Narada Michael Walden - "Freeway of Love"

by Bruce Pollock

They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. Here, he speaks with Narada Michael Walden.

"Freeway Of Love"

Artist: Aretha Franklin
Writers: Narada Michael Walden/Jeff Cohen
Producer: Narada Michael Walden
Label: Arista
Year: 1985
Chart Position: #3 (US)
Multi-Grammy award winning singer, songwriter and producer, Narada Michael Walden started his career as a drummer with fusion giants John McLachlan and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He also played with Jeff Beck and Tommy Bolin. He came into his own as a producer in the mid-'80s, with a string of hits for a string of divas, including Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Grace Slick (with Starship), and Diana Ross. His biggest hit as a songwriter, "Freeway of Love," was the R&B Song of the Year for Aretha Franklin in 1985.
Narada Michael Walden:
"Freeway of Love" was the first single from Aretha Franklin's Who's Zooming Who album in 1985 and it shot right up to the top of the charts. It came out at the right time, which was Summertime. All the tops down on the cars, girls in bikinis; it's was on; it was everywhere.

The song was written for my own album about two years before that. I kind of got started on it but never recorded it. It wasn't until I started working on Aretha's record that my friend Preston Glass said, What about that song "Freeway of Love" for Aretha? So I dug it out of the vaults, looked at it, changed the lyrics around so it would be a little bit more for her, and I cut it at the same time I cut "How Will I Know" for Whitney Houston at Tarpan Studios in San Francisco.

The first thing Aretha and I did for the album was "Who's Zooming Who," because that came from a conversation I had with her. I tape recorded her phone call and I'm so glad I did because she talks so eloquent, beautiful, street, hip, and wise that I couldn't remember it all at the same time. So I asked her, what do you do at night to have fun? She said, 'Oh, I go out to night clubs. Maybe I see someone in the corner who looks kind of cool. He looks at me, I look at him, and it's like who's zooming who. But as soon as he thinks he's got me, the fish jumps off the hook.' Then she started laughing.

After I hung up the phone, I said that's kind of a cool concept for a song. So we started writing that. But after it was done she didn't really like the song. Clive Davis had to convince her to do it. I did that song first and then "Until You Say You Love Me." Her father had just passed away after being in a coma for a long time, so she was really delicate after not being in the studio for two years. I had to be gentle with her and massage her shoulders and be really really soft. So she did the first two songs, which were stellar, then I came back with "Freeway of Love." By that time we were working well together and it was all good and she sang the hell out of it. In fact, she had the whole thing memorized, even down to all the ad libs on the ending. Everything about the song was memorized. So I went, 'Damn, now I know why they call you the Queen of Soul.' When she comes in she's really well prepared.

The song peaked at #3 (#1 R&B), but anything up in that range of the charts where they hear your song every hour on the hour is the same thing. It's great to say you're #1, but there's no difference between #5 and #1, when you're hearing it every hour on the hour. After that, people who I'd never thought about would call. Great singers I'd always wanted to work with started reaching out. It's funny how things work when you hit the top ten, managers start reaching out. That's what happened. The phone started ringing with all kinds of people from all around the world.

