“You’re no good. Heartbreaker.”
It’s Saturday morning. Late summer of ’67. Our 40-year-old mother is down on her hands and knees. The smell of Johnson’s Bowling Alley Wax wafts through the air as my mother, rag in hand, uses small, tight circles to coax the wax into the wood floors. Less than a year after leaving our controlling and abusive father, Mom has learned how to drive, how to write checks from her own checking account, and moved us into a two-bedroom duplex. Three of her seven children are witnessing, for the first time, this emergence of her “can-do” spirit. I am one of them.
“I guess I’m uptight. And I’m stuck like glue.”
Even with all the windows wide open, the tang of the carnauba wax permeates the air, thick enough to taste. Perhaps it would overpower those made of lesser stuff. But we children are grateful for the pungent memories it evokes of the hometown and family we left behind. Having already put on two pairs of thick white socks each, we know the drill: No one may walk on the floor until the wax dries to a white, powdery glaze; a well-timed swipe of the finger along the floor tells us when.
“Some time ago I thought you would run outta fools. But I was so—you got one that you’ll never lose.”
Aretha’s breakthrough album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, was the first album my mother purchased on her own. Aretha’s first nine albums focused mainly on jazz standards and were released without much acclaim. Could it be that, with a voice and delivery like Aretha’s, Columbia Records just didn’t know what to do with it? While we all now know that Aretha could sing damn near anything (from a blisteringly fast big-band version of “Moody’s Mood” to “Nessun dorma,” thank you very much), it was her first album on Atlantic that would hit the sweet spot in the lives of so many women who were ready to stand up and demand “Respect.” Between March 5 and July 8, 1967, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Respect” were No. 1 on the R&B charts for a running total of 15 weeks (interrupted for a week by Martha and the Vandellas’ “Jimmy Mack”). Aretha dug in and wailed out what others were perhaps too inhibited to say.
“I guess I’ll never be free since you got your hooks in me…!”
The wax is dry; it’s time to take to the floor and dance for the entire 32 minutes of the album, skidding and sliding over wood floors in our socked feet, sweating and dancing up a sheen as our mother perches on the sofa, directing us to missed spots in corners, behind doors, under tables. And in the process, we memorize every line, every song, every solo on that album.
If we don’t know anything else, we know what R-E-S-P-E-C-T spells. It spells hard work. And fair treatment. And getting up off our knees.