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From Stevie Wonder to Sam Cooke: Aretha Franklin's favourite songs of all time


Aretha Franklin is a name in music that should always be approached with the respect it deserves. Avoiding needless puns should probably be the first port of call. However, we’ll just aim to do right by Lady Soul from here on in.

The late great Aretha Franklin is rightly regarded as one of the most wonderfully gifted singers in musical history. 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. When allowed to dive into her favourite songs of all time, one must dive in, head first, and relish the consequences of musical enrichment at will.

“I’m just giving you some of my favourites – you can’t cite all of them,” said Franklin when answering the question of her favourite songs of all time by Rolling Stone. The singer and the publication have enjoyed a tempestuous relationship over the years but, in 2014, she softened her stance on the magazine and agreed to share her (nearly) ten favourite songs of all time. As you might imagine, it’s a searing list of songs that we’ve turned into a perfect playlist.

Starting with the only real anomaly in the bunch, the 2013 hit for Pharrell, ‘Happy’. It stands out because it is by far the most recent song on the list, yet somehow still fits in with the group. “It’s a delightful little melody that almost anybody can sing,” said Franklin of the track. “Sam Cooke said something about hit records: If people can sing along with you, it probably will be a hit record. I love Pharrell’s delivery of that song. It’s perfect.”

A class act Franklin was born in an age when self-promotion was the only form of marketing one had. If you weren’t shouting your own name from the rooftops, then chances are nobody else would, something especially pertinent for a Black woman in the fifties and sixties. It means, even in 2014, with a myriad of accolades and a tidal wave of success behind her, Franklin still pays tribute to her own past. She not only selected an arresting sermon from her father, which goes: “Jesus is on the beach. And he walks into someone that immediately knows [Jesus] is superior and supreme to him, without any communication, any words, or anything. That’s just what I love about that.” But she also pays homage to perhaps her most famous song, ‘Respect’.

“What can I say about this one?” poses Franklin. “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.”

Franklin also pays homage to her gospel roots within the list by sharing a medley from Dorothy Norwood. Franklin was full of compliments for the singer: “Dorothy Norwood came from the gospel group the Caravans. She’s one of the great gospel luminaries who could just bring a song to life. She sang these songs with such great, passionate gospel fervour.”

Franklin also pays tribute to Anita Baker, selecting her song ‘Same Ole Love’ for its personal connection, saying: “It reminds me of a place called the Arcadia, a roller rink that used to be really, really big when I was coming up. And I would live in the roller rink. I was there on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. They had ladies only, couples only, men only, trios, different variations of people out on the floor. It was so much fun.”

As well as the ladies, Franklin noted some of her favourite male singers too. Not only selecting the wondrous song ‘In The Midnight Hour’ from Wilson Pickett calling him “one of the greatest R&B vocalists of our time,” in the process. She also shared her affections for Barry White and his vocal tone as well as the fabulous performance from The Four Tops. But, truly, it was singing where Franklin paid the closest attention.

Picking out Sam Cooke’s classic ‘You Send Me’, she couldn’t hide her admiration for the singer: “All singers aspired to be Sam. He was a beautiful man. Very charming, engaging – a great artist with a whole lotta personality. It was thrilling for me – and every other woman – to be in the room with him […] Sam’s what you’d call a singer’s singer.” A similarly talented star that Franklin witnessed reach the highest heights was Stevie Wonder. She says of the singer’s track ‘Pastime Paradise’: “This song has a great melody, with a serious level of musicality. Stevie is a genius. He and I are great friends – Stevie’s the homeboy. And it’s always lovely to see him. He’s such an interesting conversationalist.”

It’s a list of favourite songs that not only offers a lesson in the greatest singers of the 20th century but also an insight into the bigger than life personality of Aretha Franklin.

You can hear the playlist, below.

Aretha Franklin’s favourite songs of all time:

  • ‘Happy’ – Pharrell Williams
  • ‘A Wild Man Meets Jesus’ – Rev. C.L. Franklin
  • ‘Respect’ – Aretha Franklin
  • ‘Victory Is Mine’ – Dorothy Norwood
  • ‘I Need Thee’ – Dorothy Norwood
  • ‘Shine On Me’ – Dorothy Norwood
  • ‘MacArthur Park’ The Four Tops
  • ‘Same Ole Love’ – Anita Baker
  • ‘In The Midnight Hour’ – Wilson Pickett
  • ‘You Send Me’ – Sam Cooke
  • ‘Pastime Paradise’ – Stevie Wonder
  • ‘Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Baby’ – Barry White