Reports that soul singer Aretha Franklin was gravely ill this week inspired an outpouring of affection and appreciation throughout the music world for the beloved Queen of Soul. She died at her Detroit home on Thursday.
Beyoncé and Jay-Z dedicated their On the Run II tour date in Detroit on Monday to the 76-year-old singer. Sheryl Crow gave voice to the consensus opinion about the unmatched vocalist, when she called Franklin "the most soulful angelic voice that ever was. You are the Queen and we love you."
Southern songwriter Jason Isbell, who grew up in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where Franklin recorded "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" tweeted: "The power in that. To be the very best on earth at something almost everybody does. It's as if she could fly."
Like Franklin, other great American pop singers from Ray Charles to Elvis Presley to Stevie Wonder to Al Green have used gospel music as a foundation as they've brought spiritual fervor to songs of earthly concerns.
But no one embodied that ecstatic tradition, or imbued it with more dramatic flair and amazing grace, than Aretha, whose six-decade singing career began in her father's Detroit church in the 1950s.
Franklin's greatness as a powerhouse vocalist and subtle song interpreter was always apparent, but she wasn't always a consistent recording artist.
Most of her best-loved songs come from the late 1960s, early 1970s period with Atlantic Records, which produced "Respect," "Think," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," and a host of other hits that make her soul-singing competition seem feeble in comparison.
Here then are a dozen Aretha songs, from the start of her career to its twilight, to provide soul sustenance to longtime fans and curious listeners, and demonstrate the breadth of the talent of the greatest singer of her era.
"Precious Lord, Parts 1 and 2," from Songs of Faith (1956). Word of Franklin's extraordinary gift began to travel while the singer and pianist was still in her early teens. When she was 14, she recorded a live album of gospel songs in her father the Rev. C.L. Franklin's New Bethel Baptist Church. As she sits at the piano and plays Thomas A. Dorsey's spiritual standard, a member of the congregation calls: "Listen at her. … Listen at her!" As Jerry Wexler, the producer with whom she would make her greatest recordings, later said: "The voice was not that of a teenager but rather an impassioned adult. … Her talent registered."
"It Won't Be Long," from Aretha, with the Ray Bryant Trio (1961). Before Franklin assumed her title of Queen of Soul, she was a hotly hyped artist signed by the legendary A&R man John Hammond to Columbia Records, where her handlers were never quite able to settle on a satisfying musical direction for their young star, whom they paired up with show tunes and jazz and pop standards in an era of her career when she frequently played the Cadillac Club in North Philly and Pep's at Broad and South. This cut from her promising debut hinted at the force Franklin would later harness in her heyday.
"I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," from I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967). The title track to her debut album for Atlantic, recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, it was Franklin's first No. 1 R&B hit and it set the path for the remarkable late 1960s run to follow, channeling the gospel fervor absorbed from a lifetime in the church into fiercely confident songs of pain and pride.
"Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," from I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967). The sensual, exquisite B-side to the title track, written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn, with Franklin playing the song's gospel chord changes on both piano and organ as she demands to be treated as an equal, with her sisters Erma and Carolyn backing her up vocally. The song was also turned into a country-soul classic by Gram Parsons with the Flying Burrito Brothers and was a hit for Barbara Mandrell in 1971.
"Respect," from I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967). The defining song of Franklin's career. She took Otis Redding's original, which was an R&B hit just two years earlier, and turned it into a pop-chart-topping feminist anthem. The song demanded R-E-S-P-E-C-T for black women in particular in the burgeoning civil rights and women's right movements of the turbulent 1960s, asserting a woman's right to "my propers" with swagger and sass, and it is properly ranked in the Top 10 of most lists of the best pop songs of all time.
"I Say a Little Prayer," from Aretha Now (1968). Burt Bacharach and Hal David's songs were known for their tricky time signatures that posed challenges for nearly all of their interpreters besides their most trusted collaborator, Dionne Warwick (who is the female singer with the second-most Billboard-charting hits of all time, behind Franklin). 'Retha, of course, was up to the task, and added a level of toughness to her less ethereal take of the song, which became a top 10 hit for her less than a year after Warwick scored a hit with her original version. "Prayer" also was Franklin's biggest-ever hit in the United Kingdom, and the song written from the perspective of the wife of a soldier during the Vietnam War became a Franklin favorite among fans rooting for her to survive the various health scares she faced over the years.
"(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," from Lady Soul (1968). Written by Carole King ad her husband, Gerry Goffin, for Franklin at the behest of Jerry Wexler, "Natural Woman" is another sublime example of 'Retha bringing the ecstasy of church singing to the secular realm, as she ascends to exhilarating heights in putting across the title phrase with dramatic flair. King had a hit of her own with the song on her mega-selling 1971 album, Tapestry, and Franklin sang it to honor King at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors. The version on her best album, the great Lady Soul — which also features the hits "Ain't No Way," "Chain of Fools," and "Since You've Been Gone (Sweet, Sweet, Baby)" — features Cissy Houston's vocal group the Sweet Inspirations, along with Franklin's sisters.
"Amazing Grace," from Amazing Grace (1972). Aretha came from the church, and to the church she would frequently return. After a run of pop and R&B success turned her into a superstar, she recorded a double live album in a church in the Watts section of Los Angeles with a band that included drummer Bernard Purdie in January 1972, and she is particularly alive with the spirit while at the piano for this soaring version of English clergyman John Newton's 1779 hymn. Director Sydney Pollack filmed the concert for a movie that Franklin took legal action against to prevent from being commercially released.
"Spirit in the Dark," from Oh Me Oh My: Aretha Live in Philly, 1972. This 2010 release was recorded when Franklin performed at the convention of the black broadcasting organization the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers just months after Amazing Grace was recorded. Backed by a tight, smoking band as she assays secular and spiritual material, she's on fire throughout, never more so than on the locomoting groove on the title cut to her underrated 1970 album.
"Freeway of Love," from Who's Zoomin' Who? (1985). Franklin partnered with Arista records exec Clive Davis in the 1980s, and while the slick hits the partnership produced didn't reach the artistic heights she achieved in the 1960s and 1970s with Atlantic, they did return the iconic singer to the pop charts with catchy tunes created with producer Narada Michael Walden. "Freeway" was her biggest MTV-era solo hit, featuring a sax solo by E Street Band horn blower Clarence Clemons and backup vocal by disco icon Sylvester.
"Sister Are Doin' It For Themselves," from Who's Zoomin' Who? (1985). This duet with Annie Lennox — credited to Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin — went hand in hand with Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" as a mid-1980s feminist empowerment anthem that hit big on the pop charts and consciously updated the independent spirit of "Respect" two decades later. The song is written by Lennox and Dave Stewart, and three of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers play on it.
"My Country 'Tis of Thee," from Barack Obama's presidential inauguration ceremony (2009). It was freezing that day on the National Mall in Washington, but Franklin sang live as she tackled Samuel Smith's 1832 hymn that's rarely heard outside elementary school classrooms. Franklin was in danger of being upstaged by the giant bow on her hat, but the Queen of Soul shone in her chance to celebrate the election of the first African American to the highest office in the sweet land of liberty of which she sang.