Aretha Franklin had an often-combative approach to interviews, especially with Rolling Stone over the years. But she couldn’t have been more fun to talk to when she got on the phone in 2014 for our annual Playlist Issue, where musical icons spoke about the songs that meant the most to them. “I’m just giving you some of my favorites – you can’t cite all of them,” said Franklin. It was clear she hadn’t lost any enthusiasm for music – her playlist had songs ranging almost 60 years, from 1957 to 2013. She also raved about a recent birthday party at New York’s Ritz Hotel (“a fabulous night”), an appearance on CBS’ The Talk and a recent show at Detroit’s MotorCity Casino Hotel. “I had a ball,” she said, before her doorbell rang. “Just a minute, somebody’s at the door. Got a couple of chili dogs coming. It’s lunch time!” But then she kept talking. Here, in her own words, are Franklin’s favorite songs of all time. This is a far more extensive version of the piece that ran at the time.
1. “Happy” (Pharrell Williams, 2013)
“It’s a delightful little melody that almost anybody can sing. Sam Cooke said something about hit records: If people can sing along with you, it probably will be a hit record. I love Pharrell’s delivery of that song. It’s perfect.”
2. “A Wild Man Meets Jesus” (Rev. C.L. Franklin, 1968)
“This isn’t a song – it’s a sermon by my dad. Jesus is on the beach. And he walks into someone that immediately knows [Jesus] is superior and supreme to him, without any communication, any words, or anything. That’s just what I love about that. And it just underscores a supreme being. I would prefer not to go into it any more than that, but for anyone who’s interested, they can certainly pick up the sermon and listen to it and enjoy it.”
3. “Respect” (Aretha Franklin, 1967)
“What can I say about this one? Well, I just love it. Of course that became a mantra for the civil rights movement. ‘Respect’ is just basic to everyone: everybody wants it. Even small children want respect. They don’t know that they want it, but they want respect. They let you know when they need something, and when they do, it’s a little respect. Everybody wants and needs respect. It’s basic to mankind. Perhaps what people could not say, the record said it for them.
“I remember recording it with the Memphis Horns down in Muscle Shoals. Great session, great players. I had no idea it would become the hit it became. No idea. My sister Caroline and I got together for the backup vocals. And during that time, in Detroit, there was a cliché called ‘sock it to me,’ and I decided to put that in the background: ‘sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me.’ There was nothing sexual about that. It’s like if you gave me a high five.
“I don’t think I was a catalyst for the women’s movement. As far as I know, that was Gloria Steinem’s role. But if I were, so much the better. Women did, and still do, need equal rights. We’re doing the same job, we expect the same pay, and the same respect.
“I never get tired of singing it. I really love it. And I find new ways to just keep it fresh for me, without changing exactly what it is people heard on the record.”
4. Medley: “Victory Is Mine,” “I Need Thee,” “Shine On Me” (Dorothy Norwood, multiple years)
“Dorothy Norwood came from the gospel group the Caravans. She’s one of the great gospel luminaries who could just bring a song to life. She sang these songs with such great, passionate gospel fervor.
“What does it take to deliver a proper gospel medley? “I would tell them maybe this year, or some time in the spring, come to my class, and they can learn all. I’m going to be doing some teaching somewhere here in the Detroit area. And I expect probably to do something from Carnegie Hall, a master class from Carnegie Hall. And I’d love to do that.” [Editors note: this plan never came to fruition]
5. “MacArthur Park” (The Four Tops, 1969)
“You didn’t hear Levi Stubbs sing this kind of song a lot. But when he did, he would make it his own. And really classic. The Tops just had super harmony. It was a sound unlike any other. And they were fabulous performers. They didn’t do a lot of choreography. They had one basic, simple move, that really looked good, and was very classy, in my opinion. But they were very classy gentlemen. Very classy men.”
6. “Same Ole Love” (Anita Baker, 1986)
“It reminds me of a place called the Arcadia, a roller rink that used to be really, really big when I was coming up. And I would live in the roller rink. I was there on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. They had ladies only, couples only, men only, trios, different variations of people out on the floor. It was so much fun.”
7. “In the Midnight Hour” (Wilson Pickett, 1965)
“Love it, love it, love it. Wilson Pickett was one of the greatest R&B vocalists of our time. Of course, being a label mate, I heard all of his music. He could sing off the melody, but it was still on. He would go into what you call a ‘squall,’ a scream that might not be in the key of the song, but it worked. He did that on ‘In the Midnight Hour.’ Now, how much are you going to pay me for these trade secrets? How ‘bout ten cover issues?”
8. “You Send Me” (Sam Cooke, 1957)
“That song came out in 1967, but I don’t care when you it it, it still doesn’t sound dated. It’s always current. You just can’t beat it.
All singers aspired to be Sam. He was a beautiful man. Very charming, engaging – a great artist with a whole lotta personality. It was thrilling for me – and every other woman – to be in the room with him.
When I first heard ‘You Send Me,’ I was driving down South, traveling with my dad, doing services in various city auditoriums and arenas [Franklin would have been about 15]. My sister Erma and I were in the car, and when that came on the radio, we had to stop. It was pandemonium. We got out of the car, and we were just running around the car, screaming, ‘Sam was on! Sam was on! Sam is on the radio! Listen to this song!’ And we were just having one fit on the highway. We were just thrilled, because he had just left the gospel field. That was the first time hearing what he did after he leaving it. So it was super exciting for us.
Sam was what you call a singer’s singer. My dad used to tell me not to copy him, that I had a voice. He stopped that early on, and he was absolutely right. As a performer, he was very simplistic. He didn’t do a lot of running around on the stage, and because he knew he didn’t have to. He had a voice, and he didn’t have to do anything but stand in one place and wipe you out.”
9. “Pastime Paradise” (Stevie Wonder, 1976)
“From cut to cut, [1976’s Stevie Wonder] is one of the greatest LPs I’ve ever heard. I just asked my assistant to go out and buy that again for me. This song has a great melody, with a serious level of musicality. Stevie is a genius. He and I are great friends – Stevie’s the homeboy. And it’s always lovely to see him. He’s such an interesting conversationalist.”
10. “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” (Barry White, 1974)
“I loved the tone of Barry White’s voice. He certainly lived up to his moniker, ‘The Maestro.’ And he came from humble beginnings; he used to tell me how he’d walk from the Valley to L.A. looking for a job. That’s a good 30 miles, maybe! And he’d walk it daily. And the fact that he went from [that] to the success that he walked into was a great, great story. So, you know, when people say, ‘I’m looking for a job,’ and they tell you a few little things that they’re doing, I say, ‘You couldn’t be serious. You’re not really looking for a job. Barry White was looking for a job.’”