Aretha Franklin, the appropriately named Queen of Soul, has battled health problems for years, but it is still jarring to hear that she is gravely ill at this point. While she is still with us, let’s all “Say a Little Prayer” for this regal and exceptionally potent artist, whose singing, piano playing, and overall conception have inspired and taught me like few others have. Here are some of my favorite tracks:
1 ) “I Say a Little Prayer” (from Aretha Now)
The first time I heard this I was when I stumbled on an Atlantic-era best-of album of Aretha’s in high school and it was disarming. The whole album knocked me out, but this song really struck me, with the combination of transcendent vocals, the harmonic and rhythmic sophistication of Burt Bacharach’s composition, and the soulful clarity of the arranging provided one of the defining moments in my figuring out what elements I hoped my music might someday have.
2 ) “How I Got Over” (from Amazing Grace)
This whole recording of Aretha singing gospel music is stunning, so it’s hard to pick one track. The intersection of joy and virtuosity is on incredible display on this divinely uplifting song.
3 ) “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” (from Lady Soul)
Confession: the first time I heard this song was in a 30 second clip in a commercial for jeans. I secretly loved it then, and then I heard the whole song a few years later and was literally stunned by how she could be so soulful and so subtle at the same time, a balance that I have heard few others achieve.
4 ) “Somewhere” (from Hey Now Hey: the Other Side of the Sky)
This track displays two important aspects of Aretha’s musicianship. One is the ability to infuse subtle gravity into material that has the potential to be schmaltzy (with all due respect to lovers of “West Side Story,” from which this song comes). The other is her truly wonderful piano work. We can hear some of that on other tracks on this list, but here she really stretches out both in the gorgeous intro and in the authoritative piano solo that precedes a guest turn by Phil Woods on alto saxophone.
5 ) “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” (from I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You)
Speaking of Aretha’s piano, I have a particular fondness for performances that are sparsely arranged enough for it to shine through, and this Dan Penn-penned song is one of the most stellar examples of that. The B-side to her first Atlantic single, it also gives plenty of space to the gorgeous, moving vocal harmonies she created with her sisters Erma and Carolyn.
6 ) “Won’t Be Long” (from Aretha In Person with the Ray Bryant Combo)
Here we hear 18 year old Aretha backed by the wonderful pianist Ray Bryant and his trio, and man, she SANGS it. Aretha’s early years prior to signing with Atlantic Records are often viewed as something of a footnote in history, and that’s fair to an extent, but the spirit, skill, and versatility of her vocals are still something else.
7 ) “A Rose is Still a Rose” (from A Rose is Still a Rose)
Hearing classic soul artists dabble in hip-hop production techniques can be kind of sad when it’s an ill fit. But on this collaboration with Ms. Lauryn Hill (on a Hill-penned track from the late ‘90s), Aretha sounds completely in her element both on the slinky, subtle parts and when she soars.
8 ) “Hello Sunshine” (from Aretha Now)
When I was in my first semester of college I didn’t yet have a working record OR CD player, just a small cassette player, so between that and living in a very sketchy apartment, I spent a lot of time listening to music and studying at the Rutgers listening library. This record was in heavy rotation, and I would get particularly excited/distracted when this track would come on. I subsequently discovered the prior versions by King Curtis (the song’s writer) and Wilson Pickett (no slouch for dramatic vocals), but as she did with so many songs, she takes it to the emotional stratosphere, especially on the soaring bridge.
9 ) “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (from Live at Fillmore West)
Aretha had a capacity to make songs her own, and while I recognize that this is heresy to Simon & Garfunkel fans, this one is a stellar example to my ears. The studio version is beautiful too, but this one wins the near-coin toss for representing her powerful, improvisationally rich live performing.
10 ) “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves” with the Eurythmics (from Who’s Zoomin’ Who?)
This swaggering feminist manifesto is a collaboration with the popular 1980s group the Eurythmics, putting Aretha beside powerhouse Annie Lennox and also featuring three Heartbreakers (as in Tom Petty and the). Like the Lauryn Hill collaboration above, this is a potent demonstration of the timeless relevance of Lady Soul’s powerful voice.