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The 50 Greatest Aretha Franklin Songs

Essential moments from pop music’s greatest voice

aretha franklin in 1969

Aretha Franklin in 1969.

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“American history wells up when Aretha sings,” said no less an authority than President Barack Obama.

The vocal achievements of Aretha Franklin have informed much of modern soul, gospel, R&B, dance music and especially rock. Beyoncé considers Franklin’s voice “one of God’s blessings.” Said Mary J. Blige, “When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing.” Patti Labelle described Franklin simply as “the best singer in the world.”

Franklin’s powerful instrument can be heard across a recording career that spans nearly 60 years. On the Columbia sides of the early Sixties, she laid into standards like then-current stars Sinatra or Nat King Cole, rivaling her backing orchestras for sheer power. Her classic Sixties and Seventies sides soundtracked the Civil Rights Movement, an object lesson in how a singer can embody and define her time. As poet Nikki Giovanni wrote, Franklin “lifted her voice in question and complaint and why not and we’re going to and voiced the needs of a generation.”

From there, Franklin found homes across genres: not just a testament to the versatility of her music, but to how the world had been shaped by it. Early Eighties collaborations with Luther Vandross were a smooth slide into funk-pop and quiet storm, a mid-Eighties New Wave makeover made her an MTV star and a Eurythmics collaborator, hip-hop groups like EPMD and Gang Starr mined her funky Seventies work for beats, 1994’s “A Deeper Love” made her a chart-topping modern house diva, a collaboration with Lauryn Hill linked her neo-soul and by 2014 she gracefully covered Adele. Here’s just 50 essential songs from the greatest voice pop music has ever produced.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Jump to It” (1982)

The title track of Franklin’s 1982 LP paired her with Luther Vandross just as he was rocketing into position as one of the premier singer-songwriter/producers of the 1980s. Add her old background singer Cissy Houston to the mix along with bass ace Marcus Miller (a regular Vandross sideman who also spent time with Miles Davis) and the result is one of Franklin’s grooviest singles. She rips through a “shab-a-doo-da-dwee-da” ad-lib with enough force to make the Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson jealous, while Miller’s viscous bassline scoots the whole track forward. “I played the bassline with my bass guitar and then I’d get a synthesizer and I’d overdub the same thing, so you had two types of basses playing the same bassline at the same time,” he told the Red Bull Music Academy in 2015.

Franklin had decided to seek out Vandross after hearing his peerless rendition of “A House Is Not a Home” in 1981. “I was working on [a version of the same song] at home,” she said. “I said, ‘Aha, he beat you to the punch!’ … Coupled with the fact that there was a relatedness and a similarity in stylings, I said, ‘Why not [have him produce]? He obviously knows what he’s doing!'”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Try a Little Tenderness” (1962)

This reading of the Otis Redding signature pre-dates his by four years and Sam Cooke’s version (from his beloved At the Copa) by two. There’s little doubt both men had taken note of Aretha Franklin’s smoldering version. The recording recalls the Platters’ 1958 Number One hit version of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” in an arrangement by Robert Mersey, “who surrounded me with the finest musicians in the city,” Franklin told biographer David Ritz. “His charts were extremely lush, and I liked that.” Aretha sang it in her first TV appearance, on the teen-targeted American Bandstand. It wasn’t a hit, but she was on her way.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Rolling in the Deep (The Aretha Version)” (2014)

On Franklin’s 41st and final album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, the legend returned for one last lesson to the current generation of vocal powerhouses. Franklin covered everyone from the Supremes to Alicia Keys on her 2014 LP, but it was her take on Adele’s star-making hit “Rolling in the Deep” that captured everyone’s attention, turning into a Number One Dance hit and letting the world know that her reign wasn’t over. Franklin had nothing but love for the younger diva: “She’s a really good writer with very heavy, deep lyrics,” she told Rolling Stone. “She’s got something to say and says it a little differently than the norm.” And while “Deep” was Adele’s first Number One hit, it was special for Franklin too: her 100th single to chart on the Billboard R&B charts.  

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Spanish Harlem” (1971)

A transfixing example of the way Aretha could refurbish a familiar song, “Spanish Harlem” was a romantic rumba in the hands of Ben E. King, who made it a huge hit in 1961. Opening with a blaxploitation-flick-style riff and a subtle lyrical rewrite (“There is a rose in Spanish Harlem” becomes “There’s a rose in black at Spanish Harlem”), Aretha modernizes it for the civil rights era. In her hands (and those of Dr. John, who played piano on the session), you can sense the heat pounding on the Harlem sidewalk in ways the song’s writers – the unusual combo of Phil Spector and Jerry Leiber – may have intended.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“A Rose Is Still a Rose” (1998)

Aretha Franklin demonstrated her remarkable mutability on this Lauryn Hill-penned track. Thirty-eight years after Franklin released her first Columbia single, she put the ascendant wave of neo-soul singers on notice and scored a Top 30 hit. Seemingly unperturbed by the vicious, of-the-moment rap beat constructed by Hill, Franklin scats coolly, whizzes through the full extent of her vocal range and even displays a grasp of recent slang, singing about a woman who is out “tossin’ and flossin’.” The single debuted at Number 43 on the Hot 100, high enough that Clive Davis telephoned Franklin to share the good news. “I was in the kitchen when he called,” she remembered, according to Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul. “What I sang at the Grammys [filling in for opera singer Luciano Pavarotti] was nothing compared to the high note I hit when he told me where my song was coming in.”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“People Get Ready” (1968)

