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Aretha 101: An immersion into the Queen of Soul's body of work

By Gary Graff
ggraff@digitalfirstmusic@gmail.com, @GraffonMusic

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Aretha Franklin and her legacy are not wanting for R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

She is the Queen of Soul. Nuf said. She has accomplishments too many to list, but just a few — 18 Grammy Awards along with Grammy Legend and Lifetime Achievement awards. the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Kennedy Center Honor — are a pretty good start.

As we learned last week during her decline and death at the age of 76 on Thursday, the world loves the Queen. It's a connection that runs deeper than a bunch of hit singles, too. Hers is a true voice, embodying spirit and spirituality, a defiant independence and a genuine desire to celebrate what's good in the world — and stamp out what's not.

Recent events stoked the worldwide appetite and appreciation for Franklin — and, importantly, her work. The songs, albums, performances and more will live on well beyond her, but while that spotlight is burning bright, we thought it appropriate to immerse ourselves in all things Franklin — an Aretha 101, if you will — things to enjoy while celebrating her life and wealth of contributions.


• "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" (1967): Yes, we respect "Respect," but Franklin's emotive version of this Carole King-Gerry Goffin classic is a definitive statement of being. It was the "natural woman" in Franklin that made all of the other great things possible.

• "Respect" (1967): And there it is. Franklin’s Grammy-winning rendition of Otis Redding's song is both protest and celebration, an in-your-face command that speaks to #metoo and other social issues of today as it did to the Civil Rights era when it was released.

• "Chain of Fools" (1967): Don Covay wrote this gospel-flavored paean that Franklin took to church with a ferocious purpose that elevated the track to iconic status.

• "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" (1967): Franklin's first big hit transitioned her from the jazzier flavor of her Columbia Records era into the R&B hitmaker she would become. Producer Jerry Wexler smartly let Franklin play piano herself on the track, contributing an authenticity and connection that was missing from her previous work.

• "Freeway of Love" (1985): Just plain good fun, a soul-pop top-down ride that actually sounds like the wind rushing through your hair.

• Other Key Tracks: "You Made Me Love You" (1965); "Do Right Woman — "Do Right Man" (1967); "Think" (1968); "The House That Jack Built" (1968); "The Weight" (1969); "Share Your Love With Me" (1969); "Rock Steady" (1971); "Break it to Me Gently" (1977); "Jump To It" (1982); "Rolling in the Deep (The Aretha Version)" (2014).


• "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You" (1967): An abundance of career-defining hits and key deep cuts like "Dr. Feelgood" and her version of Sam Cook's "A Change is Gonna Come" made this Franklin's true arrival nearly a decade into her recording career.

• "Lady Soul" (1968): "Chain of Fools" and "Natural Woman" make this one of Franklin's best, but the rest are equal to — and, some aficionados say, better than those.

• "Spirit in the Dark" (1970): Under-appreciated at the time, this set has aged well thanks to exceptional Franklin originals such as "You and Me," "One Way Ticket" and the title track.

• "Aretha Live at Fillmore West" (1971); "Don't Fight The Feeling: The Complete Aretha Franklin & King Curtis Live at Fillmore West" (2005): Franklin shines in San Francisco with a great band (including King Curtis and Billy Preston) and a show-stealing duet with Ray Charles on "Spirit in the Dark." One of the best live albums of all time.

• "Young, Gifted and Black" (1972): Another Grammy winner fortified by exceptional cover choices, including the Nina Simone title track and songs by the Beatles, Elton John and Otis Redding, among others.

• "Amazing Grace" (1972): Gospel is at the core of everything Franklin's done, and she arguably never sang it better than on this set of standards, recorded at the Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles.

• "Sparkle" (1976): With Franklin as the voice of this soundtrack and Curtis Mayfield writing and producing, this was a career-booster that fared better than the film.

• "This Christmas, Aretha" (2008): Because every holiday will sound a little better with Franklin singing the standards.

• "Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics" (2014): Franklin pays tribute to heroes, contemporaries and acolytes, making their song her own — especially when she mashes them up as clever "Aretha versions."

• "Queen in Waiting: The Columbia Years 1960-1965" (Sony Legacy, 2002); "Queen of Soul: The Very Best of Aretha Franklin" (Rhino, 1994); "A Deeper Love: The Best of Aretha Franklin" (Sony BMG, 2009): If it's just the hits you want, these three compilations will get you most everything you need — and some things you don't know you need — from the three major eras of her recording career.


• "Spirit in the Dark" with Ray Charles (1971): A galvanizing nine-minute summit between two of the best ever from the "Aretha Live at Fillmore West" album.

• "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves" with Eurythmics (1985): A kissin' cousin to “Respect” as Franklin and Annie Lennox stand shoulder to shoulder in musical and gender solidarity.

• "Jumpin' Jack Flash" with Keith Richards and Ron Wood (1986): The Rolling Stones guitarists came to Detroit to capture this hard-hitting cover of their hit for the Whoopi Goldberg film of the same name.

• "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)" with George Michael (1987): George Michael was still more Wham! cutie than solo star at this juncture, but singing with Franklin helped to propel him on his own way.

• "You've Got a Friend" with BeBe and CeCe Winans (1995): Another summit meeting, this time of gospel greats for "Tapestry Revisited: A Tribute to Carole King."

• Others Of Note: "Don't Play That Song" with the Dixie Flyers (1970); "Love All the Hurt Away" with George Benson, 1981; "It Isn't, It Wasn't, It Ain't Never Gonna Be" with Whitney Houston (1989); "Ever Changing Times" with Michael McDonald (1992); "What Now My Love" with Frank Sinatra (1993); "Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets with the Queen" (2009)


• "The Blues Brothers" (1980): Franklin turned in a self-aware and amusing cameo, as well as a hot performance of "Think."

• "The Queen of Soul Live in Concert at the Music Hall in Detroit" (1986): A Showtime special filmed over two nights in Franklin's hometown, including a ballet sequence and a guest appearance by Clarence Clemons, re-creating his "Freeway of Love" saxophone solo.

• 40th Annual Grammy Awards (1998): Franklin floored everybody when she was tapped at the last minute to perform "Nessun Dorma" for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti, nailing the piece with minimal rehearsal.

• "Aretha Franklin: Duets" (1993): Franklin was joined by Smokey Robinson, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Gloria Estefan and more for a Gay Men's Health Crisis benefit that was filmed for a cable TV special.

• "VH1 Divas Live" (1998): Franklin performed her own "A Rose is Still a Rose," but her rendition of "Chain of Fools" with Mariah Carey was a standout on this all-star special.

• "Kennedy Center Honors" (2015): Next to "Nessun Dorma," Franklin's performance of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" in tribute to Carole King is her most galvanizing television moment that brought everyone there, and subsequently watching on TV, to their feet.

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