Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul, a powerhouse vocalist and a talented pianist. Growing up in the Church, her music was always steeped in gospel. She delivered hits for a long period of time; her first R&B chart topper was ‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)’ in 1967, and her final was 1985’s ‘Freeway of Love’. Barack Obama later said that “Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope”
Her success was amazing for someone whose circumstances were more suited to a women’s magazine exposé than to a music career. She grew up in Detroit, where her father was a prominent preacher; her parents separated when she was six, and her mother died when she was nine. Franklin had her first child at the age of 12, and married Ted White, a pimp, at the age of 18.
Franklin also signed to Columbia at the age of 18, but never achieved more than middling success. Her fortunes changed when she signed to Atlantic Records in 1967, where a rawer R&B sound launched her to superstardom. She was massively successful over the next few years – much of her musical legacy comes from the years between 1967 and 1972, from which most of the below songs are drawn.
10 Best Aretha Franklin Songs
#10 – Wholly Holy
from Amazing Grace, 1972
Franklin’s live double LP Amazing Grace is Franklin’s best seller and the best-selling gospel album of all time. Most of the track-list consists of traditional spirituals and Church hymns, but there’s also a stunning reinvention of Marvin Gaye’s recently released ‘Wholly Holy’. Unlike the bombastic piano and choir arrangement on much of Amazing Grace, ‘Wholly Holy’ is gentle and delicate.
#9 – A Rose is Still a Rose
from A Rose Is Still a Rose, 1998
Franklin was clearly past her prime in 1998, but this track is improbably strong. Donated by Lauryn Hill, about to unleash her own solo masterpiece in The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, ‘A Rose is Still A Rose’ gives Franklin access to a contemporary sound. The lyrics, with Franklin as an experienced woman giving advice to her juniors, are a great fit.
#8 – Crazy He Calls Me
from Soul ’69, 1969
Soul ’69 is an overlooked gem in Franklin’s catalogue – in spite of its the title, it’s a vocal jazz album that recalls Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday. Franklin had the vocal talents to pull off big band jazz with aplomb .Her take on Carl Sigman’s ‘Crazy He Calls Me’, popularised by Holiday in 1949, is nuanced and lovely.
#7 – Chain of Fools
from Lady Soul, 1968
1968’s Lady Soul is my favourite Franklin record, extending the raw R&B of ‘Respect’ over the course of an entire album. Lead-off track ‘Chain of Fools’, originally written by Don Covay to sing with his siblings in his youth, sets the mood immediately. The lead guitar was played by Joe South, later famous for writing ‘Games People Play’.
#6 – Angel
from Hey Now Hey (the Other Side of the Sky), 1973
Carolyn Franklin was an important part of her sister’s career, singing backing vocals and writing material like 1968’s ‘Ain’t No Way’ and 1970’s ‘Pullin”. Her best-known song for Franklin was ‘Angel’, from 1973’s lavish and experimental Hey Now Hey (the Other Side of the Sky). It’s a soul ballad, where Quincy Jones’ lush production provides a different setting for Franklin’s voice.
#5 – Oh No Not My Baby
from Spirit in the Dark, 1970
Franklin’s best-known reading from the Carole King and Gerry Goffin songbook is 1968’s ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’. My preference though, is Franklin’s version of ‘Oh No Not My Baby’, popularised by Maxine Brown in 1965. It’s a catchy tune that stands out on a restrained record.
#4 – Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby)
from Lady Soul, 1968
The second single from Lady Soul was written by Franklin along with her then-husband, Ted White. It’s a punchy R&B number featuring Franklin’s usual 1960s Muscle Shoals crew – Roger Hawkins, Spooner Oldham, Tommy Cogbill, and Jimmy Johnson – along with Bobby Womack and King Curtis.
#3 – Spirit in the Dark
from Spirit in the Dark, 1970
1970’s Spirit in the Dark has gained stock in recent years – it’s a low key, personal record with the emphasis on Franklin’s piano. It’s not Franklin’s biggest hit, missing the top 20, It covers several bases at once, fervent gospel and intimate confession. Kanye West sampled ‘Spirit in the Dark’ for his song ‘School Spirit’.
#2 – Rock Steady
from Young, Gifted, and Black, 1972
Great musicians lined up to work with Franklin – there’s some great lead guitar from Duane Allman on some of her records. On 1972’s Young, Gifted, and Black, Franklin was working with the all-star rhythm section of drummer Bernard Purdie and bassist Chuck Rainey. Purdie reportedly developed his famous “Purdie Shuffle” while recording ‘Rock Steady’, a groove-based song that recalls James Brown.
#1 – Respect
from I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, 1967
It’s easy to forget that Otis Redding penned this R&B track, as Franklin made it her own with this storming version. Franklin’s previous single, ‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)’ catapulted her into the top ten in the pop charts, her first single for Atlantic after years of middling returns on Columbia. ‘Respect’ turned Franklin into a megastar, and became an anthem for feminism and civil rights. ‘Respect’ is a clichéd pick for Franklin’s best record, but sometimes the obvious choice is the correct one.