What I learned from that experience is to never turn anybody down before I meet them. I may think I can't work so well with a certain artist, but then I meet the artist and I love them. I almost turned down working with Whitney Houston because I was busy cutting "Freeway of Love." I got a call from Arista and I said, First of all, I'm right in the middle of making this album for Aretha. I can't take my attention off that. But they said, You've got to make time for this girl because she's going to be incredible. So they sent me the demo on "How Will I Know." I said, the song's only half done, will it be okay if I mess with it? Eventually, the writers said it would be okay. So I rewrote it and cut it on the same session as "Freeway of Love." It didn't come out until December, but it was a monster hit. And it was all because when I met her, she was just mind-blowing. All that range and power and beauty and sex appeal coming at you with a kind of confidence you've never known before. I said, oh my Lord, you are really too much. She said, yeah, I know. After that a bunch of things came down the pike.
"How Will I Know" was written by George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam, who recorded as Boy Meets Girl (they had a hit with "Waiting For A Star To Fall"). When Clive Davis heard it, he wanted it for a new singer named Whitney Houston. George and Shannon reluctantly gave it up, but were thrilled to hear what Narada and Whitney did with their song. George told us: "They were recording Whitney Houston on 'How Will I Know' and they said, 'Guys, you've got to hear this.' They played it over the phone, and I swear, her voice, hearing the first take of 'How Will I Know' on the phone we knew we were on to something special, too."
I had so much in the next couple of years it was crazy. God blessed me. I always wanted to have my hits on the jukebox and the radio. Even when I was playing drums in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, we'd always eat at this little cafe in Queens and I'd throw my nickels and dimes and quarters into the little jukebox there and I'd imagine my songs coming out of that thing. I really prayed for it. There's nothing better than having your songs on the radio non-stop. Everywhere you go you're hearing that vibration. Music is a vibration of love, if you put love into it, it comes right back at you.

So I did "You're a Friend of Mine," with Clarence Clemons (who played saxophone on "Freeway of Love"). Then "We Don't Have to Take Our Clothes Off" with Jermaine Stewart was a Top 5 hit. After that was the Starship, with "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now," which was the first #1 hit for Diane Warren. I always dug that '60s thing with Grace Slick. She's a very outspoken women. We're all from the Bay Area, so it's like family. I actually played the drums when I laid the track out. I got Grace to come in, flipped it around so instead of the low part, she wound up singing the highest part. I gave her the highest part and she just killed it. That's when I realized it could be a smash. And when I got happy in the studio, she got happy.

Having a hit never surprises me. I don't mean to sound overconfident, but I feel like everything I work on is a #1. I put that kind of energy into it. I get chills and I get the feeling and I get the vibe, and then it's just a matter of whether the timing is right. From my side I'm always shooting for #1. If it doesn't happen, then it's just not the right divine timing.

Each artist I work with is different, but they all need so much love in the studio. They give so much, you have to give them a lot of love in return. The more love you give them the more love they pour into that microphone, like honey, like syrup on a pancake, like hot buttered soul. You rub their feet. You rub their neck. You give them teddy bears or flowers, You ask them how's your love life? You have to make a connection. Then when you're on the other side of the glass, you say, honey, maybe we have to bring the pitch up more, put more soul into it, put more heart into it. And they do. All of a sudden these diamonds start coming out, chunks of gold come flying out. Guys need that love too, but it's not the same.

When I got with Mariah Carey, bless her heart, she was so shy and so timid it took her a while to really adjust to hearing her voice. She was brilliant. She would sing the most staggering, knockout, stellar runs you'd ever imagine. But she'd say, to her it sounds rancid. I'd say, honey, it's absolutely magical. No, no, no, it's rancid. You had to find a way to let her calm down and live with it, so she'd come to her senses. Oh yeah, this is good. Maybe she'd want the tape flown to New York so she could do one punch in on one thing that really bugged her. Now you really wouldn't hear a difference, but it would make her feel better, that she gave it her best shot, which I understand.

On the other hand, Aretha and Whitney love almost everything they do. When they put their heart into it they love it. You have to convince them, maybe it could be a little bit better. They go, why? Aretha would say, I know, you want what's called a straight reading. I'll sing it a little more to the melody, which would need another take. Because you want another take just to make sure. Then she'll give you a straight reading and it's a little bit more like the melody, not too much, but at least you have another take to draw from when you're putting it together, so you appreciate it. But she was really satisfied with the first take, and frankly, when you get it back to listen to it, you go, damn, this is good. Same with Whitney. She did "How Will I Know" in one take. Maybe I'd fix one thing here and one thing there, but the majority of it is one take.

