Aretha Franklin: her greatest songs, from the church to the dancefloor

From her teenage recordings to her collaboration with John Legend more than 50 years later, here are Aretha’s finest hits and deep cuts

You Grow Closer, 1956

Taped live when the singer was 14, the noise of the congregation clearly audible over her voice and piano, Aretha Franklin’s debut album, Songs of Faith, remains a genuinely haunting, faintly eerie document of at least one side of life in her father’s New Bethel Baptist church. (David Ritz’s controversial 2014 biography Respect has a pretty hair-raising depiction of what went on there behind closed doors.)

But the truly striking thing about it is the way her vocal cuts through. Her producer Jerry Wexler later said that Franklin sounded less like a child than “an ecstatic hierophant”. Even in adolescence, she sounded exactly like Aretha Franklin.

Soulville, 1964

The standard line about Franklin’s early years with Columbia records is that they were a wasted opportunity. Audibly baffled about what to do with her – get her to sing jazz-pop standards? Try to mould her into the new Dionne Warwick? – producers invariably blunted the visceral power of her voice with unsuitable material and bland arrangements. But very occasionally, they let her do what she did best. The 1964 album Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington concludes with two fabulous, raw soul performances: the gospel-infused Lee Cross, and a frantic, wildly exciting take on Washington’s 1963 version of Soulville have an edge that her version of, say, Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive simply doesn’t.

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

Columbia’s attempts to turn Franklin into a star were elaborate. By contrast, when she moved to Atlantic, Wexler opted for simplicity. “They just told me to sit on the piano and sing,” recalled Franklin of their first session at Alabama’s legendary Fame Studios. Wexler requested she sing a blues song; Franklin responded with I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You), a perfect example of what her sister Erma called her “ability to transform extreme pain to extreme beauty”: she could have been singing about anything from her own marriage to the appalling Ted White. Either way, the trajectory of her career was changed for ever in the space of three minutes.

Respect, 1967

“The girl has taken that song from me,” Otis Redding protested on hearing Franklin’s version of a track from his 1965 album Otis Blue: “From now on it belongs to her.” He was right: Franklin’s version flips the meaning of the song on its head. In Redding’s hands, Respect is the standard gripe of a hard-working man asking for fealty from his little lady back home. Franklin’s version, harder and hipper than the original, transforms it into something else entirely: an assertive, confident demand for equality that could equally have been applied to women’s rights or black power. Authentically groundbreaking, its vast commercial success helped usher in an era of soul music in which the socially conscious was blended with the commercially successful.

(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, 1967

From the moment she fetched up at Atlantic, it was as if someone had released the brake on Franklin’s career: the sheer number of indisputable, no-further-questions classics she produced in her first year with the label alone is faintly mind-boggling. Suddenly, a big enough star that the cream of the Brill Building’s songwriters for hire would come up with something specifically modelled for her, a mere four months after Respect topped the charts, she released (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. It’s a song so overplayed, it is easy to forget how extraordinary Franklin’s performance is. The sweep from the stately, controlled verses into a euphoric chorus is one of the most sublime moments in pop.

Chain of Fools, 1967

Yet another hit from 1967. There is something audacious about Chain of Fools, a song that Don Covay wrote in 1952. It’s a masterpiece of minimalism, a chart-topping, gold-selling, Grammy-winning single based entirely around a single C minor chord. It says something about Franklin’s vocal, soaring over the interlocking guitars of Joe South and Jimmy Johnson, that it never feels repetitious or dirge-like, and it’s worth noting that the song was arranged by Franklin herself. Barack Obama apparently sang it to her on their first meeting (“I thought: he’s real hip, real down and real up”), and even a 1998 live version featuring Mariah Carey is pretty great.

I Say a Little Prayer, 1968

Further evidence of Franklin’s nonpareil ability to make a song her own. Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s I Say a Little Prayer – its lyric apparently intended to depict a woman worrying about her partner serving in the Vietnam war – had just been released by Dionne Warwick. It sold 1m copies when Franklin whimsically chose to cover it. Perhaps that is why Franklin’s tougher version, denuded of the easy-listening horns and orchestration on Warwick’s single, was initially released as a B-side, but radio programmers disagreed and flipped the single. In Britain at least, where it became her biggest hit, Franklin’s cover of the song remains the definitive version.

The Weight, 1969

Aretha Franklin reinterpreted rock tracks as soul music so completely it sounded as if the songs were written for her. It was a trick she variously pulled off with Crosby, Stills & Nash’s Love the One You’re With, Elton John’s Border Song, the Beatles’ Let It Be and Eleanor Rigby, and Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. The latter was a huge hit, but the best of her rock covers might be her transformation of the Band’s elegiac The Weight into a beguiling piece of horn-laden country-soul, with slide guitar by Duane Allman, and gospel vocal that amped up the song’s mysterious biblical allusions.