Countless musicians have covered what may be Curtis Mayfield’s most famous song, but Aretha Franklin imbued it with fresh gospel intensity. Mayfield wrote it in 1964 as homage to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech as well as other pivotal events from the civil rights era – his 1965 recording with the Impressions was a key moment in the rise of social consciousness in soul music. Recorded as an album cut for Lady Soul – and later becoming part of her concert repertoire – Franklin’s version opens with a fanfare not present in the original. “I believe … I believe,” she and her backing group the Sweet Inspirations sing. Then she closes with an repeated affirmation, “You just thank the Lord!” as her voice ascends in scale.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“First Snow in Kokomo” (1972)

Almost unique in Franklin’s oeuvre for its lack of a groove, this touchingly personal original from Young, Gifted and Black describes an uncharacteristically relaxed visit to longtime consort Ken Cunningham’s Indiana hometown. The mood is calm thanks largely to Donny Hathaway’s subtle organ part, and Franklin’s optimism is contagious as she observes the scene. “I was feeling right up to it,” she sings. “Could it be done? Yes, I could do it.” In its bottom half, Aretha imagines the fates of the visitors she sees in this domestic fantasy so emotionally distant from her own life. “In the end,” her sister Carolyn surmised, “it was something of a fairy tale.”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” (1985)

This simmering flirtation chronicle from the 1985 smash album of the same name came out of a phone call between Franklin and producer Narada Michael Walden. “I asked her, ‘Do you go out at night? What do you do?’ because we hadn’t really met each other,” Walden told the sound engineering magazine Mix in 2006. “She said, ‘Oh, sometimes I go out, go to a club, then I see somebody I like, and he sees me and I see him. It’s like, Who’s zoomin’ who?'” Although the song’s lyrics arose from a friendly chat, Franklin was initially reluctant to record it. “It was the first recording she had done since her father passed away a few years earlier, so she was just getting back in the studio,” recalled Walden. “And it was so beautiful just to be there – at United Sound in Detroit ­– with her.” The song eventually reached the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the Hot Dance Club Play chart despite not having a music video.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Soul Serenade” (1967)

The majority of the songs on Franklin’s first Atlantic album were either selected by Franklin and her then-husband Ted White, or written by Franklin herself. But one that Jerry Wexler brought in was “Soul Serenade,” written by Luther Dixon and Atlantic’s on-call sax doctor, King Curtis — “a lean and mean tenor man who could go both ways in terms of jazz and R&B,” according to Wexler. “Soul Serenade” had been a Top Five R&B hit for Curtis in 1964, and he played on the I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You sessions, giving a player best known for honking and shouting a chance to flaunt his fluid lyricism over breezy guitar. Cut on February 15, 1967, Franklin’s version shifted the action to the interplay between her piano and Spooner Oldham’s electric keyboard, beginning with lounge-jazz that tied back to her recordings for Columbia and then unfolding an easy-rolling take on soul power. “I want to be free to fly away,” she sang, making this – like so much of the album – a declaration of her intentions. A year later, at Wexler’s urging, Curtis became Franklin’s musical director for her live shows, a role he served until his death in 1971.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“See Saw” (1968)

In 1967, Franklin latched onto singer-songwriter Don Covay’s “Chain of Fools” when she heard him play it for Otis Redding as a demo. It peaked at Number Two in January of 1968, and a few months later when Franklin was in Atlantic’s New York studio she tried her hand at another Covay tune, “See Saw,” which Covay himself had made a Top Five R&B hit in 1965. Her version goosed the backbeat and highlighted a tight horn section that included King Curtis, David “Fathead” Newman and Pepper Adams. It was the rare Franklin cover that didn’t re-invent the song, but her vocal – shifting from raw need to purring satisfaction to towering strength – made it definitive. It was one of the many songs on 1968’s Aretha Now that reflected her deteriorating relationship with husband Ted White. “Sometimes you love me, like a good man oughta,” she sang. “Sometimes you hurt me so bad, my tears run like water.”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business)” (1967)

A slow-building love song that showcases Franklin’s seriously romantic side, “Dr. Feelgood” balances fiery passion with cool contentment, a song about of being head over heels for a man who, as Franklin sings, “takes me off alla my pains and my ills.” “It’s one of her most impassioned vocals by far,” Jerry Wexler told Matt Dobkin, author of I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You: Aretha Franklin, Respect, and the Making of a Soul Music Masterpiece. The song’s framework is simple – “basically nothing more than a 12-bar blues,” Luther Vandross told David Ritz, author of Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. “But the lyrics! And her piano playing! It’s like something my mama’s mama listened to – one of those original ladies, like Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey. I believe it’s one of the greatest blues ever written.”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1986)

With guitar help from two of the Rolling Stones themselves – Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood – and a delivery that channels her tough rocker side, Franklin updated the group’s 1968 classic for the 1986 Whoopi Goldberg film of the same name. According to Clive Davis, Richards, the song’s producer, insisted Franklin play piano like she did on many of her Sixties sides. “Keith understood what I had learned years before,” said Jerry Wexler in Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, “when Aretha is anchored at the keyboard, it’s a stronger and more organic overall performance.” The song became the lead single from her 1986 LP Aretha, which features a cover by Andy Warhol, his final work before his death in 1987. 

