Calling her the Queen of Soul might be underplaying the compliment. Aretha Franklin was the greatest singer of her generation and as prodigious a talent in African-American music the world has ever experienced – no disrespect to Ray Charles or B.B. King, or anyone else. The following 10 songs are standout examples of her gifts, but only starting points in exploring an unrivaled career.
Precious Lord (Take My Hand) [Part Two], 1956
“Ain’t no harm to moan,” sang a 14-year-old Aretha Franklin, making a convincing argument by then wordlessly rendering a melody. “Listen to that!” a congregation member at the New Bethel Baptist Church in her Detroit hometown exclaims on the rudimentary recording. She was just getting warmed up.
Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, 1967
On a slow-dance classic, a reasonable understanding is reached: “If you want a do-right-all-day woman, you’ve got to be a do-right-all-night man.” This is Franklin at her bluesy best, handling piano and organ duties while her gospel-singing sisters provide sympathetic background vocals. Like another one of Franklin’s hits, the song insists on mutual regard and proper appreciation. Take a lover for granted, and you get what you deserve.
When Franklin sang, “What you want, baby I got it,” the song’s composer Otis Redding and everybody else had little reason to doubt her claim. And where Redding’s version was a plea, Franklin’s was a demand, with vocals powerful and precise. The backup singers do the “sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me,” which is exactly what Franklin did.
Chain of Fools, 1967
A heavy-striding, hall-of-fame kiss-off tune, with a convincing swamp-rock choogle too. Franklin delivers “But I found out” like a whiplash strike, and every dude with the wrong lipstick on his collar gets a chill.
I Say a Little Prayer, 1968
Naturally it was a man (Hal David) who wrote lyrics about a woman who squeezes in a prayer for a lover any time she has a spare second – from the moment she wakes up and before she puts on her makeup, to a bus ride and to a coffee break and so on. The song was written for Dionne Warwick, but even co-writer Burt Bacharach preferred Franklin’s recording. She’s not in powerhouse mode, but an upward vocal stretch (“For me there is no one but you”) is just one of those small, sublime moments that mark the career of the undisputed Queen of Soul.
The Weight, 1969
After Franklin with Jerry Wexler and his Atlantic Records crew got done with The Band’s classic tune, Robbie Robertson pulled into Nazareth and hardly recognized the place. The bottle-neck guitar is supplied by Duane Allman. As rock critic Robert Christgau noted, “When Aretha sings The Weight it sounds as if she knows what it means,” even if nobody else does.
Spirit in the Dark, 1970
A gospel number written by Franklin (with backing by Atlantic Records house band The Dixie Flyers) is a master class in tempo management, a church-rocking call to dance and the No. 1 cause of second thoughts of unsure atheists.
First Snow in Kokomo, 1972
Something different here: a groove-free ballad, intimately delivered, as from inside a snow globe. Perhaps overshadowed by Rock Steady and Day Dreaming off the same album (Young, Gifted and Black, one of her finest), Franklin’s playful, observational First Snow in Kokomo never became the seasonal classic it deserves to be.
School Days, 1980
Given that her mother died when she was 10 and that she gave birth to her first child at age 14, the zippy Vegas-speed sprint of Franklin’s School Days is autobiographical nostalgia that we can only hope is true. “We were stylish and young, second to none,” she sings, her glee infectious in a Stevie Wonder way.
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, 2015
Nearly 50 years after its initial release, Aretha Franklin took the stage at the Kennedy Center Honors concert in Washington, D.C., to perform (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman in celebration of the song’s co-writer, Carole King. Initially sitting at the piano in a fur coat, a 73-year-old Franklin lifted the crowd to its feet, caused King to nearly fall off the balcony and literally brought the then-leader of the free world (President Barack Obama) to tears. A soul-lifting ballad and a testament to the power of love, the song has been recorded by others but never with the convincing emotional depth conveyed by Franklin.