"Being a singer is a natural gift," said Aretha Franklin. "It means I'm using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use." She sure did. Here are 20 cases in point.
"I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)"
Before signing with Atlantic Records in 1967, Aretha had languished without a hit while under contract with Columbia, constrained by the company's attempt to fashion her into a jazz singer. But Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler recognized Franklin's otherworldly talent and, as she later put it, "just told me to sit at the piano and sing." It worked spectacularly, with Franklin's initial recording for the studio becoming the first big hit of her career.
"(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman"
Written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, "A Natural Woman" was a defining song for Aretha. Schooled as a child gospel singer in her minister father's Detroit church, Franklin here blesses every congregant with a joyous shout-out to the redemptive power of love (with sisters Erma and Carolyn singing backup). Her 2015 performance of the song at a Kennedy Center event celebrating King brought President Obama to tears and the crowd to its feet.
From that opening—"What you want, baby I got"—to the "sock it to me" climax, Aretha is incendiary in her first No. 1 hit. Written and originally recorded by Otis Redding, "Respect" began as a husband's plea for wifely understanding, but Franklin turned it into a feminist anthem for the ages. The song earned two Grammy Awards and has turned up on soundtracks of movies ranging from "Platoon" to "Mystic Pizza."
"Chain of Fools"
A major song written in a minor chord, Aretha's tale of love and betrayal was her fifth hit single of 1967, the year she took rightful possession of the crown as the Queen of Soul. In "Chain of Fools," she settles into a powerhouse groove over the sound of Joe South's low-down guitar until she finally breaks free and belts out "You told me to leave you alone" over a chorus of backup "ooo-ooo-ooh's." It's a transcendental moment in a song that earned Franklin another Grammy.
"I Say a Little Prayer for You"
Originally an easy-listening hit for Dionne Warwick, this Burt Bacharach and Hal David tune was given a soulful pop treatment by Aretha after a producer heard her singing the song for kicks during a recording break. With backup vocals by the Sweet Inspirations, Franklin surpassed the original, turning it into an even bigger hit the second time around.
Some singers might get lost surrounded by the combined backing of brass section, organ, piano, two electric guitars, bass, chorus and percussion. But not Aretha. Everything here is subservient to her mesmerizing voice. And when she sings "Oh, freedom, freedom/Oh freedom, yeah, freedom," Franklin soars. She later reprised the tune in the 1980 film "The Blues Brothers."
"Ain’t No Way"
It's a heartfelt, melancholy slow-burner about an unhappy love written by Franklin's sister Carolyn. Restrained and intimate before kicking in with a passionate mid-song Aretha vocal, "Ain't No Way" also features Sweet Inspirations backup singer Cissy Houston. Years later, Houston was to perform the song on "The Merv Griffin Show" as a duet with 19-year-old daughter Whitney, who was making her national television debut.
"(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone"
Aretha sings with abandon on a song that gave her another R&B chart topper in the spring of 1968, selling more than 450,000 copies in a single week. Said Franklin producer and mentor Jerry Wexler: "There are three qualities that make a great singer—head, heart and throat. The head is intelligence, the phrasing. The heart is the emotionality that feeds the flames. The throat is the chops, the voice. Aretha has all three."
Franklin covers this now standard by The Band in true gospel style, raising the roof with an enigmatic tale of a trip to the city of Nazareth—accompanied on her journey by the slide guitar wizardry of session man Duane Allman.
"Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)"
It may be about a lying lover, but Aretha really swings with this million-selling single on which she also displays her often overlooked piano chops. An unjustly neglected song in the Aretha Franklin canon that rarely makes it onto oldies radio, the tune still shakes the rafters.
Aretha was inspired to write this ballad after seeing a young couple engaged in deep conversation on a New York City sidewalk. When they parted, she overheard one say to the other, "I love you ... call me the moment you get there," a line that Franklin included in the lyrics. Recently divorced from husband Ted White, she expresses in the song a yearning for early love before marital complications have set in.
"Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)"
Stevie Wonder wrote and recorded it, but it was Aretha who turned "Until You Come Back to Me" into a hit. When the song reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, Franklin became the first artist in history to have a song peak at each position from No. 1 to 10. (Marvin Gaye, Madonna and Taylor Swift have done it since.)
"Something He Can Feel"
Actress Lonette McKee originally performed this Curtis Mayfield song for the 1976 movie "Sparkle," but her vocals were replaced by Aretha's on the film's soundtrack. It's one of Franklin's best from the '70s, a sexy epic that clocks in at a soul-stirring six-and-a-half minutes (album version).
"Jump to It"
Produced by Luther Vandross, this 1982 song was Aretha's biggest pop hit in a decade, despite conflict between the singer and her producer. "I wanted to establish the groove with a long instrumental intro," said Vandross. "Aretha didn't think the listener would wait that long to hear her voice. She wanted to come in sooner. I said no. 'Who's the one with the most hits here?' she asked.... 'But who's the one with the latest hit?' I asked. She didn't answer. She stormed out."
"Who’s Zoomin’ Who?"
Franklin hadn't recorded in two years when she cut this track (her father had recently died). But her diva chops were in fine form with "Who's Zoomin' Who?"—a song she co-wrote with producer Narada Michael Walden. Said Walden: "I asked Aretha, 'What do you do at night to have fun?' She said, 'Oh, I go out to night clubs. Maybe I see someone in the corner who looks kind of cool. He looks at me, I look at him, and it's like who's zooming who? But as soon as he thinks he's got me, the fish jumps off the hook.'" And a hit song was born.
"Freeway of Love"
With an exuberant performance by Aretha, this song about a wild ride in a pink Cadillac convertible is one of the best "driving" tunes around. Ironically, Franklin doesn't drive. But it gave the Queen of Soul her 20th No. 1 hit on the R&B chart.
"I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)"
Franklin's duet with George Michael was a chart topper that won them both Grammys. Said Michael: "Nobody can emulate Aretha Franklin. It's stupid to try. I just tried to keep it simple and stayed understated in comparison to what she did."
"A Rose Is Still a Rose"
Forty years into her career, Franklin had a surprise hit with this song written for her by Lauryn Hill. Expressed in the voice of an older woman sharing her wisdom with one who is younger, it's a gentle return to Aretha's feminist call for r-e-s-p-e-c-t. "See a rose is still a rose/Baby, girl, you're still a flower/He can't lead you and then take you/Make you and then break you/Darlin', you hold the power."
"His Eye Is on the Sparrow"
Though the 2011 album "Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love" came and went without much notice, Franklin does offer up a moving return to her gospel roots with this traditional song more closely associated with Ethel Waters and Mahalia Jackson. And while her voice is no longer the overwhelming instrument it once was, it still grips the heart in a way no other singer can.
"Rolling in the Deep"
Aretha's rendition of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," from the 2014 album "Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics," was her 100th song to reach the charts—a first for a female artist. With it, the 74-year-old Queen of Soul bears witness to a lifetime of unparalleled divahood.
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