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Good to Me As I Am to You (1968)

This deep cut from 1968’s Lady Soul offers a dream pairing of Aretha Franklin and Eric Clapton, the Cream guitarist’s first guest studio appearance for a U.S. artist. “I told Jerry [Wexler] I was going to bring Clapton in and maybe he’d play,” wrote Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun in his 2001 autobiography, What I’d Say: The Atlantic Story. Pointing out the “weird” hippie outfits Clapton favored, Ertegun continued, “Even before I could introduce him to Aretha, she looked at him and went into this roaring bout of laughter. So I said, ‘Well, when he starts playing, you’re not going to laugh.'” Clapton’s “guitar obbligato” resulted in a medley of strutting chords and rhythmic notes. As for Franklin, her brassy, impassioned vocal rings in time to Clapton’s playing, making this a key cataclysm of sweet soul and Sixties blues psychedelia.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Day Dreaming” (1972)

Donny Hathaway’s ethereal electric piano introduces this heavenly pop track from Young, Gifted and Black, arguably Aretha Franklin’s most personal album. “That hit song was about me,” recalled Temptations singer Dennis Edwards, Aretha’s longtime lover, in David Ritz’s Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. Its writer, however, told Soul Train host Don Cornelius the tune was “nothing that I particularly want to talk about.” 

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Wholy Holy” (1972)

The first hymn Aretha Franklin sang at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in January 1972 was a song from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, released less than a year earlier. The only track from the resulting album to chart, “Wholy Holy,” is a gospel “Come Together” that Aretha sanctified with her piano playing and five-part harmonizing. Aretha could likely identify easily with Gaye’s song. He was the child of a preacher, like her, and often confused sacred and profane himself. As James Cleveland, her musical collaborator, told Franklin biographer David Ritz, “It’s all God’s music and it’s all good.”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

Aretha Franklin and George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” (1987)

Franklin’s sole Number One single in the U.K. was the result of the then-freshly-solo George Michael’s drive to team up with his favorite soul singers. The admiration, it turned out, was mutual. “The first time I heard George was with Wham!, and I liked it then,” Franklin told Entertainment Weekly shortly after Michael’s death in December 2016. “He had a very unique sound, very different from anything that was out there.” The boisterous duet that resulted from their meeting uses river-deep, mountain-high metaphors as a way to allow Franklin and Michael to show off their impressive instruments and deeply felt emotionalism, while Narada Michael Walden’s production adds a touch of late-Eighties glitter. “It reminded me of [working with producer] Jerry Wexler,” Franklin recalled to EW. “We’d go in the studio and cut songs. If we were happy with what we recorded, Jerry would say, ‘Let’s wait until tomorrow. If we feel the same way that we do now, maybe we have a hit.’ ‘I Knew You Were Waiting’ had that. Musically, it does not grow old.”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“I Say a Little Prayer” (1968)

Dionne Warwick’s original version of this Bacharach-David classic was barely eight months old and still on the radio when Franklin cut her cover – “a magic bit of luck,” according to Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler, who remembered in his autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues, that it started with Franklin and her back-up singers the Sweet Inspirations goofing around with the song in the control room during a 1968 session for Aretha Now. Wexler was against covering a tune still near its peak; everyone else in the studio (including Warwick’s cousin, Cissy Houston, one of the Sweet Inspirations) was for it. With Franklin’s piano rolling the song’s bossa rhythm towards gospel and Muscle Shoals rhythm pro Roger Hawkins splitting the difference between a soul backbeat and show drumming accents, they knocked it out in one take. It hit the pop Top 10 in October. Even Bacharach admitted Franklin took the song to “a far deeper place. “Hers is the definitive version,” he told David Ritz. 

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Freeway of Love” (1985)

The lead single from Franklin’s mid-Eighties smash Who’s Zoomin’ Who? is an exuberant electro-soul jam that honors the combined power of the open road, the pink Cadillac and Aretha Franklin’s inimitable voice. Zoomin’ was produced by Narada Michael Walden, who was brought in to orchestrate the album by Arista bigwig Clive Davis. “I had written ‘Freeway of Love’ for myself,” Walden told Billboard in 2003. “But I flipped it and rewrote the lyrics for her. However, all those little [ad-libs] in that song, like ‘better than ever street,’ were things she worked up off the top of her head.” Franklin’s lusty vocal and Clarence Clemons’ exuberant sax solo combined for pop-soul gold, with the song reaching Number Three on the Hot 100 and snagging her a Best Female R&B Vocal Performance Grammy for the 10th time. “I like the ‘up’ these days, most definitely. Let’s keep it positive. ‘Up’ is it,” she told the Australian Sunday Mail, right after her interviewer noticed a tiny pink Cadillac on her mantle – a gift, she noted, from Walden. (Franklin, for what it’s worth, drove a white station wagon at the time.)  

