From soulful ballads to up-jumps-the-boogie groves, these are the choice songs to play as you make your way to see the new film in theaters.
If you open up your books to John 1:1, you’ll see the first mention of Aretha Franklin as “the Voice” in there, and from then on you should never forget it. From the beginning when there was light, until her passing in 2018, Aretha’s talents knew no boundaries or obstacles that she couldn't overcome.
Still regarded as one of the greatest vocalists to ever influence music, Aretha’s talent for singing, playing, songwriting, and production were unmatched during her time and continue to impact artists to this day. “American history wells up when Aretha Franklin sings,” said former President Barack Obama.
And with 112 charted singles on Billboard, including 77 Hot 100 entries, 17 top-ten pop smashes, 100 R&B entries, and 20 number-one R&B singles, Aretha Franklin made it hard for this writer to narrow it down to just 10 selections. In fact, there was quite an internal debate as to which songs to include.
But with the premise of this list being songs to play as you make your way to see Jennifer Hudson play the late, great Queen of Soul in Liesl Tommy’s Respect biopic—there are a mix of evergreen cuts and deeply soulful numbers that you can't help but hum and dance along to.
With that in mind, here are the 10 best Aretha Franklin songs that showcase her God-given powerful instrument as one of the greatest voices that Black music has ever produced. Check the playlist below, then visit our September cover story with Jennifer Hudson for more on the Aretha Biopic, respect.
10. “Angel” (1973)
Written by Aretha’s younger sister, Carolyn Franklin, this jazzy number starts off with a poetic intro that leaves the door wide open for the Voice to swoop in and kick this beautiful song into high gear. Appearing on her 1973 album, Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky)—which was produced by Quincy Jones—Aretha, along with sisters Carolyn and Erma Franklin, make this heavenly number one to have at the ready after watching JHud do her thing at the movie theater.
9. “Spirit in the Dark” (1970)
This song may sound familiar to hip-hop fans who loved when Kanye West was in his “chipmunk soul” sample bag. But, to be frank, it is a rare groove in Aretha’s catalog that was covered more than it was flipped by producers. Artists such as C.S. Armstrong, Nicole Henry, and Herbie Mann attempted to put their stamp on it, but the Aretha Franklin-composed title track from her 19th studio album stands alone as one of her radiant offerings of gospel-rave-meets-Black-Power-soul. Clarifying how R&B amalgamated the secular and the sacred, co-producer Jerry Wexler recalled how Aretha “was off the sauce and on the one” while recording this soul-rock number. Light a candle and send up a prayer whenever you play this one out loud.
8. “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)” (1967)
Recorded for her 1967 album of the same name, Aretha pulls from her real life and infuses it into this classic Muscle Shoals recording. As you’ll see in Respect, the tumultuous union between Aretha and her then-husband and manager, Ted White, came to a head during the Muscle Shoals sessions, resulting in it being cut short. Thanks to Spooner Oldham of Muscle Shoals’ in-house band, The Swampers, adding an electric piano opening, Aretha channeling the energy from her abusive relationship gets a bit weighted when you think that they had all just met at the time.
“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)” would go on to become her first R&B No. 1 hit and the start of a beautiful relationship between her and Muscle Shoals.
7. “Jump To It” (1982)
For as much as people may sleep on Aretha’s dance tracks (like how could you ever!)—the title track of her 1982 LP paired her with Luther Vandross just as he was coming into his own bit of stardom. Whether performed live or in the studio, Aretha and Luther made for a solid pairing that was solid platinum whenever played. Add in Cissy Houston and Aretha’s “shab-a-doo-da-dwee-da” adlibs, and “Jump To It” became one of her most grooviest singles—and one that gets a party moving whenever played.
6. “Chain of Fools” (1967)
Thanks to songwriter extraordinaire Don Covay, “Chain of Fools” is an impressive classic from start to finish. The groove is steady in its pocket, making this song one of the biggest singles from Aretha’s Lady Soul album. Covay originally recorded this as a demo for Otis Redding, but when Jerry Wexler heard his overdubbed vocals, he chose to place the song with Aretha Franklin rather than Redding. One can’t be mad that Wexler gave this song away, as it reached No. 1 on the U.S. R&B chart, staying there for four weeks. It also won the Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, and later a Grammy Hall of Fame Award, easily helping Aretha to become the Queen of Soul.
5. “I Say A Little Prayer” (1968)
How does one become the Voice other than by showing why your talent and styles stands out over others. As the story goes, Dionne Warwick had just put out “I Say A Little Prayer,” which was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for her The Windows of the World record, and it had gone No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Aretha and The Sweet Inspirations sang it as a studio warm-up, but decided it was something to add as a b-side to “The House That Jack Built." On it, Aretha switches it up from the original going to an A major and adding in a more conventional chord—thanks to Clayton Ivey’s key playing—in the song’s arrangement.
4. “Young, Gifted & Black” (1972)
The Queen of Soul had a voice similar to a drummer, and she was able to fit into any pocket because of it. For her transformative rendition of Nina Simone’s inspiring song, Aretha added in a beautiful intro that gives “Young, Gifted & Black” a distinctive gospel feel that separates it from the original version. Aretha’s full-bodied makeover of the song, plus Billy Preston’s organ playing, makes this version of the song a gorgeous rallying cry that signifies the beauty of Black excellence.
3. “Rock Steady” (1971)
All praises due to the collaborative superpowers of Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway. Together, through Aretha’s songwriting and Donny’s high organ line that makes “Rock Steady” such a funky number, the arrangement of this song lends itself to another otherworldly force: Bob Marley. Fueled with Black Power intentions, “Rock Steady” had a tinge of reggae influence thanks to drummer Bernard Purdie’s time recording with Tuff Gong. This one is an overwhelmingly delicious smash hit that should get anyone hype and ready to watch Respect now that it is in the theaters.
2. “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” (1967)
Another Muscle Shoals’ classic recording featuring Aretha and The Swampers, this “pro-fidelity anthem” stars the former on both piano and organ. A moment that one would hope gets featured in Respect, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” had its session cut short due to another kerfuffle between Ted White and FAME Studios owner Rick Hall. With only the bones of the song intact, Aretha, with the help of her sisters Carolyn and Emma, as well as Cissy Houston, laid down her vocal and piano in one-take. Play it back a few times just to marvel and the vocal harmonies laid down and shake your head in wonder at the Queen of Soul’s timelessness.
1. “Respect” (1967)
While there are many other signature anthems that are in Aretha Franklin’s catalog, it is her commanding cover of Otis Redding’s 1965 crossover hit that takes the cake. She rearranged it, flipping the gender of the lyrics, as worked out by Aretha and her sisters, and instructed the rhythm section to do a “stop-and-stutter syncopation.” “Respect” became a Black national anthem in its own right, with EBONY writer Phyl Garland calling it exactly that in the October 1967 issue of the magazine. And following the incidents behind the “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” session, this song was considered “cake in the oven” that just needed the right temperature to bake and become a forever classic.
An interesting takeaway that one learns about the song after seeing Respect is how the “Re-re-re” part had a double meaning, as it was meant to tie into the word “respect,” but also to finesse Aretha’s nickname as well. It is a very choice move by Aretha and her production team, one that sincerely captures her brand of R&B as quasi-syllogism as her towering figure (at the time) began to emerge on the world stage.
Kevin L. Clark is an editor and screenwriter who covers the intersection of music, pop culture and social justice. Follow him @KevitoClark.