When Aretha Franklin passed away earlier this month, the world lost an icon whose music, Barack Obama said, “helped define the American experience.” Franklin’s rich, raspy voice was so remarkable that she’d been referred to as the “Queen of Soul” since the ’60s, but here are 10 times she showed why the title was so thoroughly deserved.
Otis Redding wrote and released “Respect” in 1965, but two years later Aretha Franklin turned it into a feminist classic. Lyrics like “all I’m askin’ is for a little respect when you get home” became politically-charged sung by a strong, confident woman, and Franklin and her sisters added the track’s incendiary “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” breakdown. Rolling Stone magazine wrote at the time: “Aretha Franklin has shot out of nowhere and become Lady Soul.”
2. The Blues Brothers
Franklin had no designs on an acting career, but her performance in this 1980 musical comedy impressed influential film critic Pauline Kael, who wrote in her review: “She smashes the movie to smithereens.” Watching Franklin’s Blues Brothers rendition of “Think” – a song she’d written and recorded over a decade earlier – it’s hard to disagree.
3. “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves”
Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart originally envisioned that Tina Turner would join them on this scorching 1985 female empowerment anthem. But when she was unavailable, they offered the duet to Franklin. Now, it’s hard to imagine Lennox singing its proudly pro-women lyrics with anyone but the Queen of Soul, who adds the loaded ad lib: “Equal pay, hear what we say!”
4. “A Deeper Love”
You might not associate Franklin with dance music, but this 1994 single saw her put a gospel-tinged spin on the genre. The fabulous result, later embraced as an LGBTQ Pride anthem, gave her an unexpected number one on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart.
5. “Nessun Dorma”
When illness forced Luciano Pavarotti to pull out of the 1998 Grammy Awards just hours before the ceremony was due to begin, Franklin fearlessly stepped in to deliver his performance. Opera was never her genre, but her brilliantly gritty rendition of Puccini‘s most famous composition shows just what a vocal powerhouse she could be.
6. VH1 Divas Live
Mariah Carey is no shrinking violet, but she definitely shows her R-E-S-P-E-C-T during this 1998 duet. As they trade lines on a rendition of Franklin’s ’60s hit “Chain of Fools,” Carey is almost deferential, allowing Franklin to let rip fully at the climax.
7. “A Rose Is Still A Rose”
Written and produced by Lauryn Hill, this underrated 1998 single became Franklin’s final top 40 hit. Hill’s elegant neo-soul arrangement sounds both contemporary and classic, and the maternal, subtly feminist lyrics are an ideal fit for the Queen of Soul. When Franklin tells a young woman who’s been jilted by her partner, “Without him your life goes on,” it’s both poignant and empowering.
8. President Barack Obama’s 2009 Inauguration
Franklin moved America when she welcomed the nation’s first Black President with a rendition of the patriotic song “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” Despite the chilly weather, which can restrict a singer’s vocal cords, the Queen of Soul delivers a pitch-perfect performance that’s dripping with class.
9. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”
When Carole King was awarded Kennedy Center Honors in 2015, Franklin took to the stage to perform “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” a song King wrote and both singers recorded. Franklin’s entrance in fur coat and floor-length gown may be the epitome of diva in the best way possible, but her vocal performance is pure, unadulterated soul, and King is visibly moved by it.
10. “The Star-Spangled Banner”
Franklin sang the National Anthem at many events over the years, but this rendition ahead of a Detroit Lions match on Thanksgiving 2016 is especially memorable. It’s not just a reminder of Franklin’s fine piano playing, but proof that her church roots always informed her gloriously soulful singing style.
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