No one could do it like Aretha. She just makes you feel. Period. That’s why Aretha was able to become a true star not one, not two, but ten albums into her career. Imagine that happening today. It wouldn’t. Aretha Franklin broke every single barrier presented to her. She broke the color barrier. She broke the musical barriers. She won the same Grammy Award 8 years in a row. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She sang at the memorial for the man who declared “I have a dream” and at the inauguration of the first black president. She covered so much ground musically: jazz, pop, soul, R&B, dance, gospel, hip hop, rock, and OPERA. She sang opera at the Grammy Awards with 15 minutes notice. Aside from heavy metal, there’s very little Aretha didn’t touch musically.
The deeper you dig into her discography, the more gems you find. Beyond “Respect,” “Natural Woman” and “I Say A Little Prayer” are “Oh My Oh My, I’m A Fool For You Baby,” “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” (my favorite), and “Call Me”. Even deeper are serious gems like “First Snow In Kokomo,” “No, No, I’m Losing You” and “Mary, Don’t You Weep.”
Just look at the endless songs Aretha Franklin covered. She took every single one and owned them, at times instilling fear in their originators. Otis Redding famously heard Aretha cover his “Respect” and simply said “that girl stole this song from me.” Paul Simon called Aretha’s reading of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” his favorite version. Dionne Warwick did “I Say A Little Prayer” first, but Aretha did it better. Same goes for the life she breathed into Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks Of My Tears” and even West Side Story’s “Somewhere”. And that’s why John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote “Let It Be” for Aretha. Beyond being the greatest singer of all time, Aretha was a first class musician with an impeccable ear. She was a self-taught pianist. Self. Taught. She played and wrote by ear. As any musician will attest, discovering that gift at such a young age proves Aretha as a prodigy. Her ear didn’t stop there. She helped arrange many of her big hits, most notably the background vocals on “Respect” and added the iconic spelling of the word to her version.
And then there’s Aretha’s songwriting. While she didn’t write all of her hits (she sang each song so well that may come as a surprise), Aretha wrote more than enough that the Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame should be scratching their heads as to why she isn’t sitting in their hall yet. “Think,” “Rock Steady,” “Call Me” and “Dr. Feelgood” are just a few of the big hits she wrote.
Aretha’s recordings are treasures, but her live performances excelled beyond the confines of the recording studio. When Aretha got in front of an audience, she devoured their energy to take her performances to new highs. Even in her later years, Aretha would kick off her shoes and jump and dance around when she caught the spirit. She never missed a beat.
The woman was unstoppable. Aretha Franklin was singular. That voice. Aretha’s voice is beyond words. There is no other like it. She conjures up notes, riffs, and runs that infiltrate the depths of your emotions, and thens she twists them in and out as no other singer can. Trying to find a singer who isn’t even indirectly inspired by Aretha Franklin is impossible. That is a testament to her unparalleled greatness. She will never be forgotten.