Curtis Mayfield wrote this for the soundtrack of the 1976 musical drama Sparkle. The film, starring Lonette McKee, Irene Cara, and Dwan Smith, followed an aspiring all-girl trio's struggle for fame in '60s Harlem. "Something He Can Feel" was part of the group's sexy nightclub act. Mayfield told Billboard the song was based on "how I thought a woman might feel when she was to love a man."
The actresses behind the Motown-inspired group, called Sister & the Sisters, expected their renditions to be featured on the soundtrack album, but Mayfield had someone else in mind. "I had written all these songs for the youngsters who were acting in Sparkle," he explained. "What is funny is how the depth of my writing made me think of Aretha." Franklin loved the songs and, backed by the Kitty Haywood Sisters, recorded them accompanied by Mayfield on guitar. The soundtrack peaked at #18 in America and the song was a #1 R&B hit.
Sparkle's success was a much-needed boost for Franklin, who hadn't released a Gold-certified (more than 500,000 units sold) album since 1972's Young, Gifted and Black. It also caused a rift between Franklin and her sister Carolyn, who sang on many of the singer's early hits, including "Ain't No Way," which Carolyn wrote. Struggling to carve out a solo career of her own since the late '60s, she wanted to sing the Sparkle songs, and in fact claimed Mayfield approached her first before Franklin stepped in. Upon the soundtrack's release, Carolyn's own album If You Want Me flopped and RCA dropped her from her contract. The sisters eventually made up, but Carolyn never recorded another album.
There were rumors the Queen of Soul clashed with Mayfield during their sessions. Franklin's brother, Cecil, who became her manager after her divorce from Ted White, cleared up the matter in the biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz. "It was perfectly harmonious in the study," he recalled. "Curtis may be mild-mannered but he's strong. These were his songs and arrangements and he knew how he wanted them sung. At Columbia and early at Atlantic, Aretha responded well to direction. But at this point, with so many hits under her belt, she was more assertive. When it came to 'Something He Can Feel' – the first single – they argued over how she riffed over the vamp at the end of the song. He wanted even more emotion than Ree was giving. She thought she had it nailed in a couple of takes. But somehow, in his gentle way, he got at least a half dozen more takes out of her. When the song shot to number one, he proved his case."
Although she was disappointed to lose the song to Franklin, Irene Cara went on to record the iconic theme songs to the movies Fame
(1980) and Flashdance
Despite initial negative reviews and poor sales, Sparkle became a cult classic and inspired a remake in 2012, starring Jordin Sparks, Carmen Ejogo and Whitney Houston in her last film role. The soundtrack retained a handful of Mayfield's songs, including "Something He Can Feel," with new music from R. Kelly. The remake's soundtrack peaked at #21 and topped the soundtrack chart.
The R&B girl group En Vogue had even greater success with their 1992 rendition, which peaked at #6 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B chart.