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10 essential songs from Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, died Thursday at her home in Detroit.
Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, died Thursday at her home in Detroit. (Eva Maldonado)
Aretha Franklin

Choosing 10 songs from Aretha Franklin’s lengthy discography is a challenge — her keen musical knowledge and once-in-an-epoch voice make her whole catalog worth revisiting on a regular basis. These songs show different sides of the Memphis-born, Detroit-raised singer, who died Thursday.

“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” (1967)

Franklin’s first R&B chart-topper was her debut single for Atlantic Records, which set her up in Muscle Shoals, Ala., for sessions with the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and producer Jerry Wexler. Aretha’s opening rebuke — “You’re no good, heartbreaker” — sets the stage for her slow-burn portrayal of a woman tormented by so-bad-it’s-good love, her voice cresting as the brass and electric piano swell around her.


“Respect” (1967)

While Franklin’s catalog is full of American classics, “Respect” — written by Otis Redding — stands taller than the rest. Franklin’s vocal turns the lyrics into a call to action that can’t be disobeyed, let alone ignored, while the raucous instrumental bridge (particularly the tenor sax solo by Curtis “King Curtis” Ousley) and Franklin’s sisters Carolyn and Erma singing “sock it to me, sock it to me” in rapid-fire fashion behind their sibling add vigor and drama.

“Think” (1968)

Franklin is credited as co-writing the opening track on 1968’s “Aretha Now” with then-husband Ted White, although its commanding lyrics bear out Carolyn Franklin’s assertion that “Aretha wrote it, all by herself,” which she told biographer David Ritz in “Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin.” A taut, insistent soul broadside that influenced scores of later singers’ calls for individual and societal liberation, “Think” rang especially true amid the unrest and tumult of 1968. (Martin Luther King Jr., who had been assassinated that April, was a close friend of her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin.) “I’m sure ‘Think’ had personal meaning for Aretha,” Wexler told Ritz. “But it also resonated on a large cultural level. . . . The song spoke to everyone, and, like ‘Respect,’ became another way in which Aretha became a spokesperson for her generation.”


“Spanish Harlem” (1971)

Written by Jerry Lieber and Phil Spector, this ode to an Upper Manhattan-dwelling woman had originally been recorded by Ben E. King, but Franklin’s slight alteration of the lyrics and knowing vocal make her version, which features keyboards by New Orleans boogie legend Dr. John, the definitive one.

“Day Dreaming” (1972)

Aretha’s first Atlantic era was defined by constant, high-quality output — she released 16 studio albums between 1967 and 1979. 1972’s “Young, Gifted and Black” (named after Nina Simone’s 1969 song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”) is a standout, and this Franklin-composed track is a big reason why; it’s a watercolor depiction of reverie, its dizzy intro and outro framing a midtempo groove that provides a launching pad for Hubert Laws’s flute filigrees and Franklin’s gently thrilled vocal.

“Amazing Grace” (1972)

Franklin returned to her gospel roots on the 1972 album “Amazing Grace,” which was recorded during services at Los Angeles’s Missionary Baptist Church. Franklin, backed by the Southern California Community Choir, weaves spiritual standards and contemporary songs (including Marvin Gaye’s pleading “Wholy Holy” and Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend”) into a celebration of her faith that’ll compel even nonbelievers. Franklin turns the hymn the album is named after into an extended (the original album had it at 10-plus minutes) showcase for her interpretative talent and undeniable range.


“What a Fool Believes” (1980)

If “Respect” was Aretha reminding soul’s first wavers of the real boss, this cover of the Doobie Brothers’ 1978 ode to a sentimental sop was how she stood her ground amid the Yacht Rock wave. Bumping up the tempo just a bit and adding sparkling keyboards and handclaps, Franklin’s “Fool” is slightly peppier than its predecessor — and it also gives space for her gravity-defying vocal, which takes particular flight on the pre-chorus.

“Who’s Zoomin’ Who” (1985)

The simmering title track from Franklin’s 1985 comeback album surrounds her voice with drum-machine beats and gleaming synths (courtesy of super-producer Narada Michael Walden) but still has the no-nonsense attitude that she exhibited in “Respect” and “Think,” as well as a pre-key-change bridge where Franklin scats her way up the scale.

“I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me)” (1987)

Franklin’s final No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 was a duet with newly solo Wham! member George Michael, a longtime student of soul. Fusing gospel with synthpop, “Waiting” was a tour de force for both the soul legend and her devotee, who engaged in ad-lib duels when they weren’t singing in sweet harmony.

“A Rose Is Still a Rose” (1998)

Lauryn Hill produced and wrote the title track for Franklin’s 1998 album, which nods toward “Spanish Harlem” while placing Franklin in the role of wise elder trying to remind a young woman of her intrinsic worth. Over a strutting beat that recalls Hill’s “Everything Is Everything” (which came out later in 1998 on her solo debut, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”) and borrows from Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians’ 1988 leftfield hit “What I Am,” Franklin reveals her hard-won wisdom while also proving that she can still hang with the next generation.


Maura Johnston can be reached at maura@maura.com.