“Music does a lot of things for a lot of people. It’s transporting, for sure. It can take you right back, it’s uplifting, it’s encouraging, it’s strengthening.” — Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin is one of the greatest vocalists we have ever witnessed. This is not up for debate or discussion but merely presented to you as a stone-cold fact. Another fact is that whenever Franklin picked up the mic, pulled it to her lips and inhaled, the whole room went silent. While some singers can elicit joyous choral sing-a-longs and others turn entire stadiums into backing singers, when Franklin or, to use her more formal name, Lady Soul, began to sing, the audience was left agog—a sea of open-mouthed gasping and the tangible feeling of connection.
Her powerful sound not only allowed her to behave in a larger than life demeanour when on stage, gathering up fans and followers with a mere tickle of her vocal cords, but it was also fragile and attainable enough to connect with the audience on a personal level. It’s what has seen Franklin gain a mythical status as one of the forebearers of modern music as we know it today.
“Being the Queen is not all about singing,” Lady Soul once said, “it has much to do with your service to people… your social contributions to your community and your civic contributions as well. Music does a lot of things for a lot of people. It can take you right back, it’s uplifting, it’s encouraging, it’s strengthening.” There’s no doubt that Franklin does all of those things with aplomb. A life spent singing, from chapels to stadiums; Franklin is revered as an immovable icon.
In her career, spanning across six decades, Franklin entertained people with unforgettable, soul-stirring renditions of some classic songs as well as some of her originals too. There were several head-turning moments in her career, like the time she became the first woman to be inducted to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, or when she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest award of the country), or when the Pulitzer Prize jury in 2019 awarded Franklin a posthumous special citation “for her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades”.
Having won 18 Grammys, she made it clear that she was irreplaceable and judging by her ten greatest spns noted below, she deserved every accolade she ever received.
Aretha Franklin 10 greatest songs
10. ‘I Say A Little Prayer’
There’s no doubt that Dionne Warwick version of ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ is the definitive rendition of the song. But Franklin naturally gives the track some real passion as she belts out the uplifting anthem with aplomb. It was a million-selling single for Warwick yet Franklin added some steel to proceedings.
Franklin’s version appeared as a B-Side initially but quickly became a mainstay in her live performances. Lady Soul may be famed for her smooth and silky tones but here, she adds some punch and takes the song away from its easy-listening origination.
9. ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You’
Released as a single in 1967, ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You’ remains one of Franklin’s most popular originals. It peaked at number one on the rhythm and blues charts and number nine on the pop charts, gaining some serious fame for Franklin. The year saw the beginning of Franklin’s new partnership with Atlantic Records and her first major hit with this song — it would be a relationship that prospered.
As Franklin once said of her relationship with Atlantic Records, “they just told me to sit on the piano and sing.” She certainly did that and belted out some of her finest songs during this period. A smooth and angelic vocal performance showcases just why Franklin is so adored.
8. ‘The Weight’
Taking on a classic song was nothing new for Franklin by the time she picked up the rock gem ‘The Weight’ by The Band. The song has become a serious contender for one of the decade’s best yet; somehow, Franklin makes it her own without a second glance or a momentary breath.
Country-soul is a difficult balance to strike but Franklin does so, allowing her smoother than smooth vocal to gloss over any potential bumps in the road. The gospel-style vocal soars and confirms Franklin as perhaps the finest ‘coverer’ of songs there ever was.
7. ‘Young, Gifted and Black’
Taking on a song from a band or artist outside of your wheelhouse may seem a scary thought, but it actually provides a lot of freedom. It allows you to experiment as a vocalist and implement your own style on to a classic track. However, trying to sing a song of a contemporary, as was Franklin’s choice to sing Nina Simone’s ‘Young, Gifted and Black’, is a different beast altogether.
For that reason, Franklin was deterred by her entourage even to sing the song. It would take Billy Preston saying Franklin would “crush it” for her to approach the track, and we’re delighted she did.
