Lady of Soul: Aretha Franklin’s 50 Essential Songs – Rolling Stone
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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.

A. Sabine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

“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

“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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