It’s been said that the way people respond to your death is the best indicator of how you were regarded in life. When Aretha Franklin passed away in 2018 at the age of 76, the internet was flooded with a tidal wave of grief. Theaters and concert halls paid homage to her on their marquees. Celebrities and fellow musicians tearfully recounted the many ways this giant of soul music had inspired them. Many of them traveled from afar to pay their respects at her funeral. Without question, this was a proportional response to losing one of the most influential performing artists of the modern era.
The Detroit native, born in 1942, was raised on gospel music. She signed with Columbia Records when she was only 18. Although she moved on to Atlantic in 1966, she would go on to make over 40 albums, score countless hits, and enjoy honors such as an honorary Pulitzer and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. At the foundation of the reverence the world held her in was Franklin’s earth-shaking voice, her musical intelligence, and her dedication to her craft. She was the definition of irreplaceable.
Because Franklin was so prolific in the studio, all I can hope to do here is meander through her library, shining the light on a few tracks that weren’t released as singles and probably aren’t as familiar to most readers as her big hits. So, sit back, click on the videos, and glory in that Franklin sound!
During her six years with Columbia, among Franklin’s recordings was Laughing on the Outside (1963), her fourth studio album. This was the first time she released one of her own songs, called “I Wonder (Where You Are Tonight).” While the string-heavy arrangement by producer Robert Mersey is overly sentimental, Franklin’s delivery of her fluid melody line shows a sophistication that’s remarkable for a 21-year-old.
Having moved to Atlantic Records and now being produced by Jerry Wexler, the industry tastemaker who coined the term “rhythm and blues,” Franklin released Lady Soul in 1968. It was a monster success, reaching the No. 2 spot as an album plus spawning hit singles like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).”
Somewhat surprising is the cover of the Young Rascals’ 1967 hit “Groovin’.” Franklin is just as comfortable with this contemporary pop sound as she is with more blues-based material. The album was recorded at the heart of American soul, the FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and was supported by in-house studio musicians like the wonderful Spooner Oldham on organ. Engineer Tom Dowd contributed to the dense, thrilling sound.
Wexler and Franklin became an unstoppable creative pair. In the last two years of the 1960s, their output included the huge-selling singles “Think,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Ain’t No Way,” off the hit albums Lady Soul and Aretha Now. In 1968 she also won her first two (of a total of 18) Grammy awards.
The hits continued, including the No. 1 “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” with Spirit in the Dark (1970). By this point, she was writing almost half the material on every album, proving herself as gifted at the music’s creation as with its interpretation. “Spirit in the Dark” was her own song, and it made it into the Top 10. But Franklin wasn’t always focused on hit-making formulas. She reminds us what a great barrelhouse pianist she was on the album-only track “Try Matty’s,” which she wrote in the style of an old-school blues-rock number, complete with the bone-shaking Muscle Shoals horns.
Fans followed her breathlessly as she reconnected with her gospel roots on the album Amazing Grace, but then they started to abandon her. Sales began slipping in 1974 when With Everything I Feel in Me managed no Top 40 singles.
One of the joys of that album is Franklin’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Love Every Little Thing About You.” This track is an interesting combination of the usual R&B horns with Ken Bichel’s rock- and jazz-inspired chords on the Fender Rhodes keyboard. Franklin’s voice is incredibly supple and effortlessly wide-ranging.
Sales continued to dwindle. Fame is fickle, and no one in the recording industry could quite pinpoint what had dethroned the Queen of Soul or how to fix the problem. Some suggested it was because disco had taken over from R&B. Franklin finally had enough after her disco-themed La Diva was released and flopped in 1979; she left Atlantic after making 20 records there. Still, there are some nice tracks to be unearthed among the albums of the late 1970s.
On Almighty Fire, for example, composer/producer Curtis Mayfield celebrates the struggling singer’s gifts, even if her style was sounding seriously retro to younger ears. Franklin had collaborated with Mayfield on the movie soundtrack for Sparkle in 1976, and the success of that venture inspired them to work together again. Almighty Fire was not a commercial hit, but songs like “No Matter Who You Love” make it worth a listen:
After jumping from her foundering Atlantic contract, Franklin landed at Arista Records. Things immediately started to improve when she created two albums produced by Luther Vandross. This gained her a Grammy nomination for “Jump to It,” a gold record for “Get It Right,” and a re-entry to the Top 40. The albums themselves, however, still weren’t selling the way she’d hoped, so she moved on to another producer.
That was Narada Michael Walden (currently the drummer with Journey), who pondered ways to make younger listeners notice Franklin. On Who’s Zoomin’ Who? (1985), Walden’s fusion of trendy sounds like hip-hop and synth pop into Franklin’s R&B foundation proved to be exactly what the singer needed to get back on the map. “Freeway of Love” was a big hit, and the guest spot with the Eurythmics on “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves” didn’t hurt either. The new sound is well demonstrated in the song “Until You Say You Love Me.”
The mid-1980s marked the end of Franklin’s chart-topping days, despite 1989’s Through the Storm (1989), which found her singing duets with fellow stars like Elton John, James Brown, and Whitney Houston. Sales notwithstanding, Franklin had achieved a permanent icon status that nothing could alter. She continued to tour, playing to sold-out venues of adoring fans.
Franklin’s final studio album of entirely newly-recorded material was Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, from 2014, four years before her death. This collection of covers was the only record she ever made for RCA. At the age of 72, Franklin remained a vocal powerhouse and one of the most expressive singers ever to delight listeners.