according to the book there was no guitar player on the session.
For me the standout of the track is the drumming, Gene Chrisman has such an amazing sound, if you listen to Suspicious Minds, Son Of a Preacher Man etc his style is unique. He has a crisp sound, that sense of timekeeping that you find in jazz drummers, however his fills feel like they are just behind the beat but he always arrives on time. That sense of being just behind the beat adds to the crispness because his fills are quick and rapid fire. There is no overplaying, these guys were dedicated to the song and were never about their own performance, there is that mentality of understatement. Tommy Cogbill has never really received due recognition for his bass playing but for me he ranks alongside Motowns' James Jamerson as one of the most fluid and melodic bass players ever, and also one of the most influential. Cogbill had a passion for jazz and his playing reflects that, it's busy but never over the top he is able to keep the groove in the pocket as well as add lines that are funky and driving, listen to Aretha Franklins Save Me and listen to his bass fills for confirmation.
The amazing thing about the southern music scene especially in Memphis was the cross pollination of styles, there were jazz clubs, R&B clubs and honky tonk clubs and you could sit in and play in each at any given time, so the musicians who played these clubs were well versed in just about every style of southern music.