It’s a searing performance that proclaims Franklin the undoubted Queen.
6. ‘Day Dreaming’
There aren’t many songs on which Franklin explicitly opened up her personal life to her audience. Instead, the singer preferred to show passion and expression in her work through her vocal performances. However, on ‘Day Dreaming’, a song allegedly written about her tempestuous affair with Temptations singer Dennis Edwards, she opens up.
Donny Hathaway’s impressive piano is one of the song’s finer points but, in truth, it hangs on Franklin’s vocal and her impassioned tone. It cuts through the scattered jazz influences and allows the purity of the lyrics to shine brightly.
5. ‘Rock Steady’
We’ve already noted how Franklin was able to take on rock songs and make them totally different but she was also able to give funk a go too. One of the greatest showings of this stylistic agility was ‘Rock Steady’ — it proved that no genre was off-limits for Franklin.
Tight yet slinky, Franklin manoeuvres the music to her speed and ups the tempo at will.
With an intrinsic bassline driving the song forward, Franklin is given the freedom to add some shimmying joy and get us all lost in the call-and-response chorus which can turn into a real habit.
4. ‘Amazing Grace’
The title track of a live album, ‘Amazing Grace,’ was recorded in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles and captured Franklin’s natural habitat. Reverend James Cleveland and the Sothern California Community Choir’s accompaniment made it even more heavenly.
The album became Franklin’s highest-selling throughout her career, earning double platinum and highest-selling live gospel music album of all time. The album bagged critical as well as commercial acclaim and a Grammy in 1973 but the title track is what remains most clearly of all.
Putting this song on will change your entire day.
‘Think’ has become a new-found joy in Franklin’s collection. Not because the song has ever been disregarded as below par, quite the opposite. But the song’s newly discovered resurgence has to do with the subject matter at hand, which, with a 21st-century viewpoint, seems to have been written about gaslighting.
Scratch a little deeper, and the track becomes even more poignant as it becomes clear the song was written, in some regard, in reference to Martin Luther King’s recent death.
Recorded a week after Franklin sang at MLK’s funeral, the yelps of “Freedom!” still ring true today.
2. ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’
Despite ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ becoming a ubiquitous anthem for karaoke singers, the track’s power hasn’t diminished with time. Over five decades since the song was released, the track still pulsates with the energy and passion of Aretha Franklin.
Recorded a few months after ‘Respect’ had seen Franklin’s star rise, Goffin and King came together to pen a song for the newly crowned singer. In fact, they were so impressed that they became Franklin’s own songwriting team.
The relationship would be incredibly prosperous but perhaps this song triumphs over all of them, shining a light on Franklin’s ability to remain ethereal and attainable. A natural woman, in every way.
Aretha Franklin will always be attached to this song. Originally an Otis Redding number, the track was flipped on its head when Franklin stood up to take on this song and so much more with it. Aretha went at this cover like anything else in her life: full throttle and completely committed.
Her powerful vocal and the unwavering pursuit of rhythm left this song not only on top of the charts, not only did it gain her the first of her 18 Grammys, but with Aretha’s ferocity, it became an impassioned anthem for the feminist and civil rights movements. It would go on to not only define Franklin but a generation.
Franklin said of the track back in 2014: “Well, I just love it. Of course, that became a mantra for the civil rights movement. ‘Respect’ is just basic to everyone: everybody wants it […] Everybody wants and needs respect. It’s basic to mankind. Perhaps what people could not say, the record said it for them.”
It’s a song that has since transcended into the realm of ‘anthem’, and Franklin notes its importance but suggests it was the people who made the song such an imperious one. “I don’t think I was a catalyst for the women’s movement,” she continued. “As far as I know, that was Gloria Steinem’s role. But if I were, so much, the better. Women did, and still do, need equal rights. We’re doing the same job; we expect the same pay and the same respect.
“I never get tired of singing it. I really love it. And I find new ways to just keep it fresh for me, without changing exactly what it is people heard on the record.”