Aretha Franklin, the undoubted Queen of Soul, pioneered her music all the way from gospel church to the top of the charts with numerous prolific and groundbreaking moments in between. An unrelenting activist of the civil rights movement, Franklin wasn’t just a singer or an actress, she was a movement, a cultural icon.
“Being the Queen is not all about singing, and being a diva is not all about singing,” Franklin once said. “It has much to do with your service to people. And your social contributions to your community and your civic contributions as well,” she added in a quote which typifies her as a person. “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.”
A singing prodigy who began her vocal career in her father’s church at just 12-years-old, Aretha Franklin was already recording music at the tender age of 14. However, dreams of stardom weren’t coming to fruition after at Columbia Records and, after six years with the label, she’d lost her way.
In 1966, however, everything changed as she found her new home and her new partner in Atlantic Records and Jerry Wexler. Her brilliant ‘Atlantic Era’ produced some of her best work. These are the songs which defined Aretha as ‘Lady Soul’ and although her later catalogue provides moments of brilliance, these are the songs which will forever be synonymous with, the one and only, Aretha Franklin.
Below, we’re running through six of the best from this era.
Aretha Franklin’s 6 Best ‘Atlantic Era’ Songs:
‘I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)’
During a tumultuous relationship with her previous record company Columbia, Aretha Franklin found solace in the guidance of Atlantic Records Jerry Wexler who, in truth, provided the right atmosphere for Franklin’s incredible vocal to shine.
This first recording for the company not only began a fruitful and wonderful relationship but also became a watershed moment for soul music in general. Recorded at the famous Muscle Shoals studio, the variety and size of Franklin’s unstoppable talents were undeniably captured on vinyl. Her mesmeric and masterful vocal is a death-defying, aerial assault on the smokey sound which backs her.
The song gave the world Franklin’s ‘Atlantic Era’—an era which would be immeasurably influential, it also provided one of the most impactful recordings in the history of music.
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 an 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.
As Franklin once stated: “We all require and want respect, man or woman, black or white. It’s our basic human right.”
‘Don’t Play That Song’
The content of this track is deep and painful. It resides around the emotion our protagonist feels as she hears a particular song which reminds her of her lying lover. As heart-wrenching a subject this may be it is quickly overlooked as Aretha delivers a furious and pounding performance.
With the aid of her expert piano playing, a skill of Franklin’s too often forgotten, she screeches and cheers her vocal with an effortless power to deliver a foot-tapper at odds with its content. Such was her energy that this feels entirely comfortable and even desirable.
‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’
A Carole King and Gerry Goffin composition, at the request of Jerry Wexler, this will likely be the song most tightly linked to Aretha. Apparently requested by Wexler who wanted a “natural woman” song for her, the composition is unquestionably brilliant. Inspired by Atlantic Records co-owner and producer Wexler, this song is the perfect way to round of the list.
‘A Natural Woman’ became a song which not only explored Aretha’s femininity and sexuality but also allowed Franklin to exhibit her tender yet emphatic voice across the track.
“I’ve been around long enough for people to know who I am and what my contributions are,” Franklin once said. “They know me as more than just an artist. I think they know me as a woman as well.”
‘Ain’t No Way’
‘Ain’t No Way’ composed by Aretha’s sister Carolyn was a change of pace for Franklin. Her usual powerful and unrelenting style is challenged here in this more restrained ballad.
Not only brilliant for the emotion conveyed by an Aretha ailing from the pain of unrequited love but also the beautiful backing from The Sweet Impressions – most notably from Cissy Houston – which moves the song along to its powerful conclusion. Here, in the last act of the song, Aretha lets rip and, boy, is it worth the wait.
‘I Say A Little Prayer’
Another chance for Aretha to shine on somebody else’s original song was yet again clasped with both hands by Franklin as she covered Dion Warwick’s ‘I Say A Little Prayer’.
As ever, the focal point of this song (and pretty much any Aretha song) was her unfathomable vocal performance. Composed by Bacharach and David, the choral backing provided by The Sweet Inspirations, Franklin’s voice soars beyond all measure and adds a potently gorgeous gospel sheen to create something entirely singular.