A musical phenomenon who crossed musical, racial and gender barriers, Franklin began her vocal career as a teenager, singing gospel hymns in her father’s Detroit church. From these humble beginnings she scaled to the very heights of stardom, scoring her first national chart-topper in 1967 with a searing version of Otis Redding’s “Respect.”
Since then, the artist has notched 77 Hot 100 chart entries, and earned an astounding 18 Grammys out of 44 nominations. In 1987, two decades after her first No. 1, Franklin became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and was later named the Greatest Singer of All Time by Rolling Stone.
In honor of her remarkable life and otherworldly talent, here are 10 of Franklin’s greatest songs.
1. “Respect” (1967)
Franklin’s signature song was written by soul great Otis Redding, who released his own version two years earlier on his 1965 album Otis Blue. Sung by Redding, the track reflected the stereotypical gender norms of the day: the man works hard for money, which his woman then spends. Sung by Franklin at her fiery best, the song was transformed into an anthem of empowerment for women. Recorded on Valentine’s Day 1967, it reached No. 1 that June. Her version was ultimately named one of the top five greatest songs of all time by Rolling Stone.
2. “Chain of Fools” (1968)
This hit off Franklin’s 1968 album Lady Soul was written by a very young Don Covay, who recorded a demo for Otis Redding. The early incarnation had a drastically different feel, recorded as “a straight blues song about field hands in the South,” according to Rolling Stone. However, after Franklin reworked the lyrics — and producer Jerry Wexler added an extra dose of stomp — the song took off, reaching No. 2 in January 1968.
3. “I Say Little Prayer” (1968)
Franklin took this Dionne Warwick hit — penned by the incomparable Burt Bacharach and Hal David — and made it a showstopper of her own. Ironically, she originally had no serious intention of recording it. Franklin and her backing group, the Sweet Inspirations, were singing the song as a warm-up in the studio one day when Jerry Wexler heard its potential. Franklin’s version, featuring Clayton Ivey’s hard-driving piano, was issued as the B-side to her single “The House That Jack Built,” and quickly began to receive airplay from radio DJs.
4. “To Be Young Gifted and Black” (1972)
Nina Simone wrote and recorded “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in 1969 as a tribute to A Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who died of pancreatic cancer four years earlier. An instant anthem for the civil rights movement, Franklin’s gospel rendition became the title track for her 1972 album — her 20th. As both a social comment and a vocal performance, the song ranks among her very best.
5. “Think” (1968)
Something of a sequel (or at least distant cousin) of “Respect,” Franklin wrote this feminist rallying cry with Teddy White, her husband and manager at the time. Originally recorded for Atlantic Records with her crack crew of Muscle Shoals session players — including Joe South and Spooner Oldham — the song also provided the soundtrack to Franklin’s standout cameo in the 1980 comedy, The Blues Brothers.
6. “How I Got Over” (1972)
Clara Ward composed this gospel hymn in 1951, drawing on her experiences traveling throughout segregated states in the American South. White men were outraged that Ward and her singing group were riding in style in a luxurious Cadillac, so they swarmed the car and hurled racial slurs. The entourage finally escaped when Ward’s mother feigned demonic possession and began screaming at the men in tongues.
Legendary gospel queen Mahalia Jackson earned a Grammy for her version of the song in 1961, and two years later sang it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington alongside Dr. Martin Luther King. Franklin’s stunning rendition was featured on her 1972 live album, Amazing Grace.
7. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” (1968)
Composed by the hit-making husband and wife songwriting duo Carole King and Gerry Goffin, the seeds of the song were sewn when Franklin’s producer Jerry Wexler happened to drive past the pair while they were out walking in New York City. Wexler had been mulling over a distinctive song title in his head, so he shouted at the two tunesmiths, “Why don’t you write a song called ‘Natural Woman’?” Using the title as a starting point, they did just that — and gave Wexler a songwriting credit to show their appreciation.
Included on Lady Soul, the song features backing vocals from her two sisters, Carolyn and Erma. King herself would later record a version on her breakthrough 1971 album, Tapestry. In 2015, when King was recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors, Franklin sang “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” in tribute.
8. “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)” (1967)
Franklin’s first major hit also marked the beginning of her fruitful collaboration with producer Jerry Wexler, who paired her million dollar voice with session players for the Stax label and also members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. According to Franklin, “they just told me to sit on the piano and sing” — and the musical alchemy was apparent after just a few notes. “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” became her debut single on Atlantic — hitting the top spot on the R&B charts — and served as the title track for her inaugural Atlantic LP.
9. “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” (1973)
Stevie Wonder wrote and recorded this song in 1967, but it would take nearly a decade for him to release it himself. In the intervening years, he played the track for Franklin, who issued her own version in 1973, backed by Donny Hathaway on electric piano and Cissy Houston on backup vocals. It quickly became a million seller, reaching the Top 10 on both the Hot 100 and the Billboard R&B charts.
10. “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me” (1987)
Franklin’s 1987 duet with George Michael became her first Hot 100 number one since “Respect” two decades earlier. Originally pitched to Tina Turner as a solo number, the song went to Franklin and Michael at the suggestion of Arista Records impresario Clive Davis.
“The first time I heard George was with Wham! and I liked it then,” Franklin said in a 2017 interview with EW. “He had a very unique sound, very different from anything that was out there. When Clive suggested we get together for ‘I Knew You Were Waiting,’ I was all ready. It reminded me of Jerry Wexler. We’d go in the studio and cut songs. If we were happy with what we recorded, Jerry would say, ‘Let’s wait until tomorrow. If we feel the same way that we do now, maybe we have a hit.’ ‘I Knew You Were Waiting’ had that. Musically, it does not grow old.”
Michael, who had recently split with his Wham! partner Andrew Rigeley, recalled being extremely nervous to sing with one of his great vocal heroes. “Nobody can emulate Aretha Franklin,” he wrote in his book, Bare. “It’s stupid to try. I just tried to stay in character, keep it simple — it was very understated in comparison to what she did.”
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