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Are You Sure” (1961)

Franklin’s secular recording career began after she signed to Columbia Records via A&R legend John Hammond, turning down an offer from Motown, then just a fledgling local imprint. (“I wanted to be with a fabulous worldwide label, and I’m not in the least sorry,” she’d say later.) Hammond’s forte at the time was jazz, which showed on Aretha With the Ray Bryant Combo, her 1961 Columbia debut. Though still a teen, her astonishing voice is fully formed, lighting up an occasionally dubious selection of songs. “Are You Sure” from the Broadway hit The Unsinkable Molly Brown is an unlikely gem. Arranged as a sort of folk-jazz mambo with a nod to Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” Aretha hones in on the song’s spiritual theme, taking it to church and then some. 

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby)” (1971)

On the B-side to Young, Gifted and Black’s “Rock Steady,” Franklin found a vehicle for her vulnerable side. Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin and Jerry Wexler had already produced the song three years earlier for Lulu, for whom it was a Top 30 success. On the track written by Lulu’s fellow Glaswegian and former Stoics member Jim Doris, Aretha pleads emotional insanity with wailing soulful intensity. 

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” (1974)

Stevie Wonder co-wrote, recorded and then shelved a version of this charmingly pushy love song in the mid Sixties. Franklin did more than revive it; she turned a leftover into one of her most transcendent singles. Working with producer Jerry Wexler and producer-arranger Arif Mardin, Aretha bore down on the craft of record-making for this song and its accompanying album, Let Me in Your Life. “Everything we’d done with her has always been woodshedding in the studio with just the rhythm section there,” Wexler said, “but these were the first arranged sessions we’d done with her.” Thanks to studio pros like drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie and guitarist Hugh McCracken, along with Franklin’s own piano, “Until You Come Back to Me” achieves an effortless glide, Aretha’s vocal a purr. In her hands, romantic obsession never felt so warm and inviting.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“A Deeper Love” (1994)

Aretha Franklin’s voice was made for house music, which has always prized full-throated belters and nurtured a close connection with the fervor of gospel. “A Deeper Love,” which appeared on the Sister Act 2 soundtrack, is a cover of a single by C+C Music Factory’s Clivillés & Cole, who sent the song to Number One on the Dance charts in 1992. Franklin doesn’t mess with a good thing, but she brings a lifetime of church training to her vocal. Stretching words like taffy, she adds at least three syllables to “survive,” and before the final hook she sings the word “easy” for nearly seven seconds. “A Deeper Love” is as majestic as it is danceable, and it burned through the clubs, putting Franklin back on the top of the Dance charts for the first time since 1985. 

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Skylark” (1963)

In an arrangement echoing the style of then-current Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra recordings, wrapped in strings and a choir of background singers, Aretha torches this torch standard by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, who penned the lovesick lyrics for his lover, Judy Garland. But Franklin makes it her own: The note she hits near the two-minute-mark probably knocked the engineer off their chair. As biographer David Ritz put it, “one of the great jewels of her career.”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“One Step Ahead” (1965)

As Aretha Franklin neared the end of her contract with Columbia Records, it was clear that the label didn’t know what to do with a generation’s greatest soul singer. “CBS didn’t want her to go, but they could not reverse themselves to help her become a star,” said producer and arranger Clyde Otis in Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul. “So they said to me, ‘Well, look – cut as much stuff on her as you can,’ because they felt they might lose her.” Otis ended up recording several albums worth of material with Franklin, but “One Step Ahead” still fell through the cracks. It’s unclear why this glittery, incandescent ballad in the mode of Brook Benton didn’t get a bigger push, despite reaching Number 18 on the Billboard R&B charts. (Franklin has called her Columbia 45s “turntable hits,” songs that got radio airplay but little sales.) It would take future generations to appreciate it: Mos Def used it for his 1999 hit “Ms. Fat Booty,” and it underscored a key scene in the 2016 Academy Award-winning film Moonlight

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Call Me” (1970)

October 3rd, 1969 found Franklin switching things up, recording not in New York but at Miami’s Criteria Studios. “She was in a pissy mood,” Jerry Wexler told Franklin biographer David Ritz. The sessions were charged with super power: Backed by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, with Duane Allman sitting in on guitar, she cut so many classics that “Pullin'” and “Try Matty’s” had to be shelved for her next album, Spirit in the Dark. The rest went on This Girl’s In Love With You, which featured songs by Lennon and McCartney, Bacharach and David, and one Franklin original: “Call Me.” Supposedly written after Franklin heard a couple part by saying “I love you, call me,” the basic track centered around some soul-jazz piano from Franklin, sweetened by an Arif Mardin string arrangement that soared but never intruded. “It was sweet and heartfelt and filled with longing,” said Wexler. Backed by Franklin’s version of “Son of a Preacher Man,” it was a Number 13 pop hit and went to Number One on the R&B chart.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“The House That Jack Built” (1968)

This track tells the story of a house that’s no longer a home once it’s been emptied of the love that built it. Franklin – struggling with her relationship with abusive husband Ted White and singing about “a dream that I thought was love” – inverted the pained lyrics with vocals that refused to be held down by loss. Listen to her swoop through the phrase “What’s the use of crying,” before she shouts the chorus with an undercurrent of defiance: “I got the house, I got the car, I got the rug and I got the rack – but I ain’t got Jack!” Twenty five years after the April 17, 1968 session that yielded this song, Jerry Wexler recalled it in his autobiography: “The groove still chills my blood.” 

