Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Aretha Franklin
“Being the Queen is not all about singing, 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.” — Aretha Franklin
There is no doubt about the fact that the ‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin’s voice was “transporting,” “uplifting,” “encouraging” and “strengthening”. A legend and a cultural icon, she contributed equally to American music as well as African-American political movements. In a world where so many of our icons remain simply that, we are determined to remind you all of what made Aretha a star: her music.
Franklin couldn’t possibly escape the temptation of music as a child because it was running through her veins and had roots in her rich cultural history. A prodigy, she began recording songs at the young age of 12 by singing gospels at the New Bethel Baptist Church at Detroit, Michigan. Ever the rebel, she dared to move on to a secular music career even though she grew up in a strictly religious family. However, it was her family who guided, supported and encouraged her throughout her journey.
In her career, spanning from the 1960s to 2017, she entertained people with unforgettable, soul-stirring renditions. There were several head-turning moments 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 and still is irreplaceable.
As a reminder of her talent, below, we’ve pulled together six songs which help to define the character and outstanding career of the extremely gifted musician, Aretha Franklin.
Six definitive songs of Aretha Franklin:
Though originally released by the American singer-songwriter Otis Redding in 1965, this became Franklin’s signature song. A sensational cover, which can surely be said to be better than the original, brought Franklin her the first two Grammys.
Apart from the music arrangement, her version varies lyrically and has a different appeal altogether. It comes across as a declaration by a strong and confident woman who demands respect from her partner, in their relationship. The “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” part added to this version is significant. It adds a preaching and educative quality by spelling out the word. Franklin seemed to blatantly point out the fact that this word didn’t have any existence in a man’s dictionary who may have received it but never learnt to give it back.
A supporter of the feminist movement herself, Franklin’s version became an anthem of the movement. As Franklin once stated: “We all require and want respect, man or woman, black or white. It’s our basic human right.”
‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You) (1967)
Released as a single in 1967, this song remains Franklin’s one of the most popular originals. It peaked at number one on the rhythm and blues charts and number nine on the pop charts. The year saw the beginning of Franklin’s new partnership with Atlantic Records and her first major hit with this song.
Later, when talking about her Atlantic tenure Franklin mentioned that “they just told me to sit on the piano and sing.” This free and healthy environment, which was a stark contrast from her days in Columbia Records, allowed Franklin to flower marking a significant impact in her career.
The song defines soul-music. Her deep, smooth angelic voice traps every listener in a dreamy state which one ever wishes to escape. This track is a major stylistic shakeup and a deeper expression of her own experience as a Black woman in America.
‘Amazing Grace’ (1972)
The title track of a live album of the same name, ‘Amazing Grace’ was recorded in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Reverend James Cleveland and the Sothern California Community Choir’s accompaniment made it 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.
The album’s themes can be traced back to her initial church days. It showed how the gospel background contributed to her skills and why indeed her music has a transcendental quality. Honestly, it’s not easy to make gospels a commercial success, especially for the Franklin fans who were so used to her vibrant and upbeat pop renditions. But she achieved the impossible through her originality.
The song gained new significance when it was performed in front of Pope Francis during his United States visit in 2015. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church sanctioned the plunder of native people, the subjugation of Africans, and the conquest of the whole continent. Simply put Franklin’s ancestors were pushed towards enslavement by Pope’s ancestors. This 9 minutes and 10 seconds performance told the story enslavement to freedom.
‘Nessum Dorma’ (1998)
The song is one of the best-known tenor arias from the final act of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot. Though performed widely in all operas, Luciano Pavarotti popularized the piece beyond the opera world in the 1990s following his performance of it for the 1990 World Cup, which captivated a global audience.
In 1998 Franklin earned international acclaim by performing this song at the Grammy awards. It was Pavarotti who was supposed to sing it to represent the classical music nominees but, unfortunately, he fell ill and had to cancel his appearance at the last moment. The production team pursued Franklin, who was a close friend of Pavarotti: “I remember she had sung ‘Nessum Dorma’ two nights before for MusiCare” recalled Ehrlich. Franklin mesmerised the audience with a stunning operatic performance that evening that too by only listening to the dress rehearsal on a boombox before the performance.
This event speaks a volume about what a phenomenal performer she was. She showed the world that she could excel at opera signing if she wanted. The ease with which she rendered such a classic, is particularly noticeable.
‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’ (2009)
The moment she sang for Barrack Obama’s inaugural ceremony is an extremely special one. Obama was the first African-American to be elected as the President of the United States. A historically significant moment in itself, the homage by a fellow member of the community who was also, in part, responsible for helping the community achieve civil rights in the state, became an emotionally charged moment too.
You can’t help but notice the pride and the emotional turmoil in Franklin’s voice. A de-facto anthem, it is a patriotic song made all the more brilliant by the presence of Lady Soul herself, Aretha Franklin.
‘Rolling In the Deep’ (2014)
Since the time Adele released the song in 2010, it became a favourite among the musical circle. The song was covered by many renowned artists and bands such as Linkin Park and John Legend and became a staple in music reality shows. But Franklin’s cover is the ultimate compliment the song could get.
Most artists wish to cover Franklin’s songs and her she doing the opposite and the unconventional. Young at heart, Franklin always tried to keep up with the times: “I absolutely loved Adele’s. I was watching one of her promos… the kids on the school bus were having a wild time. I thought I can have fun and good time with it too because I loved the song and she is a terrific artist and a wonderful writer,” said Franklin in an interview. The cover was in her album Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics released in 2014.
Franklin 72 at that time, blew the audience away with her version for which she deserves R-E-S-P-E-C-T.