Aretha Franklin's 10 greatest songs

The Queen of Soul has died aged 76

Graeme Ross
Thursday 16 August 2018 15:56 BST
Aretha Franklin 'The Queen of Soul' dies aged 76

She made Barack Obama cry and was long ago anointed the Queen of Soul and although there have been a few pretenders to her throne over the years, she still reigns imperiously, regularly cited as the greatest female singer of modern times.

Aretha Franklin may have died today aged 76 but the music of “Lady Soul” will long be celebrated. The songs in the following selection of greatest hits come from Aretha’s golden Atlantic Records period from 1967 to 1970, but that is no slight on her later triumphs. It’s just that these songs represent some of the greatest recordings in the history of soul music.

10. Do Right Woman, Do Right Man (1967)

A child prodigy who began singing in her father’s church aged 12, Franklin made her first record at 14, but after six fruitless years on the Columbia label, she cut a frustrated, unfulfilled figure. All that changed in 1966 when she signed to Atlantic Records and immediately found her muse. Her first recording with Atlantic, the epoch-making singleI Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)”, was backed with “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”, a gospel influenced plea for love, affection and respect featuring a beautifully soulful vocal from Aretha. Backed by the famed Muscle Shoals house band and with lustrous backing vocals from her sisters Carolyn and Erma and Whitney Houston’s mother Cissy, Aretha added her own sumptuous piano and organ and delivered the definitive version of a much covered classic.

Aretha Franklin in concert in 1977
Aretha Franklin in concert in 1977 (Rex)

9. Don’t Play That Song (1970)

Demonstrating Aretha’s oft overlooked piano chops to great effect (check her 1970 appearance on the Cliff Richard show on YouTube), this million-selling single features an exuberant whooping and soaring Franklin vocal, totally at odds with the song’s lyrics. (She can’t stand to listen to the song that reminds her so much of her lying lover.)

8. Chain of Fools (1967)

Aretha picked up a Grammy for a typical gospel-flecked powerhouse vocal on her fifth hit single in 1967 alone, and one which reached number two in the Billboard charts. Aretha brilliantly dons the persona of a woman who knows she is part of her lover’s harem, but who just can’t help herself. Written by Don Covay and owing much to Joe South’s sinewy guitar and the irresistible backing vocals of The Sweet Inspirations, “Chain of Fools” capped a remarkable year for Franklin in which she rewrote the rules of soul music.

7. (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (1967)

One of Aretha’s many signature songs and composed by Carole King and Gerry Goffin at the behest of producer Jerry Wexler, who wanted a “natural woman”-type song for her. So many of Aretha’s songs are about suffering and being unhappy in love but in this transcendent beauty, she rejoiced in love.

Aretha performing earlier this year in New York. The singer turns 75 this week
Aretha performing earlier this year in New York. The singer turns 75 this week (Getty)

6. Ain’t No Way (1968)

Composed by her sister Carolyn, this heartfelt ballad begins with a more restrained and intimate feel than Aretha’s normal full on style, perfect for conveying her pain at unreciprocated love, before she really lets rip on the last third of the song. One of Aretha’s most moving and affecting recordings thanks to the precision and care of her performance and the heavenly backing from The Sweet Inspirations with an unforgettable vocal obbligato from Cissy Houston.

5. I Say a Little Prayer (1968)

Not for the first or last time in her career, Aretha took a much loved original, in this case Dionne Warwick, and made the song her very own. Her spellbinding, soaring vocal backed by the impeccable choral harmonies of The Sweet Inspirations gave the song an irresistible pop/gospel feel and elevated Bacharach and David’s famous composition to a different plane.

4. Dr Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business) (1967)

A real slow burner this one, a self-penned, piano led blues that grows in intensity verse by verse until the stunning climactic ending. Somehow, Aretha manages to combine gospel and church with sex as she informs us that she don’t need no doctor as one visit from her man can cure all her ills. It’s well worth searching out her tour de force live version from 1971’s Live at Fillmore West for an appreciation of the unabashed sexuality of the song.

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Aretha in the Atlantic Records studios in New York, 1968
Aretha in the Atlantic Records studios in New York, 1968 (Getty)

3. Think (1968)

Soon after turning Otis Redding's “Respect” into a timeless feminist anthem, Aretha composed her own demand for female and ethnic empowerment in yet another deathless classic vividly brought to life by Aretha herself in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers.

2. Respect (1967)

Otis Redding's original was certainly a great record, but Aretha's blistering re-imagining blew it out the water and in the process became her first Billboard number one, winning her the first of her 18 Grammys. This instant classic became a huge feminist and civil rights anthem as Aretha turned the song on its head by taking it at a faster lick and adding some inspired and judicious lyrics.

Aretha and her sister Carolyn came up with the infectious “sock it to me” line which, as she later remembered, “coined a phrase”. And when Aretha sings about getting her “propers” (not in Redding's original), we're left in no doubt as to what she is referring to. The song's other startling innovation was the dramatic spelling out of the title R-E-S-P-E-C-T, just one of the many iconic moments in the Aretha Franklin canon.

1. I Never Loved a Man (The Way I loved You) (1967)

After her years of frustration with Columbia Records, the stars aligned as Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler provided the perfect ambience and outstanding material and let Aretha's wonderful voice and dazzling piano chops do the rest. Aretha's first side on Atlantic Records was this watershed recording for both her own career and soul music itself. Recorded at the famed Muscle Shoals studios, this is it, the record that started it all for Aretha, a hugely influential unimpeachable masterpiece with her brilliant and impassioned vocals soaring and swooping over a smokin’ house band as her bountiful talents were at last allowed to flower. It's the song that ushered in Aretha's classic Atlantic era and lit the fuse for some of the greatest recordings in the history of soul music.

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