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Lean On Me” (1971)

Though “Lean On Me” shares its title with Bill Withers’ hit, this song, the 1971 B-side to “Spanish Harlem,” was written by Van McCoy and Joe Cobb, first recorded by Vivian Reed and later tackled by Melba Moore. Franklin’s version was cut at Criteria Studios in Miami. “It was a great studio,” explained Jerry Wexler in Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. “She sang the shit out of everything.” Here, Franklin is taunting the listener from the opening notes: The song begins with four repetitions of a low riff on the piano, a stuttering series of false starts, as if she can’t remember how, or when, to commence singing. This is a ruse, of course, and seconds later, she casually sends the phrase “let me walk” skimming over the piano, making “walk” quiver for several seconds and turning the claustrophobic opening into a joke. This device resurfaces throughout the song to great effect — as Franklin twirls and loops through the word “dream,” the band bears down on another short phrase four consecutive times — and the singer’s uncontainable energy is reinforced by clobbering drum fills.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Angel” (1973)

Franklin’s spotty 1973 collaboration with Quincy Jones, Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky), wasn’t the dawn of a new Aretha era that many hoped it would be, but it did produce one of the most sublime singles she made during this period. Co-written by her sister Carolyn (who died of cancer in 1988) and Sonny Saunders, “Angel” was a mournful cry: “Too long have I loved so unattached within/So much that I know that I need somebody,” Aretha pined, almost meditatively at first. With its purring strings and wispy sax solo, Jones’ arrangement coddles and comforts her, but Aretha doesn’t stay down: By the end of the song, she’s wailing and back in command, vocally blowing away her blues. “Everyone knew ‘Angel’ was a hit,” recalled Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler, and it was, climbing to Number One on the R&B chart and cracking the Top 20 on Pop.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“A Change Is Gonna Come” (1967)

Franklin’s cover of Sam Cooke’s 1964 Civil Rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” is a simmering, lightly arranged version that features knotty keyboards and Franklin’s beautifully calibrated vocal. She begins with a salute to her old friend Cooke (they’d met in the early Fifties while at church), noting how the song she’s about to perform “touched [her] heart.” “He was one of the greatest male singers of all time,” Franklin told NPR in 2007. “You put him in the category with Caruso and Pavarotti and these other great names. Sam Cooke, bar none, was one of the greatest singers of all time.” Franklin’s warm yet resolute vocal on “Change” calls back to her gospel training, and it has a twist right at the end: “I believe a change has come,” she asserts, right before the song fades out and her triumphant Atlantic debut I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You comes to a close.  

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Night Life” (1967)

Willie Nelson wrote “Night Life” in 1960 as a young Texas songwriter trying to crack the music business. Ray Price turned it into a hit in 1963; and Doris Day, Wanda Jackson and Marvin Gaye had covered it before Aretha Franklin’s version was included on 1967’s Aretha Arrives. Pivoting off Nelson’s lyric “Listen to the blues, they’re playing,” Franklin remakes the song as a languid, sensuous number that evokes empty beer bottles at a smoke-filled juke joint. Jimmy Johnson and Joe South’s bluesy guitar picking underlines her voice as she admits in wailing yet purposeful notes, “I tell ya that the night life sure ain’t no good life/But do ya know that it’s my life?”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Eleanor Rigby” (1969)

The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” was a left-field choice on 1970’s This Girl’s In Love With You. The album’s other cover songs leaned towards soul music (“Son of a Preacher Man,” “The Dark End of the Street”), but here was a piece of flowery, baroque chamber pop. If deep soul elements weren’t present in the original, she would just remake the song with those crucial components added. No strings here; instead, a driving backbeat, call-and-response between Franklin and her backing vocalists, playful electric keyboard and hard, scrubbing rhythm guitar. She sang from the first person — “I’m Eleanor Rigby, I picked up the rice in the church where the wedding’s had been” — but her scalding vocal appears untouched by the loneliness that afflicted one of the Beatles’ most famous characters. 

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Something He Can Feel” (1976)

Hooking Franklin up with Curtis Mayfield during his post-Super Fly prime was a promising idea, and the result – the soundtrack to the 1976 movie Sparkle – more than lived up to expectations. Aretha luxuriated in Mayfield’s rich, proto-disco arrangements, and he was able to unleash one of pop’s most ferocious singers on songs that would have sounded trivial in other hands. The process wasn’t always easy; when cutting “Something He Can Feel,” Aretha felt she’d sung enough, but the soft-spoken Mayfield egged her on. “In his gentle way he got at least a half dozen more takes out of her,” said her brother Cecil. As Aretha herself later said, “He was the producer, so I let him produce.” A vampy, fairly rigid strut, “Something He Can Feel” still gave Aretha plenty of room to belt and preach. En Vogue cracked the Top 10 with a 1992 cover and the song re-appeared in the 2012 Sparkle remake.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“United Together” (1980)

