The Guide to Getting into Aretha Franklin
The iconic singer's catalog spans more than half a century. Here's where to start.
Photo by Fred A. Sabine / NBC / NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
There's one tiny thing about calling Aretha Franklin the "Queen of Soul" that feels a little misleading, and that's the fact that most queens are born into royalty; their title is their birthright. That's true for Aretha in the sense that she's always been in possession of one of the greatest—arguably the greatest—voices of all time, but likening her to a monarch glosses over the years before her reign. It overlooks her gospel beginnings singing in her father's church in Detroit, or the work she put in during the six years she was on Columbia Records before she signed with Atlantic, traveled to Muscle Shoals and seized the crown. It should have been hers to be begin with, but nothing was handed to her. She knew her worth, and she was unafraid to demand our r-e-s-p-e-c-t—as a woman, as an African-American, and yes, as our rightful Queen—in an era where doing so was unheard of.
On the other hand, it's a fitting nickname because queens rule for life, and the utter dominance of Franklin—who passed away August 16 at the age of 76 after a battle with pancreatic cancer—and her voice knows no term limits. To say her music will live on is a gross understatement. There are scores of Aretha superfans who haven't been born yet, and her songs will be heralded as classics long after they die.
That doesn't mean there can ever be such a thing as enough Aretha Franklin fans. If you're late to the party, you've got countless potential entry points and more than a half-century's worth of material to dive into, so to pay our respects and honor her life and legacy, we're highlighting five sides of the Queen to start with. Bow down.
So you want to get into: Classic Aretha?
When Jerry Wexler signed Aretha Franklin to Atlantic Records in 1966, he couldn't have known for certain that she'd go on to become a feminist icon, an important figure in the civil rights movement, or the very first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he was smart enough to let her be herself. As the Queen herself was once quoted as saying, "If you're here to record me, then let's record me—and not you."
That refusal to be controlled is echoed in some of her most beloved hits, like "Respect" (the Otis Redding track she transformed into a feminist anthem) or "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," where she warns that if she doesn't receive the respect and attention she deserves from her partner, she'll seek it elsewhere, singing, "a woman’s only human, you should understand / she’s not just a plaything, she’s flesh and blood just like her man" and later insisting "they say it’s a man’s world, but you can’t prove that by me / As long as we’re together, baby, show some respect to me."
It's easy to forget nowadays (though maybe not that easy in our current political hellscape) how revolutionary a simple demand for equality like that from a woman—especially an African-American woman—was at the time. Even when she wasn't overtly requesting it, her voice commanded respect, whether it was joyful (like on the Carole King-penned "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman"), mournful ("Ain't No Way") or downright stunning ("I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You)").
Playlist: "Respect" / "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman" / "Chain of Fools" / "I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You)" / "Ain't No Way" / "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" / "Baby, I Love You" / "Don't Play That Song" / "Save Me" / "The House That Jack Built" / "Share Your Love with Me"
So you want to get into: Gospel Aretha?
In a lot of ways, every Aretha Franklin song is a gospel song. Whether she was singing about love, heartbreak or other secular pleasures (*cough cough* "Dr. Feelgood" *cough cough*), she possessed an uncanny ability to touch people on a spiritual level by appealing to our shared humanity. Belief in a higher power isn't a requirement when it comes to her music; her church is anywhere—the dancefloor, the bedroom, the couch where you've decided to cry into a tub of ice cream post-breakup.
But Franklin began her career singing gospel in the more traditional sense, and her incredible soulfulness was apparent from the very beginning on tracks like "Never Grow Old" off of her 1956 debut, Songs of Faith, recorded live at her father's New Bethel Baptist Church when she was just 14. It never left her, and gospel remained a constant throughout her career. She sang "Precious Lord" at the funerals of Martin Luther King in 1968 and Mahalia Jackson in 1972. Later that year, her Amazing Grace album—recorded at the height of her success as a secular artist—went double-platinum and remains the highest-selling live gospel record of all time, as well as the most commercially successful album of her career.
Playlist: "Amazing Grace" / "Precious Lord (Take My Hand)" / "What A Friend We Have in Jesus" / "Mary, Don't You Weep" / "How I Got Over" / "Climbing Higher Mountains" / "Never Grow Old" / "Precious Memories" / "Oh Happy Day" feat. Mavis Staples / "God Will Take Care Of You"
So you want to get into: Columbia Years Aretha?
