Aretha Franklin sits behind the piano. The fullness of her cheeks and bouffant do is offset by the patient but wary expression on her youthful twenty-something face.
She is recording songs for her 11th studio album, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, with the renowned Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section in Alabama.
As the camera pans around the room, many of the players are rocking sunglasses, sharply cut jackets, looking like professionals would, except you can tell something isn’t right.
In a 1999 NPR interview Aretha tells the story of how pianist Spooner Oldham realised that, for things to start kicking along, he’d have to vacate the chair and allow Aretha to take the lead.
“I remember that particular session,” she said. “It was the very first session so naturally, yes, I remember it. And we really were kind of struggling at that point to get to the music.
“It just wasn't quite coming off although we had dynamite players. We had the Muscle Shoals Section and they were really very, very hot, cutting them out of good, greasy stuff, or what you would call greasy in that day. But we weren't getting to the music in the way that we should have. It just wasn't coming off.
“Finally someone said, ‘Aretha, why don't you sit down and play?’ And I did. And it just happened. It all just happened. We arrived, and we arrived very quickly. It’s a good man who knows when he should get out of a woman’s way.”
Aretha calls the piano one of her trademarks. There’s no questioning that the power and versatility of her voice is the other.
Growing up as the daughter of a charismatic Baptist minister gave her early opportunities to develop her voice in front of large congregations and hone her ability to get inside a song and deliver her take on its message. Her 1967 album bears the fruits of this early training.
Her rendition of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ is stirring and restless, whilst ‘Good Times’ saunters and swings infectiously and, of course, Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’ got a complete Aretha overhaul.
She and her sister Carolyn developed the idea of literally spelling out the song title as well as the ‘sock it to me’ refrain, a popular Detroit term at the time. It became an anthem for the civil rights and feminist movement, although Aretha doesn’t like to take any credit for the latter.
“I think that's Gloria Steinem's role,” she told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I don't think I was a catalyst for the women's movement. Sorry. But if I were? So much the better!”
Despite the countless awards, accolades and honours that have been heaped onto her, Aretha Franklin remains a relatable and humble figure, with a very clear view on her musical gifts.
“We don’t own the songs, anybody can sing a song. We don’t own them,” she told the Wall Street Journal in 2014.
Yet the way she effortlessly glides through the emotional range of her songs still stops us dead in our tracks. Vika Bull attributes huge significance to this album saying, “It taught me how to sing!” whilst Kylie Auldist says that, for her, Aretha is “the north on the compass.”
In the 1988 documentary Queen of Soul, Eric Clapton made an interesting observation about Aretha’s chops.
“She doesn’t ever seem to hit the note straight on,” he said. “Most singers go for a note, whereas Aretha would bend up to it then go above it. She never settles anywhere, it’s very much like an instrument.”
Asked in 1968 in a Record Mirror interview if she could imagine singing hit songs like ‘Respect’ many more years into her career, Aretha gave a telling answer.
“No, I shouldn't think so,” she laughed. “Music changes, and I'm gonna change right along with it.”
Over the half a century that’s passed since that statement, she’s kept her word of changing with music. Despite her recent announcement of retirement from touring, she reassures us she’s got many more songs yet to sing.
Just so long as ‘Respect’ still gets a run, every now and again please, Ms Franklin.