“United Together” was a crucial track for Aretha Franklin. Not only was it her first single of the 1980s, an era when new forms of R&B were climbing the charts, but her first single on new label Arista, the organization helmed by formidable executive and pop-ballad-maestro Clive Davis. Franklin went into the studio with producer/writer Chuck Jackson, who had previously enjoyed success co-producing Natalie Cole, and the two put together a heaving, happily-ever-after ballad, complete with strings, muted brass and a massive, immensely satisfying key change that sends Franklin into a full-blown wail. Franklin’s mesmerizing histrionics push her backing vocalists to excel – at the 3:38 mark, they almost steal the track with three wondrous, breathy exhales. In Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul, the singer summed up her connection with Jackson: “It all worked out like peaches and cream!”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Young, Gifted and Black” (1972)

The title track of Aretha’s twentieth studio album probably wouldn’t have been recorded if co-producer Jerry Wexler had gotten his way. He felt that Nina Simone, who’d written the black pride anthem in 1969 with bandleader Weldon Irvine, had already nailed it. Fortunately, Franklin sought a second opinion. “I think you’ll crush it, Ree,” said Billy Preston, who plays organ on the track, when asked. “I think you’ll make them forget about Nina.” 

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin, “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” (1985)

Clive Davis’ desire to “contemporize” Franklin for her Eighties revival led to the then-president of Arista Records introducing her to pop stars of the time – including Eurythmics, the art-synth duo whose spiky yet soul-tinged tracks had been ruling radio and MTV. But Eurythmics vocalist Annie Lennox, who served as Franklin’s foil on this clamorous proto-girl-power anthem, needed some introductions of her own. “I have to admit that before I was introduced to Aretha Franklin – it’s very embarrassing to say this – I hadn’t really listened to any of her records,” Lennox confessed to the British music magazine Q in 1987. “A few people said, ‘Annie Lennox sounds like Aretha Franklin,’ so I thought, ‘What does she sound like? I’d better listen to her.’ When I sang with her, I realized I don’t sound anything like Aretha Franklin. She’s unique, she has her own sound and she’s incredibly flexible as a singer.” The gospel-tinged celebration of female independence, which was produced by Lennox’s musical partner Dave Stewart and which features playing by Heartbreakers Stan Lynch, Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, has since been covered by the Spice Girls and Lisa Simpson.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” (1968)

Aretha Franklin’s and her then-husband Ted White co-wrote her fifth Gold single, the B-side opener to her classic Lady Soul. She was so hot at the time that the 45 version of “Since You’ve Been Gone” reportedly sold 450,000 copies in a week. Eager to keep her happy, Atlantic Records renegotiated a bigger contract just over a year after she signed with the label in 1966. The track itself is peppery, full of piping horns and hot rhythm, and gathers much of its power from a Muscle Shoals-centered unit that included Bobby Womack on guitar. Franklin cries out the words until they feel like a blur while the Sweet Inspirations shout and support in the background. “Take me back, consider me please!” she sings in an incandescent wail. Who could refuse?

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Spirit in the Dark” (1970)

The Franklin-composed title track of her 19th studio album starts out comfortably, quickly attains a steady soul-rock groove and then launches into a gospel rave-up right about the time most R&B singles would have put out the “closed” sign. Quoting Rufus Thomas’ “Little Sally Walker,” Franklin clarifies her R&B hit’s powerful amalgam of secular and sacred, a place where black power meets old time religion. “She was radiant,” recalled co-producer Jerry Wexler of the Miami session that featured his Dixie Flyers house band and backing singers the Sweet Inspirations. “She was off the sauce and on the one.”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Mary, Don’t You Weep” (1972)

The intense, atmosphere-establishing old-school gospel classic that kicks off Amazing Grace takes Caravans lead singer Inez Andrews’ awesome 1958 arrangement as its inspiration. First recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1915, “Mary, Don’t You Weep” combines the drowning of Pharaoh’s army – a story of exile, slavery and liberation – with a family narrative about faith and resurrection. When its producers wanted to rearrange the track’s verses for a quicker build, bassist Claude Rainey recalled Aretha’s response: “‘Can you sing this song? I’ve been singing this song all my life. So this is the way I’m singing this song. I don’t tell you how to sell records or push buttons. Don’t tell me how to sing the song.” They did it anyway.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Drown in My Own Tears” (1967)

“Respect” is a tough act to follow. But the second track on her 1967 Atlantic debut LP finds Aretha as wretchedly miserable as its predecessor is powerful and uplifting. Written by Henry Glover, and frequently covered, “Drown in My Own Tears” was a 1956 success for Ray Charles, using female singers on a track for the first time. Where Charles plumbed its soulful miseries, Franklin – who recorded it the same days as “Respect” and “A Change Is Gonna Come” – gives it a pronounced gospel flavor, particularly when it sounds like she’s gasping for oxygen while screaming out the word ‘drown.’

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“The Weight” (1969)

Franklin wasn’t initially sold on covering the Band’s instant classic. “Aretha heard it and said she had no idea what the lyrics meant,” Atlantic Records boss Jerry Wexler remembered in David Ritz’s biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. “I said I didn’t know either, but that the song had a vicious groove and she could kill it.” 

