- Before I get started on “Ain’t No Way”, I want to address a few things (in case this crosses Miss Franklin’s eyes). The intention of this piece is not gossip. No malice is intended in these words. I’m simply working off information I’ve learned, and a theory I came up with as a music fan, listener, and interpreter of lyrics. If anything, this is a testament and admiration for both Carolyn Franklin’s genius as a songwriter and Aretha Franklin’s genius as a singer.
Aretha Franklin‘s “Ain’t No Way” is an undisputed classic. The cut closes out her genre-defining 1968 album Lady Soul. Written by Aretha’s sister Carolyn Franklin, “Ain’t No Way” is a smoldering and heartbreaking ballad. It’s a quintessential example of soul music. Though Aretha performs it sparsely these days, the song lives on. Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston & Mary J. Blige, Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, Amber Riley on Glee, and even Demi Lovato all covered the classic ballad at one time or another. However, after careful examination of the song’s lyrics, the song may not be the woman-to-man ballad it appears to be when Aretha sings it.
Carolyn Franklin’s career as a singer never truly flourished. Aretha’s baby sister by 2 years, she signed to RCA Records and released 5 albums during her singing career. She almost recorded Curtis Mayfield’s supreme Aretha album Sparkle, but Aretha won favor there and recorded the album instead.
All that aside, Carolyn was an amazingly gifted songwriter. “Ain’t No Way” may be the greatest example of this gift. She worked closely with Aretha over the years as a background singer, arranger, and of course as a songwriter. Among Aretha’s Atlantic Records discography, Carolyn wrote a number of songs for Aretha beyond “Ain’t No Way” including “Angel“, “Without Love“, and “Pullin“. Carolyn and Aretha collaborated on “Save Me” and “Baby, Baby, Baby“. She also worked with Aretha on the revolutionary arrangement of “Respect” which included the addition of the iconic “sock it to me” lines.
Without this becoming a gossip circus, it’s Carolyn’s personal life that led me to this theory. In David Ritz’s controversial Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, Ritz casually mentions that Carolyn Franklin was a lesbian. Her sexuality is not a focus of the book, but it is mentioned on a few occasions, including by Aretha & Carolyn’s sister Erma. In remembering Carolyn, Erma said to Ritz “I consider her a great woman… She went her own way, lived her own life, and found freedom in her individuality. She had no shame about her sexual preference and spoke the unvarnished truth (Ritz, 378).”
It’s not a matter of gossip or earth-shattering revelation. Her sexuality was not spoken about at great length, nor a focal point of conversation. One has to be considerate of the times. Being a member of the LGBT community in the 60’s, 70’s, and even 80’s could be a perilous thing, especially in the church. Even more especially in the black church. It’s not hard to do the math: as the daughter of a preacher, the sister of Aretha Franklin, Carolyn’s sexuality was not something that needed to be a focus. However, based on what Erma said, Carolyn was not hiding, either.
Ain’t No Way
“Ain’t No Way” is the last stand in a hidden romance. It’s told from the perspective of a woman, but Carolyn’s subject is also a woman. The other woman in question is attached to a man, most likely by marriage. There’s a spark between the other woman and Carolyn. There’s love, yet there’s turmoil. For whatever reason, the other woman either can’t, or won’t, leave her man and embrace her sexuality. “Ain’t No Way” is Carolyn’s last stand. She can’t go on with their closeted, pseudo-romance. This is a call for the other woman to be honest, open, and be with Carolyn.
The first thing that stands out to me about “Ain’t No Way” is the opening line. Carolyn wants to love the other woman completely, but the other woman is still attached and Carolyn is unable to give her all openly:
“Ain’t no way, for me to love you, if you won’t let me.”
Then, she makes a subtle reference to what the Bible considers a relationship (between a man and a woman). The subtext here is that she’s not afraid to go against the grain:
“I know that a woman’s duty is to help and love a man, and that’s the way, it was planned.”
The bridge though, is where things really get blatant:
“Stop trying to be, someone you’re not!
For hard, cold, and cruel is a man who paid too much for what he got?
And if you need me, like you, say, say you do,
Oh then baby, baby, baby, don’t you know that I. Need. You!”
This is the ultimate call to openness and honestly. Carolyn is calling out the other woman for hiding her sexuality. Simultaneously she issues a warning: A man is not going to be kind when he finds out that the woman he holds close wants to only hold another woman, and not him. She completes the stanza with a final plea: if you need me like you say you do, imagine how much I need you! The triplet of “baby, baby, baby” may be a nod to this woman also being the subject of Carolyn and Aretha’s 1967 composition “Baby, Baby, Baby“. That song contains lyrics including “if loving you is so wrong, then I’m guilty of this crime”. We also know that this wasn’t an adlib. There is video footage of Carolyn teaching Aretha the song and using the triplet as she sings the lyrics to Aretha:
This was an era when the LGBT lifestyle was far from acceptable, especially in the black baptist church community. While Carolyn clearly wasn’t shy about her sexuality amongst family, writing an overtly LGBT heartbreak song in the 60’s wasn’t going far. It isn’t farfetched to imagine Carolyn pouring her soul into words, in such a genius manner that her superstar sister can turn them into a soul classic without anyone catching on for decades. Did Carolyn Franklin write “Ain’t No Way” in 1967 about a woman she loved who was in a relationship with a man? Carolyn Franklin passed away in 1988, so we’ll never know for sure. However, I believe that the proof is in the lyrics.
Listen to Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way” and judge for yourself: