When it comes to Aretha Franklin, how do you choose a favourite song?
When news broke earlier this week that the Queen of Soul was “gravely ill”, our first reaction was to go straight into Aretha Franklin’s incredible body of work.
There’s so many fantastic songs and albums that Franklin recorded, it’s been hard to pick our top tracks. We’ve whittled it down, and these 22 songs are our absolute favourites. They aren’t necessarily her greatest hits or her biggest selling, nor always her greatest performances, but they’re the songs we love the most.
Think we’ve missed anything? We’d love to hear your top Aretha Franklin songs and recommendations, let us know by using the comment box below.
1. Get It Right (1983)
This is hands down our favourite Aretha Franklin tune.
The groove is infectious, the song is incredibly catchy and it’s produced by Luther Vandross. What more could you ask for?
The song was the lead single from the Get It Right album. It was the second album that Vandross and Franklin recorded together; their first, Jump to It, was a surprise hit selling half a million units. It was the first big selling album by Franklin in years, and Clive Davis, whose label Franklin was signed too, wanted a follow-up.
But that was easier said than done, with Vandross and Franklin, two big divas, clashing head on.
Despite her immense talent, and being recognized by almost everyone as the Queen of Soul, Franklin, at least according to biographer David Ritz, was very insecure. She constantly feared someone would replace her as the Queen, and was notorious for her rudeness towards other female stars (she was even a diva towards Whitney Houston, a family friend, when they recorded together).
Franklin therefore lashed out when Vandross offered his critique on her singing during the Get It Right sessions. According to Ritz, Vandross claimed that “she [Franklin] has to know that we knew what we were doing since the first album had been a runaway hit. But no. Anytime I gave the slightest comment, she screamed, ‘If you think you can do it better, then you sing the damn thing’’. Franklin left the studio, and refused to return without an apology.
Vandross, a diva in his own right, later said “so if Miss Franklin wanted to have her diva fits and torture another producer, that would be his problem, not mine”.
Sensing that the record may not get made at all, Davis phoned Vandross to ask him to apologise to Franklin, urging him to take the high ground and let Franklin hear what she needed to hear. Vandross did apologise, although later on Franklin would accuse the apology of being “half-hearted”. The two got back in the studio and finished the album.
Just as funky and exciting as Jump to It, the album performed poorly. But the single redeemed the lack of sales, and went to number one on the R&B charts.
The album may have flopped, but what a groove. What a performance. Luther Vandross and Aretha Franklin, a match made in heaven. At least for TFSR.
2. Jump To It (1982)
This number was the first collaboration between Vandross and Franklin, and it’s a tasty number.
When Franklin left Atlantic Records after a period declining sales (and quality), Clive Davis stepped in to rescue Franklin, and signed her to his new label Arista. Davis would be shrewd enough to position Franklin as a pop artist, while maintaining her credentials as the Queen of Soul.
Her first effort, simply titled Aretha, was moderate success: it stopped the decline in sales of her last Atlantic albums, and she received a Grammy nomination for her version of ‘I Can’t Turn You Loose’. The follow-up album Love All the Hurt Away, featuring a duet with George Benson, equally sold well.
At the time, a young Luther Vandross was making a name for himself as a producer, singer and songwriter. His debut album Never Too Much was a smash, and he had spoken of his admiration for Aretha Franklin and his hopes of working with her. Davis had seen these interviews, and hired Vandross to produce Franklin’s next Arista album (Vandross would also produce Dionne Warwick, another Davis signing in the eighties).
It wasn’t the easiest of working relationships. Beyond the bravado, Franklin was very insecure to the point where she hid it behind her outsized diva personality. As a result, she resented the approach Vandross took in the studio, especially after he, from her perspective, had the audacity of telling her to sing. In an interview with Ritz, Vandross said “There were quite a few disagreements. Aretha doesn’t like her vocals criticized – and understandably. Hey, she’s Aretha Franklin”.
She didn’t like the title track of the album, either. She claimed the introduction, with its pounding groove anchored by bassist Marcus Miller, was too long and that her fans would turn the song off before she sang. Vandross claimed otherwise, believing that the listener would wait, and would be hooked on the groove. He would recall that, “I wanted to establish the groove with a long instrumental intro. Aretha didn’t think the listener would wait that long to hear her voice. I assured her that the listener would be hooked on the groove and would be delighted to wait. She wanted to come in sooner. I said no. “Who’s the one with the most hits here?” she asked. Of course the answer was her. I just had one; she had dozens. “But who’s the one with the latest hit?” I asked. She didn’t answer. She stormed out”.
Fortunately, Franklin returned to lay down a killer vocal and to create one of the best post-Atlantic singles she recorded. The rest of the album wasn’t bad either.
3. Rock Steady (1971)
This song is pure funk. As such, it was a bit of a departure from Franklin’s usual tried-and-tested Atlantic-era soul formula, but it works and proves that Franklin could sing anything. Franklin wrote the song, and it appeared as one of the singles from the 1972 masterpiece Young, Gifted and Black.
Just like the Godfather of Soul, Franklin was embracing her heritage, and her proudness of being black. Her sisters Erma and Carolyn provided the backing vocals, while a range of top notch musicians played on the album including future soul star Donny Hathaway, Bernard Purdie and Hubert Laws.
4. My Guy
Franklin’s early albums at Columbia Records were a source of frustration to the young singer. The label struggled to know what to do with the fiery singer, and retreated to the haven of jazz and standards for the singer. The music created was by no means bad, but it also wasn’t good enough to turn Franklin into a star.
That said, there were glimmers of the future star on some of her Columbia albums. In 1964 Franklin released the album Runnin’ Out of Fools, which was produced by Clyde Otis, who had been successful songwriter for Nat King Cole and Brook Benton. Like John Hammond, Franklin’s first producer at Columbia, he continued to apply the jazz/standard formula to Franklin, and while the album has some memorable tunes, it also has some pretty non-spectacular ones. That said, there is one song that is pretty spectacular, and that is Franklin’s version of the Mary Wells/Motown classic, ‘My Guy’.
As with such massive hits, usually the original is the best. But while Motown opted for a pop-soul record for Wells, Otis had Franklin sing a really jazzy, sassy version of the song. In fact, Franklin’s sass is off the scale on here, as if to mock Wells for recording such a straightforward pop ditty in the first place.
This cover is a pure delight to listen too, and in some ways it is a little more creative than the version Motown released. Does it trump the original? No, probably not. Is it worth taking a listen to? Most definitely.
5. Respect (1967)
What is there left for anyone to say about this slice of classic soul? It’s the ultimate soul record, the prime example of what soul sounds like. It’s the gold standard, and is arguably the song that turned Franklin into a world-renowned star.
The song itself is actually a cover of an Otis Redding song. But instead of merely covering it, Franklin completely transforms it. In its original form, Redding demands his wife to submit to him, and respect him like a woman should. Yet, in the hands of Franklin, the song’s meaning is completely reversed. The song became a story of female empowerment, a song whereby a woman demands respect from a man in an era where such sentiment was largely unheard of.
Naturally, the production and vocals are incredible. Perfection, even. Are there any better songs in the Aretha Franklin arsenal than this?
6. You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman) (1968)
This Carole King-Gerry Goffin composition is another prime slice of classic soul. Taken from the Lady Soul album, Franklin’s second on Atlantic Records, the song was perfect for Franklin. The song, unlike many of her others, featured a fairly sparse arrangement with a restrained string arrangement. That seemed to give Franklin ample room to perform. Her voice is stunning, perhaps more stunning than on any of her other major hits.
In 2015 Franklin performed a phenomenal version at the Kennedy Centre Honours in tribute to Carole King, and in the presence of President Barack and Michelle Obama; the former even had a tear in his eye when Franklin let rip. This is probably one of Franklin’s finest live performances, and without a doubt her last great live appearance.
7. A Rose is Still a Rose (1998)
In 1991 Franklin released the bizarre What You See Is What You Sweat album. The weird album name aside, the album sunk without a trace. By the late nineties though, a new crop of neo-soul singers began working with Franklin in an attempt to upgrade her sound for a new generation. Of all the contributors on the album, Lauryn Hill was the most successful with ‘A Rose Is a Still a Rose’. The song featured the older, wiser Franklin giving advice to a younger woman going through bad relationships. The song was a surprise hit, and it helped the resulting album reach Gold status.
8. Think (1968)
Released in 1964, this was to be another feminist classic from the Queen of Soul. It was written by Franklin herself, along with her ex-husband Ted White. A big production, the song was a hit. Franklin’s trademark sassy vocal is unrivalled, and it’s another great Jerry Wexler production.
In 1980 Franklin would perform the song in the cult classic film The Blues Brothers. In the film she played the strong-willed wife of Matt “Guitar” Murphy (who recently died), who played a fictional version of himself. When the Blues Brothers turn up at their soul food cafe to recruit Murphy and “Blue” Lou Marini back into the band, Franklin lets rip with an impassioned version of ‘Think’ that almost outdoes the original. A funny and clever performance, it helped reignite her career in the early eighties.
9. Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool For You Baby) (1972)
This is the majestic opener to the Young, Gifted and Black album, released in 1972. Franklin starts out fairly restrained, building throughout the song to its awesome climax. The song was the B-side on the ‘Rock Steady’ single, and as a result was perhaps overlooked. Yet it’s one of the best ballad’s Franklin ever recorded.
10. That’s The Way I Feel About Cha (1973)
In 1972 someone had the bright idea of teaming Franklin up with Quincy Jones. On paper, it looked like a remarkable collaboration but for whatever reasons, the resulting album was a mixed success at best. The album, Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) was Franklin’s first on Atlantic to not hit the Top 25, and critics panned it as her worst in her “classic” period.
It certainly was a mixed album but it not only featured the exquisite ‘Angel’ (written by her sister Carolyn) it also featured a sublime cover of the Bobby Womack song ‘That’s The Way I Feel about Cha’. It was another example of the Queen of Soul taking a song famous by someone else, and re-working it to fit her voice and style. Franklin is particularly impressive on this song, and Jones set Franklin up with a great arrangement. Coming in at 7 minutes long, it features an impassioned Franklin vocal. It’s one of our favourite Franklin vocals.
11. Day Dreaming (1972)
Written by Franklin herself, it was inspired by Dennis Edwards, then the lead singer of The Temptations. Franklin and Edwards had a fling in the early seventies, and if this song is anything to go by, then Franklin was besotted with the powerful singer. The song was released in 1972, and in an interview with Oprah she revealed that she liked Edwards “a lot”, and that “I did write that with him in mind”. Saucy.
12. Don’t Play That Song (1970)
Originally recorded by Ben E. King, this was another song that Aretha made her own. Recorded for the Spirit in The Dark album, it was released in 1970 and went to number 1 on the R&B charts for ten weeks, and number 13 on the UK singles chart. It would sell a million copies, and it’s easy to understand why: it featured Aretha in her prime, backed with another excellent arrangement. A song of heartbreak and raw emotion, it suited Franklin perfectly.
13. Who’s Zoomin’ Who (1985)
After four albums with Arista Records that had performed fairly well, Franklin sought out a newer sound in an attempt get the big hits she craved. In 1985 she got it with ‘Freeway of Love’, taken from the Who’s Zoomin’ Who album. The follow up single, the title track, didn’t sell as many copies but for us it’s better. It features a pop-soul/eighties groove, a roaring vocal from Franklin and is instantly catchy. The album itself went Gold, and she won a Grammy for ‘Freeway of Love’.
14. Wonderful (2003)
Taken from the So Damn Happy album, ‘Wonderful’ was probably the best track on the album. The song won Franklin yet another Grammy (as if she needed any more by this point) and was the perfect follow-up to her 1998 comeback hit ‘A Rose Is Still A Rose’. The album would be the last she would record for Arista; she left soon afterwards, and her next release Aretha: A Woman Falling out of Love was released on her own label, and distributed exclusively through Walmart.
15. My Way (originally unreleased, released in 2007)
This song only appeared in 2007 on the compilation Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul. It’s the Frank Sinatra classic but done the Aretha Franklin way. And, apologies to Ol’ Blue Eyes, Franklin’s version is a bit better. Sinatra’s version is obviously the definitive album, but Franklin’s is certainly more creative. Recorded during the sessions for the Spirit in the Dark album, the arrangement is a delight, combining gospel, soul and the Sinatra-esque strings, alone with a Booker T-style organ solo.
It’s a mystery as to why this was never released on one of her Atlantic albums.
16. What Have We Got To Lose (w/Four Tops) (1983)
When the Four Tops returned to Motown in 1983 they recorded the excellent Back Where I Belong album. The whole album is pretty decent, but it’s the collaboration with Aretha Franklin that’s the real highlight. The Four Tops had appeared on her Jump To It album a year earlier, and the combination of Franklin and Levi Stubbs, the Tops’ iconic lead singer, was a perfect match. The Tops and Franklin were old friends, growing up and performing in Detroit, and their duet on ‘What Have We Got to Lose’ is stunning.
Franklin is, as you might expect, fabulous and Stubbs has no problem matching the Queen in power and performance. It’s a real rare gem.
17. A House Is Not A Home (2005)
When Luther Vandross passed away in 2005 Clive Davis wanted to put together a tribute album in honour of the singer. Using his contacts he assembled an incredible line-up of musicians from Elton John to Donna Summer to Patti LaBelle to Mary J Blige to the Queen of Soul herself. Franklin chose to sing ‘A House Is Not A Home’, a song Vandross had made his own on his Never Too Much album.
Now, Franklin, it’s safe to say, was a bit beyond her prime in this recording. By this point she was at her largest and, as a result, sounded rather breathy on her recording. Nonetheless there’s something about this that we love: her soaring vocals, her yearning and her pleading are mesmerising. But, Aretha being Aretha, it wouldn’t be the same without throwing a little shade. Her spoken word introduction calls Vandross “one of the premier male vocalists… in America”, as if to remind listeners that she was still the greatest of them all.
Still, it won her a Grammy and a place in our hearts. There’s also a great video of her singing the song with Luther.
18. Let It Be (1970)
There aren’t many covers of The Beatles that surpass the original, but it’s not surprise that the Queen of Soul was able to do just that. Well, I say “the original”, but in actual fact Franklin released her version a few months prior to the Fab Four releasing their version. As great as The Beatles’ version is, it simply doesn’t have the Queen of Soul. In Franklin’s possession the song is far more powerful, poignant at the same time as being quite moody.
Sorry lads, but Aretha beats you on this one.
19. Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do) (1974)
This song was originally written and recorded by Stevie Wonder in 1967, but wouldn’t be released as a single. Thankfully, the song ended up in Franklin’s lap, and she released it as a single in 1973. The song itself is beautiful, and in the hands of Franklin is a real treat. Everything about Franklin’s version is superior to Wonder’s (sorry Stevie), and the record buying public flocked to it: it sold over a million copies and hit Billboard’s charts like a wrecking ball. It was perhaps the last truly great song Franklin recorded for Atlantic Records.
20. I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) (1985)
Originally written by Dennis Morgan and Simon Climie, the song was intended for Tina Turner and not written as a duet. The duo pitched it to Turner as well as Clive Davis, who took the song. He then had the idea of pairing Franklin with British pop-soul singer George Michael, whose popularity in the UK at the time was huge.
According to Michael, he was star-struck working with Franklin – understandably so. He later said that “I just tried to stay in character, keep it simple – it was very understated in comparison to what she did”. He also revealed she brought a rack of ribs to the recording session. After his death, Franklin recalled that “we had a super time. He was calling most of the shots: how he wanted this, how he wanted that. My older sister, Erma, just fell for him right away. He was very friendly and personable, easy to talk to.”
21. Hold On, I’m Comin’ (1981)
Taken from the Love All The Hurt Away album, this cover of the Sam & Dave classic is pure fire. While nowhere as good as the original, it’s still pretty great, despite the dated sound of the synth drums and bass. What redeems it is the funky arrangement, the fabulously loud horn arrangement, and the incredibly sassy Aretha Franklin vocal. There’s even a quasi-rap in the middle that has Franklin talking about “Christmas pie” and the “Queen of Hearts made some tarts/all on a summer’s day”. If you’ve any idea what Franklin was on about, do write in.
Special mention: Rolling In The Deep (2014)
Released on her last album, Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics, this song doesn’t deserve to be included in our top 20 by a long shot. But for reasons unknown to me, I do love this song. Sure, it’s a bit naff: the production is too synthesised and vocally Franklin is fairly poor by her own high standards. Yet there is something joyful about it that I just can’t put my finger on. Perhaps it’s the snippet of ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ that I like, or the level of sass the 70+ year old Franklin reaches. Whatever it is, it’s one of our favourites but only the Lord knows why.
But, if like us, you like this check out her version of ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’. Even more sass.