“The Weight” turned into a summit of sorts: Franklin battled Duane Allman – on lead slide guitar – and the brawny basslines of Muscle Shoals’ David Hood for control of the track. Franklin is subtly masterful, injecting alarm into her voice when she sings about finding Carmen with the devil and inserting melismatic runs into the second chorus. Before the final hook, she throws caution to the wind and emits an interjection of “yeah!” that pushes “The Weight” into the red.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Rock Steady” (1971)

Though written by Franklin, she gave full props for this gospel-rocking Top 10 hit’s success to Donny Hathaway. “It was Donny who added the high organ line that gives ‘Rock Steady’ such extra added flow,” she said of the Young, Gifted and Black track. Drummer Bernard Purdie, meanwhile, says he added a reggae vibe he’d picked up while recording with Bob Marley. You also have to credit Tom Dowd’s magnificent arrangement for the Memphis Horns, along with backing singers the Sweethearts of Soul, for “Rock Steady”‘s overwhelming “funky and low-down feeling.” During a Flip Wilson Show appearance she made in African apparel, Franklin made her composition’s black-power intentions clear.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1971)

“When I first wrote ‘Bridge,’ I said, ‘Boy, I bet Aretha could do a good job on this song,'” Paul Simon told Rolling Stone in 1970, just as he and Art Garfunkel’s version of the gospel-influenced ballad was starting to conquer the planet. Within months, Aretha was tackling the song herself: It becoming almost as a big a hit as Simon & Garfunkel’s, and Franklin snagged a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal in 1972. Franklin doesn’t sing the first verse – she plays it on piano, lending the song a sacred feel from the start. As both the arrangement and Aretha’s voice build, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” becomes a reassuring, comforting church anthem.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Baby I Love You” (1967)

I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You had dominated the charts since early spring, so Aretha Franklin and a production team led by Jerry Wexler knew what worked, including another composition from “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” composer Ronnie Shannon. Issued as the lead single for follow-up Aretha Arrives, this composition topped the R&B charts and peaked at Number Four on the Hot 100. “Baby I Love You” has an insouciant, playful sway and a Stax-like Southern soul groove featuring a drawling guitar lick driving it forward, and a strident, swinging vocal from Franklin that can lift into a high gospel wail on a moment’s notice.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” (1967)

The second track cut during Franklin’s Muscle Shoals sessions in early 1967 is a gently firm, languidly unspooling pro-fidelity anthem that features Franklin on both piano and organ. It was also the last track to be recorded at FAME Studios: a racially charged argument cut those sessions short. “I had left the studio before it got bad,” Jerry Wexler told Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin author David Ritz, “but apparently it got ugly between Ted [White, Franklin’s then-husband] and [studio owner] Rick Hall.” Franklin, White and Wexler left Alabama with only the bones of “Do Right,” which had been written by Dan Penn and guitarist Chips Moman in 1965.

A few weeks after, Franklin, with the help of her sisters Carolyn and Emma as well as Cissy Houston, laid down her vocal and piano. “She came loaded for bear,” engineer Tommy Dowd told Ritz. “She went right for the piano, where, without a word, she played piano over the existing ‘Do Right’ track. She and Erma and Carolyn laid down the vocal harmonies, an arrangement from heaven. All that was left was Aretha’s vocal. She ran it down once. Thank God I had pressed that record button, because the rundown was unworldly. There was a calmness about her delivery, an attitude that said, ‘Brother, I own this song, I’m gonna take my time, and I’m gonna drill it into your soul.’ When she was through, there was nothing to do but shake your head in wonder.”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Amazing Grace” (1972)

The title-track centerpiece of Aretha’s double-disc masterpiece – the best-selling album of both her own career and gospel music itself – consists of the first two stanzas of British slave trader John Newton’s 1779 hymn stretched out to nearly 11 dramatic minutes. With her preacher father and gospel star Clara Ward sitting together in the front pew, Aretha delivered a swooping, soaring and magnificently improvised solo performance that eventually brings in James Cleveland’s Southern California Community Choir, connecting the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church to the Los Angeles streets outside with call-and-response affirmations of “right on, right on.” Drummer Bernard Purdie, however, later noted that the song’s rehearsal performance was even better, “because the lady preached.”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Chain of Fools” (1967)

Don Covay, a singer-songwriter responsible for underrated Sixties soul classics like “See Saw,” wrote the biggest hit from Franklin’s Lady Soul, the iconic “Chain of Fools.” Covay said he originally wrote the track for Otis Redding, but Franklin’s producer, Jerry Wexler, swiped it for Franklin. “He said, ‘Hey man, Aretha needs to hear this.’ And all of a sudden, she was there,” Covay told Billboard. The resulting Number Two hit has a groovy, bottom-swaying swing to it – Franklin’s popcorn dance tracks are often overlooked in history of early funk – and an incredible backing chorus from the Sweet Inspirations and Ellie Greenwich that “shoop-shoops” the Queen of Soul onward. As for the gritty title, it makes for an unsparing metaphor for her lover’s trail of romantic destruction. Said Covay, “I could have written ‘Chain of Love,’ but no, I had to say something that immediately gets your attention. Otherwise, [listeners] might not let me get to the first verse.” As for Franklin, she renders Covay’s final verse with chilling venom: “One of these mornings,” she warns, “Your chain is going to break.”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” (1967)

