Aretha Franklin’s catalog is so vast that you could listen to one Aretha Franklin song every day for a year and not get through all of her material (trust me, I’ve been working on that on my blog). And while most people can name a handful of Aretha songs, whether they be “Respect”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, and “Freeway Of Love”, or “Chain of Fools”, “Baby, I Love You”, and “I Say A Little Prayer”, beyond the hits lie a treasure trove of material. And beyond that lies an even more exciting treasure trove of material. These 10 deep cuts are essential to truly appreciate the genius of the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin:
“You Light Up My Life”
This only reached the masses via YouTube in 2019, and has never been officially released. Recorded in 1977, this cover was a contender for inclusion on 1977’s Sweet Passion LP, and Aretha even performed it live during that time period a few times. Unfortunately, it never made the album. But her transformation of the song is jarring. The delayed phrasing and the strength of her voice turn this coy caucasian moment into a full blown, life-or-death testimonial of illumination. And for all the squalling and wailing Aretha does, what brings chills to my body with each listen is the little “la-da-da-da” she coyly emotes at the end of the song.
“Pledging My Love/ The Clock”
Aretha was known for her love of Johnny Ace, and covered his “Never Let Me Go” on 1967’s Aretha Arrives. This amalgam of two of his other hits was recorded in 1969/70, and relegated to the b-side of “Share Your Love With Me”. She manages to take the adamance “Pledging My Love” and seamlessly transition into the agonizing yearning of “The Clock”, at a moment’s notice. The songs sound as though they were meant to be together, even though Aretha was the first, and only one to ever marry them.
In the late 70’s, the hits stopped coming for Aretha, but Aretha never stopped trying for them. The lead cut from 1974’s With Everything I Feel In Me was written by Aretha’s prolific sister Carolyn (“Angel”, “Ain’t No Way”). There’s something in the melody: it’s infectious without sacrificing any of it’s melancholy and yearning. It’s undoubtedly one of the best cuts from Aretha’s later years at Atlantic Records.
On Aretha’s final album containing original material, she joined forces with gospel powerhouse Karen Clark-Sheard of The Clark Sisters. “Faithful” would turn out to be the last gospel song Aretha released. Written by Richard Smallwood especially for Aretha, it was featured on 2011’s Aretha: A Woman Falling Out Of Love. Pairing these two is sacred, and their voices together are heavenly. It’s hard to not feel a little faith and resilience after hearing Aretha and Karen on this one.
“Springtime In New York”
This long-storied still-officially-unreleased cut from the 70’s hit the internet in 2019. Known only by name up to that point, it was recorded in June of 1974 during the sessions for With Everything I Feel In Me. Over nearly 8-minutes, Aretha bobs and weaves, meandering through the song’s movements. Most of the song is driven by Aretha’s hands at the piano, and she follows vocally, delivering an ode to springtime in a manner that musically is not unlike the way a testimonial might be given at her church. It’s very gospel, except for one moment where it picks up, and then about 3/4 of the way through where it turns into a jazzy, funky instrumental session.
“I Wanna Make It Up To You”
This duet between Aretha Franklin and Levi Stubbs from the Four Tops (with the rest of the Tops providing backing support) is tremendous. Written by Aretha and helmed by Luther Vandross, the chemistry between Aretha and Levi is powerful. The song has everything, vocal compatibility, that 80’s electric bass, powerhouse belting, and perhaps most iconic of all: a fake fade-out around the 6-minute mark. As the song fades, Aretha starts rallying “one more, one more, one more” and the fade reverses. Because, why not? And what Aretha says, goes.
“You Can’t Take Me For Granted”
Aretha’s 1991 LP What You See Is What You Sweat was something of a dud, but this Aretha-penned composition is one of the album’s bright spots. Aretha’s not at the piano this time, but the staccato chords in the pre-chorus accentuate the catchiness of the song. And though Aretha’s voice is at its most weathered from years of smoking, she’s still soulful as ever. Plus, the lyrical reference to one of Aretha’s most enduring cuts, “Sweet Bitter Love”, seals the deal.
“I’m Your Speed”
The closing cut from 1978’s Almighty Fire is one of two Aretha songs that has no rhythm part to it. This one is just Aretha Franklin and the piano. It’s impossible not to hang on her every word she sings, taking her time and driving the song exactly as she chooses.
“Never Leave You Again”
Aretha teamed up with Diddy (still Puff Daddy at the time) for a little extra flavor on her 1998 hip hop-tinged A Rose Is Still A Rose. Not only is she in a stellar voice, but she launches the ballad into another stratosphere as she starts scatting at the end of the track.
“If I Lose”
Aretha’s sporadic soundtrack contributions of the 90’s don’t get their rightful consideration. And this one is too good to miss. Aretha revisits the jazzy roots she planted pre-fame at Columbia Records in the early 1960’s for this cut from 1992’s White Men Can’t Jump. The song was written just for her by the film’s director and musical director. They were hellbent on Aretha participating in the soundtrack, and lending her voice to a pivotal moment in the film. She glides over this like a breath of fresh air, fresh off an album that was very trendy and not very successful.