Spirit in the Dark, 1970

Franklin was slightly underrated in certain areas of her career. She contributed far more to the arrangements of her records than the credits on them allow. Despite writing everything from vocal harmonies to drum breaks herself, she did not receive a producer’s credit until 1972. Her biggest hits were usually covers, so her talent as an interpreter of others’ work overshadowed her talent as a writer. The big hit from her transcendent 1970 album Spirit in the Dark was a version of Don’t Play That Song (You Lied), but it might be surpassed by the self-penned title track, a beautiful, episodic melding of the sacred and profane: the sound is pure gospel, the lyrics suggestive of more earthly pleasures.

Rock Steady, 1971

Another irresistible example of Franklin’s writing, Rock Steady demonstrated how adaptable she could be. A writhing, compelling dancefloor groove – driven by Bernard Purdie’s drums and percussion from, among others, Dr John – punctuated by beautiful retorts on bass guitar. Sampled by everyone from Dr Dre to Public Enemy to Outkast, it stirred the audible influence of James Brown’s increasingly minimal approach to funk into Franklin’s sound.

Precious Lord, Take My Hand/You’ve Got a Friend, 1972

Debate about Aretha Franklin’s best album can stretch long into the night, but Amazing Grace (1972) is a strong contender. A live double gospel album that melded traditional songs with covers of Marvin Gaye’s Wholy Holy and You’ll Never Walk Alone, and recorded in a Los Angeles church before a congregation that included Mick Jagger, it may well represent her greatest recorded vocal performance. For a measure of just how potent it is, the medley of Precious Lord, Take My Hand – a song she had recorded on her first album in 1956 – and Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend takes some beating: six minutes of music that even the most committed atheist would struggle to remain unmoved by.

Something He Can Feel, 1976

Franklin’s career had been in commercial and artistic decline for a couple of years: a 1973 cover of Stevie Wonder’s Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do) was the last smash hit of her imperial phase, 1975’s You was an out-and-out flop. She drafted in Curtis Mayfield, who arrived bearing his soundtrack for the movie Sparkle. If the MO sounds uninspired – Franklin simply re-sang tracks performed in the film by Irene “Fame” Cara, among others – the results were frequently great. Ostensibly part of the repertoire of the 60s girl group at the heart of Sparkle’s story, Something He Can Feel is a gorgeous song, too well-written and understatedly arranged to sound like a pastiche.

It’s Gonna Get a Bit Better, 1979

La Diva is almost universally reviled as the nadir of Franklin’s years with Atlantic records: it is her lowest-selling album of the era, an attempt to climb aboard the disco bandwagon so belated that it arrived in the midst of the disco backlash. But that isn’t the whole story. For one thing, a lot of the disco material is better than its reputation suggests; for another, amid the four-to-the-floor beats and sweeping orchestration, there lurks a clutch of tough funk tracks, including a fierce version of Lalomie Washburn’s It’s Gonna Get a Bit Better: proof that, although her music had lost the sure-footedness that marked out her 1967-73 golden era, Franklin could never be written off.

United Together, 1980

Franklin purists tend to wrinkle their noses at her early 80s albums, and producers Arif Mardin and Luther Vandross. And while it’s true the production of Franklin’s albums during that era tends to be high-gloss – Love All the Hurt Away (1981) features her backed by yacht-rock titans Toto – and you have to dig noticeably deeper for gold than the previous decade, it’s definitely present. There’s no getting around the fact that United Together is a big MOR ballad, somewhere in the region of Diana Ross’s It’s My Turn and a world away from Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, but Franklin sings the hell out of it.

Sweet Bitter Love, 1985

Who’s Zoomin’ Who was a concerted and successful effort to make Franklin a platinum-selling star in the mid-80s, replete with exuberant hits – not least the fantastic Freeway of Love – and duets with the Eurythmics. But buried on side one was a cover of a Van McCoy ballad that Franklin first attempted in the mid-60s. There is a great rough demo version on the compilation Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul. The orchestral arrangement sands a few edges off, but her vocal performance is fantastic, and the song is a powerful link to her roots amid the drum machines and brash pop leanings.

Holdin’ On, 2003

Franklin’s latterday recording output was spasmodic and artistically patchy. The hip hop-influenced A Rose Is Still a Rose and 2014’s uneven Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics – home to a pop-reggae cover of Alicia Keys’s No One – had their moments, but there was a sense that she ended up back where she started at Columbia, gamely trying on styles that didn’t suit her. Her most consistent album might be the neo-soul-inspired So Damn Happy. It includes this Mary J Blige collaboration, on which Franklin’s voice chafed against the slick arrangement.

What Y’All Came to Do, 2007

Beset by health problems in her final years, Aretha Franklin was nevertheless still capable of turning it out musically. Sometimes she did that in full view of the media, as evidenced by her extraordinary performance of (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors. And sometimes she did it in the most unlikely of places. Jewels in the Crown was merely a contractual obligation compilation of Franklin’s duets, but it contained this: a raw, upfront, supremely funky collaboration with John Legend that may be the best thing she recorded in her last two decades.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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