Aretha: our favourite tracks from a superstar songstress...
Here at CC Festival, we love Aretha Franklin - how can you not?! And we, along with the entire music world, were deeply saddened by the news on her death earlier this year.
To celebrate her genius, from her teenage recordings to her collaboration with John Legend more than 50 years later, here are Aretha’s finest hits - and a few deep cuts…
You Grow Closer, 1956
This track was put onto audio tape live when Aretha was just 14, with the noise of the congration at the function clearly audible over her voice & piano. Aretha Franklin’s debut album, Songs of Faith, remains a genuinely haunting, faintly eerie document of at least one side of life in her father’s New Bethel Baptist church.
I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You), 1967
Columbia’s attempts to turn Franklin into a star were elaborate. By contrast, when she moved to Atlantic, Wexler opted for simplicity. “They just told me to sit on the piano and sing,” recalled Franklin of their first session at Alabama’s legendary Fame Studios. Wexler requested she sing a blues song; Franklin responded with I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You), a perfect example of what her sister Erma called her “ability to transform extreme pain to extreme beauty”: she could have been singing about anything from her own marriage to the appalling Ted White. Either way, the trajectory of her career was changed for ever in the space of three minutes.
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, 1967
From the moment she fetched up at Atlantic, it was as if someone had released the brake on Franklin’s career: the sheer number of indisputable classics she produced in her first year with the label alone is faintly mind-boggling. A mere four months after Respect topped the charts, she released (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. It’s a song so overplayed, it is easy to forget how extraordinary Franklin’s performance is. The sweep from the stately, controlled verses into a euphoric chorus is one of the most sublime moments in pop.
Spirit in the Dark, 1970
Franklin was slightly underrated in certain areas of her career. She contributed far more to the arrangements of her records than the credits on them allow. Despite writing everything from vocal harmonies to drum breaks herself, she did not receive a producer’s credit until 1972. Her biggest hits were usually covers, so her talent as an interpreter of others’ work overshadowed her talent as a writer. The big hit from her transcendent 1970 album Spirit in the Dark was a version of Don’t Play That Song (You Lied), but it might be surpassed by the self-penned title track, a beautiful, episodic melding of the sacred and profane: the sound is pure gospel, the lyrics suggestive of more earthly pleasures.
It’s Gonna Get a Bit Better, 1979
La Diva is almost universally reviled as the nadir of Franklin’s years with Atlantic records: it is her lowest-selling album of the era, an attempt to climb aboard the disco bandwagon so belated that it arrived in the midst of the disco backlash. But that isn’t the whole story. For one thing, a lot of the disco material is better than its reputation suggests; for another, amid the four-to-the-floor beats and sweeping orchestration, there lurks a clutch of tough funk tracks, including a fierce version of Lalomie Washburn’s It’s Gonna Get a Bit Better: proof that, although her music had lost the sure-footedness that marked out her 1967-73 golden era, Franklin could never be written off.
What Y’All Came to Do, 2007
Beset by health problems in her final years, Aretha Franklin was nevertheless still capable of turning it out musically. Sometimes she did that in full view of the media, as evidenced by her extraordinary performance of (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors. And sometimes she did it in the most unlikely of places. Jewels in the Crown was merely a contractual obligation compilation of Franklin’s duets, but it contained this: a raw, upfront, supremely funky collaboration with John Legend that may be the best thing she recorded in her last two decades.