Aretha Franklin’s essential recordings

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News
Aretha Franklin sings during a memorial service for her father and brother, Rev. C.L. and Rev. Cecil Franklin, at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit on Sunday, June 7, 2015.

Aretha Franklin’s best-known song is “Respect,” but there are so many other songs that show her depth and skill as an artist. While she is touted for her fiery gospel and soul hits, Aretha was as adept at infusing her vocals with a bit of swing, which made for delightful pop records. This list of Aretha’s Essential Songs might not be your list, but it’s what I would have an Aretha novice listen to, in order to give them the gift of her music: 

Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do) — Stevie Wonder, Morris Broadnax and Clarence Paul 

It’s a gorgeous, lilting melody that Stevie told Aretha he’d written just for her, days before she rushed into the studio to record it, in 1974. In fact, Stevie had written the song way back in 1967, but if it helped to have Ree think he’d just dashed it off for her and messengered it over, why not? She needed to record this song, and her sunny, jazzy vocal made it into a Top 3 hit in ‘74. 

I Say a Little Prayer — Burt Bacharach and Hal David, 1968

The song had already been a hit for Dionne Warwick, but Aretha was on a hot streak after her ’67 string of successes, and scored a hit as well. Aretha made so many songwriters happy when she recorded their songs, but none more so than Burt Bacharach, who told me once that his favorite cover version of any song he ever wrote was Aretha’s rendition of this song. (He’d always thought Warwick’s version was too fast, he confessed).

Skylark — Johnny Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael, 1963

This is a good entry point into Aretha’s early ‘60s Columbia sound, a catalog that has been overshadowed only because her Atlantic Records work was sheer genius, and earthier. But she never lost her love of jazz, or her ability to sing standards, and would often drop “Skylark” into the set in recent years. (Live: (Recorded: 

Respect — Otis Redding

Redding wrote it and recorded it first, but once Aretha’s version hit the airwaves in 1967 and became her anthem, the Stax Records legend complained all the way to the bank. “That girl stole that song away from me,” he said. It went from being a weary working man’s complaint, to a fierce, womanly dare, although Aretha always resisted it being narrowcast as a feminist anthem.

Day Dreaming — Aretha Franklin, 1972

This lovely song, which epitomized the laid-back, jazzy groove of ‘70s R&B features a magical electric piano line by Donny Hathaway. Between Hathaway’s piano, Aretha’s happy lead vocal and the backing voices, it has one of the dreamiest vibes of any song, anywhere. Rumor had it that Aretha had written it about Dennis Edwards of the Temptations, a boyfriend for a time, and she admitted that was true in recent years.

Chain of Fools — Don Covay, 1968

From that fearsome, opening guitar riff by Joe South (played in concert for some years by Aretha’s son Teddy Richards), this record is deep. Infidelity, anger, despair—Aretha packs it all into two minutes and 45 seconds. Her wail of lovesick pain is chilling, but in the end she’s defiant, a survivor.

Amazing Grace — Traditional hymn; words by John Newton, 1972

It’s already a complicated, emotional song but somehow Aretha found even more layers of meaning. When she let loose on it at Luther Vandross’s funeral, her voice had a texture of comfort beyond words.

Precious Lord, Take My Hand — Traditional hymn, words by Thomas A. Dorsey, 1956

Aretha’s first recording, made when she was just 14, singing with her father’s traveling gospel show, in Oakland, Calif. It shows off the thrilling soulfulness of her voice that had been wowing the congregation of her father’s church for years. This song appeared on the Checker (Chess) album “Songs of Faith.”

Freeway of Love — Narada Michael Walden/Jeffrey Cohen, 1985.

Part of Aretha’s appeal was that she didn’t scorn pop culture, and was open to new sounds. She could sing opera, but she never lost her love of a good party and getting down. 

I’ve Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You) — Ronnie Shannon, 1967

The first song Aretha recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala, and the combination of her and the laid-back country boys backing her up was like a musical atomic bomb.She takes what was a downbeat blues song and adds fire and feminine spirit. 

Jumpin’ Jack Flash — Mick Jagger/Keith Richards, 1986

This wasn’t her best side, but it showed her ability to go toe to toe with a monster rock god such as Keith Richards, who played guitar on and produced the cut. He never quite got over the experience. “’Reetha cooked for me!” Keith exclaimed to me, backstage on the Stones’ Steel Wheels tour.

Moody’s Mood for Love — Eddie Jefferson, 1973 

Recorded for her Hey Now, Hey (The Other Side of the Sky)album, it was a rare joy when Aretha performed this hipster, vocalese classic, based upon a solo by saxophonist James Moody. Aretha relished telling the story of singing it live in California once, with Moody in the audience.

Bridge Over Troubled Waters — Paul Simon, 1971

Gorgeous in so many ways; she was singing like a bird, and the song was made for this full-on gospel treatment. 

Since You’ve Been Gone — Aretha Franklin, Ted White, 1968

Aretha’s ferocious piano playing is front and center on this song, and it’s apparent why Jerry Wexler and other producers just had her play as they watched in wonder, before crafting an arrangement that followed wherever that piano led.

You’re All I Need to Get By — Valerie Ashford & Nikolas Simpson, 1971

Only Aretha could take the place of two singers (Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, who cut the original Motown recording), and you don’t miss that second voice (Of course she has the help of her peerless backing vocalists). Some make a lot of the fact that Aretha never recorded for Motown, but she was good friends with many of Motown’s stars, and loved watching the label roar in the ‘60s.

Rock Steady — Aretha Franklin, 1972

“Let’s call this song exactly what it is,” Aretha proclaims, as the backup singers croon “What it is, what it is.” The song is proof that Aretha adapted effortlessly to the harder funk sound of the ‘70s. Drummer Bernard Purdie, who played on the session, says that the lengthy break in the song happened when Aretha’s sheet music blew off her stand, and he had to riff for a bit. Aretha’s reaction to that story, later, was to roll her eyes.

Dr. Feelgood (Love is a Serious Business) — Aretha Franklin, Ted White, 1967

A straight-talking song about a woman who wishes her family would just leave her and her man alone. The song was a refreshing jolt of adult sensuality in a music scene dominated by teenage angst and Summer of Love psychedelia. “Don’t send me a doctor, fill me up with all them pills, I’ve got me a man called Dr. Feelgood, takes care of all my pains and ills.”

Think — Aretha Franklin, Ted White, 1968

Another feisty anthem in which Aretha taps into the eternal feminine frustration with a feckless male. Her resounding cry of “Freedom” is inspiring.

(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman — Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Jerry Wexler, 1968

King had her own great version, but it’s Aretha’s emotional intensity that defines her version. I once found myself in the interesting position of telling Aretha that it was actually Gerry Goffin who wrote the lyrics, while his wife/songwriting partner Carole King composed the music--Aretha had been giving King credit for both.

Rolling in the Deep — Adele and Paul Hepworth, 2014

It can be a jolt to hear such a classic voice in a modern Autotuned setting, but how many world class pop vocalists still had this much voice in their 72nd year? And how many would dare take a singer’s signature song, and kill it? All hail the queen.