In a career that spanned more than five decades, Aretha Franklin showed off her unparalleled vocal talents in a huge variety of settings. Whether she was lighting up the Soul Train studio audience, singing for presidents or teaming up with the many stars she’d influenced, her legendary range, power and emotional resonance were always on glorious display. Here are 10 examples of her brilliance.
Aretha Franklin was 22 and already a proven hit maker by 1964. But it was still a few years before “Respect” and “Think” would position her as the Queen of Soul, and she was unafraid to explore jazzier and bluesier territory. It was around this time that the earliest known footage of Franklin performing live that’s currently available online was captured. She sang the jazzy “Runnin’ Out of Fools” on one television show (it’s not clear what program it was) and gave the song a show-stopping performance as she looked right into the camera and navigated the dramatically tune’s peaks and valleys with all the aplomb that would define her later career. The song, which was the only single from the album of the same name, was a moderate hit at the time, making it to Number 57 on the pop chart and Number 30 on the R&B chart.
Franklin’s version of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David–penned “I Say a Little Prayer” charged up the Hot 100 in 1968, one of six different Top 20 hits she scored in that year alone. She brought the single to The Cliff Richard Show two years later, bobbing in time to the rhythm as she rocketed through the track’s ecstatic declarations of devotion. During this period, the interplay between Franklin and her background singers was a key part of her performances, and the trio of auxiliary vocalists add frequent jolts of energy here, echoing Franklin or falling into chirping rounds of call and response. As the tooting horn section brings “I Say a Little Prayer” to a reverent close, Franklin lets a little shimmy creep into her shoulders.
“Rock Steady” is one of the most propulsive singles in Franklin’s catalog, so it was a natural fit for Soul Train, where the performer served primarily as a catalyst for wildly impressive dance moves from those in attendance. “Just move your hips with a feeling from side to side,” Franklin instructs, and everyone in the room falls into line. But scan the dancers near the stage, and you can see that the hips are just the start: Elbows and knees are jumping, fingers are snapping and one intrepid dancer, presumably inspired by drummer Bernard Purdie’s wicked beat, uncoils and leaps into the air.
Aretha Franklin performed in her hometown of Detroit in 1987 as her hit single “Jimmy Lee” was climbing the charts. She was joined onstage by none other than James Brown, and the two took turns roaring through a thwacking, full-throttle “Please, Please, Please.” Brown was also on stage when Franklin performed “Jimmy Lee,” which eventually develops into a muscular neo-Motown swing. But before the beat kicks in, Franklin attacks the stirring intro, letting out a ferocious growl. The crowd whoops and Brown smiles, looking on in admiration.
Before Bill Clinton was sworn into office, Franklin was one of many performers at the pre-inauguration celebration. For the event, she chose an especially soulful rendition of the Les Miserables showstopper “I Dreamed a Dream,” which she’d included on her What You See Is What You Sweat LP a couple of years earlier. It was a moving, memorable performance that was accompanied by a children’s choir and orchestra. When it was done, the Clintons were on their feet, and Bill, looking astonished, blew Aretha a kiss.
Franklin’s storied career spanned R&B, rock, funk, New Wave, neo-soul and house music, and on one night in 1998, she showed the world that there was very few summits that her explosive voice couldn’t reach. Luciano Pavarotti, popular music’s high-art ambassador and possibly the most beloved opera singer of the late 20th century had a sore throat and had to sit out his performance of “Nessun Dorma” at the 40th Annual Grammy Awards. He had made the aria from Puccini’s Turandot — at the time more than 70 years old — into his signature: After the U.K. made a Pavarotti recording of the piece into a soccer anthem (hitting Number Two on the charts), he performed it with the Three Tenors on all their hit live recordings and a TV special seen by more than 1.4 billion people worldwide. With a reported 20 minutes notice Aretha pulled pinch-hitter, fresh off performing the song at a MusiCares benefit honoring the tenor earlier in the week. Her performance imbued the Italian aria with decades of American soul and gospel.
The first edition of VH1’s annual Divas special featured Franklin alongside the impressive lineup of Mariah Carey, Gloria Estefan, Celine Dion, Shania Twain and Carole King.The concert was stacked with larger-than-life vocal moments from each singer, but the grand finale was a standout moment in pop and soul history. All of the aforementioned women stood beside each other to sing one of Franklin’s most memorable hits, “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.” Franklin kicked off the performance as a smiling King, who co-wrote the song with Gerry Goffin, stood beside her. Each of the other divas took turns singing a few lines of the song: Dion, Twain, Estefan, Carey then King riffed and soared next to a singer that directly inspired each one of them. Even better than the vocal showdown that takes place in the last minute of the song is Franklin’s continuous presence even through each diva’s moment. She casts a strong shadow, adding vocal run responses to each line sung by the other women.
Aretha Franklin will go down in history as the greatest of vocal interpreters, but that doesn’t mean she shied away from having a bit of cheeky fun while showing off her skills. In 2008, she surprised a D.C. audience by covering a bit of Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body,” a massive hit earlier that year. There are many great aspects of the live cover: the fact that it even happened, for starters, as well as how much fun both Franklin and her audience are having. As recognition of the pop hit sets in, the cheers and loving laughs at the sheer audaciousness of the moment fueled Franklin to give into the sexy camp even more. “As far as I’m concerned, what starts on the floor stays on the floor,” she jokingly told her fans.
Recent performances of vintage soul classics don’t often go viral, but Franklin is not a typical performer, and “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” is not a typical hit. Franklin delivered a thrilling, gospel-inflected version of the classic in 2015 to celebrate Carole King, who originally co-wrote the song. Her voice is as explosive as ever, a touch raspier than it once was but none the worse for it. After three minutes of vocal pyrotechnics, Franklin throws off her magnificent fur coat and hurls herself into another lung-busting hook. By the end of the song, President Obama has shed a single tear, and King is so overcome with joy that she punches the air.