Sometimes you've got to be like Angelo Dundee, the great trainer for Muhammad Ali. If you want Muhammad to jab more you could say, hey champ, jab more. He'd go, who are you talking to? You've got to be like, hey champ, your jab was great today. Then he goes, it does look good, don't it? So then he's jabbing more, which is want you wanted. You've got to be roundabout sometimes, but that's okay. The ego and the spirit and the soul, all those things have to come together, so you have to make it where you can relax that person enough to be vulnerable. Because you want to make a record that'll last a hundred years.

Things finally started slowing down for me when you could download music for free. Companies weren't spending money on budgets anymore. Everybody was losing their jobs. Hip hop came on strong, but not when it first came out. Early on it was that Teddy Riley type of New Jack swing. When rap took over my phone stopped ringing as much, because ballads went out of style. So I slowed down my train. I went out with Jeff Beck a couple of years ago, playing drums, reconnecting with my beginnings playing live. I realized all over the world people want live music. They may not be buying CDs as much but they're sure showing up in clubs. And when you're clobbering with that funk and that sweat and passion, you're blowing people's minds. So that's what inspired me to go back in the studio and make more music.

Anyone who calls me now I'm open. Anyone who wants something beautiful I'm open for. I wrote my first symphony two years ago and performed it with Carlos Santana. I'm doing a big charity album with a lot of superstars, a We Are the World type of project to raise money for people in Africa, who always need it. Another project will be for America, because we need it in America too. I have my own new band now and two new albums called Thunder and Rising Sun, which is a remix of my early fusion music. We're doing live shows with that music. I've gone full circle. Go back to where you start from and re-inspire yourself. I feel as inspired now as I did when I was thirty years younger.

September 16, 2012
Narada's website is

More They're Playing My Song

Comments: 6

  • Scott O from Chapel Hill, NcGreat article about a great talent! Was fortunate to meet him in the mid 1980s in NYC. His drumming with Jeff Beck (check out Led Boots on Wired) and with Weather Report is still inspiring. Then, to think he produced those big hits with Aretha and Whitney?! Just amazing. Thank you, NMW!
  • Maureen Olzark from Dearborn, MiI wrote "Highway of Love" and played it at Folk City in Manhattan in 1981. Thanks, Micheal. Heard the censors demanded "highway" be changed to "freeway" due to drug implications. I was starving. Still am.
  • Deborah Richards from Richmond VirginiaI love this article! You are an awesome writer. Thank God for this gift.
  • Lezlie from Las VegasI just love, love, love Narada Michael. Thank GOD for giving him the gift of writing. He really made my day when he wrote Freeway of Love, what a testimony!!! Finally, this article has GOD all through it. Continue to be blessed Mr. Narada
  • Poetdannyqueen from Rhyttsville Md.Love all your work Brotha you got that and you always will
    Hyttsville Md.
  • Alysia from Yuma, AzI am a music teacher for K-6th, I am a piano player for a band too... and I am in love with this article! Thank you for sharing. I am going to use this as a talking point in my classes this week :)
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Sub Pop Founder Bruce Pavitt On How To Create A Music Scene

Sub Pop Founder Bruce Pavitt On How To Create A Music SceneSong Writing

With $50 and a glue stick, Bruce Pavitt created Sub Pop, a fanzine-turned-label that gave the world Nirvana and grunge. He explains how motivated individuals can shift culture.

Album Cover Inspirations

Album Cover InspirationsSong Writing

Some album art was at least "inspired" by others. A look at some very similar covers.

Millie Jackson

Millie JacksonSongwriter Interviews

Outrageously gifted and just plain outrageous, Millie is an R&B and Rap innovator.

History Of Rock

History Of RockSong Writing

An interview with Dr. John Covach, music professor at the University of Rochester whose free online courses have become wildly popular.

Chris Rea

Chris ReaSongwriter Interviews

It took him seven years to recover from his American hit "Fool (If You Think It's Over)," but Chris Rea became one of the top singer-songwriters in his native UK.

Dave Edmunds

Dave EdmundsSongwriter Interviews

A renowned guitarist and rock revivalist, Dave took "I Hear You Knocking" to the top of the UK charts and was the first to record Elvis Costello's "Girls Talk."