The general consensus about Aretha Franklin's time at Columbia Records is that they had no idea what to do with her. That's true to a certain extent; she wound up singing a lot of standards and pop over lush arrangements in an attempt to maximize crossover appeal. But nothing Aretha Franklin ever did comes anywhere close to being bad, and there are some true gems in her Columbia catalog. You can hear her stretching her wings a bit and putting her own spin on "Rockabye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody," her best-performing single from this period, which peaked at No. 37. Covers like "God Bless the Child" and "Try a Little Tenderness" (which she actually recorded four years before Otis Redding laid down his iconic rendition) were well-suited to her but failed to move the needle much commercially.
Her vocals on tracks like "Nobody Like You" and "Mockingbird" are hints of what would come later on in her career, but even at her most reined-in, she's miles ahead of practically anyone else. Aretha may have found herself artistically in Muscle Shoals a few years later, but her Columbia recordings are absolutely worth revisiting for an early glimpse of her greatness.
Playlist: "Nobody Like You" / "Rockabye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody" / "Try a Little Tenderness" / "Cry Like A Baby" / "Trouble In Mind" / "Skylark" / "God Bless the Child" / "Today I Sing the Blues" / "Mockingbird"
So you want to get into: Songs Aretha Wrote?
Maybe it's because it's hard to focus on anything else when you're hearing that incredible voice and piano playing, or because she has been so successful singing other people's songs (more on that in a bit), but Aretha Franklin doesn't get anywhere near the amount of credit she deserves for being an excellent songwriter. Many of the tracks she wrote (or co-wrote) rank among her finest. Hell, had she quit after penning "Think" with her first husband Ted White, we'd still be calling her an all-time great.
Thankfully, though, she didn't, and in addition to co-writing songs like "Baby Baby Baby" with her sister Carolyn, Aretha went on to write undeniable classics like the funky "Rock Steady" and the infectious "Spirit in the Dark," on which she implores us to "put your hands on your hips, cover your eyes and move with the spirit." (If you haven't seen her 1971 Fillmore West performance of it with Ray Charles, rectify that immediately.)
Playlist: "Spirit in the Dark" / "Rock Steady" / "Think" / "(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone" / "Dr. Feelgood (Love is a Serious Business)" / "Day Dreaming" / "Call Me" / "Baby Baby Baby"
So you want to get into: Aretha Doing Other People's Songs (And Making Them Better)?
The majority of the songs she recorded were written by other people, but for the purposes of this playlist, we're defining "other people's songs" as covers of songs popularized first by other artists. One of Aretha Franklin's greatest gifts, besides the ability to sing the absolute hell out of whatever was put in front of her, was the way in which she was able to make any song her own. In some cases ("Respect," for example, which we've filed instead under "Classic Aretha" for obvious reasons), her version became the definitive one. But even when tackling some of the most popular, beloved hits by the era's iconic artists, she put her own spin on them, holding her own with the originals and often blowing them out of the water. (No offense to Paul McCartney, but Aretha's "The Long and Winding Road" absolutely smokes his.)
She had her favorite artists whose catalogs she kept returning to (like Sam Cooke, who originally inspired her to make the leap from gospel to secular music, and Otis Redding, whose "I've Been Loving You Too Long" appeared on her Young, Gifted and Black album years after he famously declared "That little girl stole my song" after hearing her version of "Respect"). But in addition to stuff in her wheelhouse, Franklin was never afraid to take on something more unexpected like ? and the Mysterians' "96 Tears" or, more recently, Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." Whether she stole them or simply borrowed them, her covers of other artists' hits are proof that this is her kingdom—everyone else is permitted to live in it, but the Queen's got sovereignty.
Playlist: "A Change Is Gonna Come" / "Bridge Over Troubled Water" / "I Say A Little Prayer" / "Young, Gifted and Black" / "The Long and Winding Road" / "Eleanor Rigby" / "People Get Ready" / "The Weight" / "Son of a Preacher Man" / "You Send Me" / "I've Been Loving You Too Long" / "Rolling in the Deep" / "96 Tears"