Enjoying a deeper dive into the Atlantic vaults for the career-spanning 4CD Rhino box set ARETHA which I worked on diligently with Patrick Milligan, I’m uncovering the story behind the two versions of the Bobby Womack-penned, “I’m In Love,” (previously an Atlantic hit for Wilson Pickett) that Aretha recorded in April 1973 and the ‘mysterious’ alternate vocal that remained in the vaults for decades…

As one of the most consistent and successful artists on the Atlantic Records roster in her first two years with the label (1967-1969), Aretha continues her soulful reign as a new decade dawns in 1970 with an astonishing sixteen US R&B charted singles (a few, double-sided winners included), seven of which are also US Top 20 hits.   She’s released (5) albums between 1970-1972 (including a ‘Greatest Hits’ LP), with “Live At Fillmore West” and “Young, Gifted & Black” achieving gold status and the career-breakthrough “Amazing Grace” set selling over two million copies.

After completing the Quincy Jones sessions in August 1972 for the “Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky)” LP (her first departure from the regular production team of Jerry Wexler, Arif Marfin & Tom Dowd), Aretha is at a crossroads, contractually and creatively as 1973 begins.

It’s time for renegotiation for her Atlantic deal and with “Master Of Eyes (The Deepness Of Your Eyes)” doing moderately well in the first few months of ’73, surpassed by “Angel,” a summer R&B chart-topper and Top 20 pop hit, Aretha is considering her next moves.

US music industry trade magazines say she’s been seen meeting with Clive Davis at CBS Records, her initial recording home (as a Columbia signing) from 1960-1966; the label is a very different place than it was when she left, with Davis having created a deal with Philadelphia International Records (kicking off with hits by The O’Jays and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes) and artists like Sly & The Family Stone and an up-and-coming band, Earth, Wind & Fire, providing healthy sales in the black music market. 

Other companies Aretha is checking on include Buddah Records, which has deals with Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label, Clarence Avant’s Sussex imprint and Hot Wax Records, owned by former Motown producers Holland, Dozier & Holland. In the summer of 1973, Gladys Knight & The Pips have signed with Buddah and as an overall entity, the company has a lot of hitmakers from Mayfield to Bill Withers, Honeycone and Laura Lee.

The third label it’s said Aretha is looking into is RCA Records, the former home to one of her mentors, the late Sam Cooke, and by 1973, making some inroads with a roster that includes The Main Ingredient, New Birth and Jon Lucien among others.

As she enters the studio for her first recording sessions of 1973 in March, she’s aware that these may be recordings for her final LP for Atlantic Records under her existing contract. A sign of her creative input and involvement, that first session with Arif Mardin’s orchestra includes three out of four original Franklin compositions; while on two consecutive days in April at A&R Studios on 7th Avenue in midtown Manhattan, Aretha is working on covers of Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters,” the standard “At Last” (mostly known for Etta James’ 1961 rendition) and Bill Withers’ “Let Me In Your Life” which will ultimately be the title track for Aretha’s 1974 Atlantic LP.

Different from her sessions on April 9th primarily by virtue of the arrangements of William Eaton (a New York session mainstay, partners with percussionist Ralph MacDonald and bassist Bill Salter in their Antisia Music production company), the April 10th recording date boasts an amazing line up of top notch musicians: Aretha’s labelmate Donny Hathaway is on piano, Stanley Clarke is on bass, ace New York session superstars Bob James (on keyboards), Cornell Dupree and David Spinozza on guitar, Rick Marotta on drums and Ralph MacDonald (percussion).  The female background parts are truly a who’s who of brilliant female vocalists – Judy Clay, Gwen Guthrie, Cissy Houston and Deidre Tuck, with session logs showing Judy and Cissy joined by Sweet Inspirations, Sylvia Shemwell and Myrna Smith for overdubs.

It is truly a momentous session, consisting of three songs, the 1967 Wilson Pickett hit “I’m In Love” (written by Bobby Womack), the standard “The Masquerade Is Over” and a complete makeover of the Motown hit, “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” (penned by Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson, a 1967 Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell smash). 

A two-track tape reel dated April 10th contains a mix of some of the recordings from March 24th and April 9th along with “I’m In Love” and “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing.”  Fast forward to October 2005 when I am doing tape research on Aretha for Rhino Records and I play the tracks that have been transferred to a reference disc.  “What is THIS?” I wonder as I listen to Aretha’s rendition of “I’m In Love” and realise that it’s NOT the version that will end up on her “Let Me In Your Life” LP or as a No. 1 R&B and Top 20 pop hit in April 1974!  It has a completely different upbeat vocal, sung in a different key, with Aretha providing a super soul power rendition of the song with an exciting arrangement and musical accompaniment, completely in contrast to the version that will be released!

Unclear other than from my good colleague Patrick Milligan’s research that there is a subsequent tape reel with ‘Outtakes’ from April 26th that includes “I’m In Love” is exactly when Aretha recorded the slower, more mellow version of the song but clearly, Aretha and her two other credited producers Jerry Wexler & Arif Mardin opted for this version.  It could well be that there was more than one try at it on April 10th but we’ll never know! 

Personally? I love the fast version – but suffice to say, “I’m In Love” provides Aretha with her biggest hit of 1974 as chooses to stay with Atlantic for another five years, retaining ownership of five of the six albums she records between 1975-1979 – and that’s for another ‘David Nathan Diary’ piece!