This Carole King and Gerry Goffin classic underlines the myth – sometimes celebrated, other times reductive – of Franklin as the epitome of earthy, “natural” womanhood. Despite the sometimes-sexist ways in which the phrase has been used, Franklin has embraced it. “I am a natural woman. I think that women have to be strong. If you don’t, some people will run right over you,” she told Vogue in 2015, shortly after her tribute performance to Carole King at the Kennedy Center Honors left President Barack Obama in tears. The song, which was released as the lead single to her 1968 album Lady Soul, depicts a woman in thrall to a man. But Franklin hardly sounds submissive, instead sounding vibrant and strong. “Oh, baby, what you’ve done to me!” she sings in a joyous lilt. “You make me feel so alive!”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty


“Think” (1968)

On April 9, 1968, Franklin sang “Precious Lord” at the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta. Six days later, she sat at the piano at the New York studios of Atlantic Records, pounding the piano and singing about freedom. “Think” – credited to Franklin and her then-husband Ted White – was a woman’s demand that the man playing mind games with her take a look at himself, and Franklin was at a low point with the abusive White. But with “Think,” the personal was political. “Let your mind go, let yourself be free,” Franklin implored before hitting a bridge that had her and the Sweet Inspirations trading the word “freedom” 12 times, upping the intensity with each repetition. “[Think] resonated on a large cultural level,” Jerry Wexler said. “Young people were telling the war establishment to think about what they were doing. Black America was telling white America to think [about] what they were doing. The song spoke to everyone.” Released in May, barely two weeks after it was cut, the single reached Number Seven on the pop charts, and topped the R&B chart. 

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty


“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” (1967)

The title track of I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You was also the first song laid down by Franklin and her backing musicians during their very short January 1967 stint at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. “The song didn’t have a specific meter, really,” keyboardist Dewey “Spooner” Oldham told Matt Dobkin, author of I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You: Aretha Franklin, Respect, and the Making of a Soul Music Masterpiece, about the session where he and his fellow musicians first heard Franklin’s home-recorded demo. “So the band just sort of looked at each other like, ‘Well, what do we do? Where do we go now?’ We were all off in our little worlds trying to figure out a rhythm or a riff. And I just happened to be the one to formulate this little pattern.” When guitarist Chips Moman alerted the rest of the band to Oldham’s keyboard lick, the keyboardist kept playing – and then Franklin chimed in with the opening salvo “You’re no good, heartbreaker,” cementing the song’s feel. “From there it was like sparkles and shine,” “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” co-writer Dan Penn told Dobkin. A few hours later, the “soul waltz,” as drummer Roger Hawkins called it, was complete. In March, it became Franklin’s first Number One hit on the R&B chart, hitting that mark on Franklin’s 25th birthday. It’s one of her signature songs and a flare signaling that signing with Atlantic Records also represented a shift in how she was approaching her artistry.  

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty


“Respect” (1967)

Aretha Franklin’s signature anthem is a commanding cover of Otis Redding’s 1965 rave-up that captured the spirit of the country on multiple levels – particularly the civil rights movement, with writer Phyl Garland calling Franklin’s “Respect” “the new Negro national anthem” in the October 1967 issue of Ebony. It also resonated with the feminist movement, yet Franklin remained matter-of-fact about the song’s driving theme: “I don’t think it’s bold at all,” she told the Detroit Free Press as recently as this year. “I think it’s quite natural that we all want respect – and should get it.”

Franklin had been performing “Respect” at her live shows even before she signed with Atlantic Records. “She walked in with this,” Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler told Matt Dobkin, author of I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You: Aretha Franklin, Respect, and the Making of a Soul Music Masterpiece. “Aretha was terrific at setting up a song the way she wanted it to go. Many of the songs she would bring in – basically the cake was in the oven; all you had to do was bake it. She would work out the rhythm part, the piano arrangement, she worked out her vocals, she’d bring in her backup singers. When they came in singing ‘Respect,’ they had the whole template.”

That is, except a bridge. “So while we were doing it we thought, we’ll put in a four-bar bridge,” said Wexler. “And we took the bridge from ‘When Something Is Wrong With My Baby’ by Sam and Dave. It’s great because it provides fantastic release. It feels like a key change.”

The response to “Respect” was impassioned right away. It hit Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 in June 1967 and stayed there for two weeks and wound up leading the magazine’s Hot Rhythm & Blues chart for two months. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, Aretha’s covering Otis,'” poet and critic Nikki Giovanni told Dobkin. “I could not get to the record store fast enough to get that album. I had just graduated from college. And everybody started to say, ‘Did you hear what she did?’ Everybody started to analyze that album. The Civil Rights Movement was burning. And I was aware that this was going to be it. And it actually is. I think the music has shown that Aretha capped an era.”

The rapidfire “sock it to me” refrain near the song’s end was a nod to slang popular around Franklin’s neighborhood. “It was a kind of a cliché in the neighborhood,” Franklin told the Free Press. “People were saying it here and there, and we decided to work it into the background.” Another of the backup singers’ most crucial bit was the impassioned repetition of the title’s first syllable, which had a shrewd double meaning. “Re-re-re – that’s what they called Aretha,” Wexler notes. “It was a very ingenious variation.” And, as Dobkin noted, the concept of respect and Franklin’s towering figure soon merged: “It’s a kind of R&B quasi-syllogism: Aretha is respect is Aretha.” 

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