Music fans across the world are mourning this week over the death of the legendary Aretha Franklin. The Memphis-born singer, who passed away after battling pancreatic cancer, had one of the most beautiful voices in music. Her storied career spanned nearly six decades with Franklin releasing 42 studio albums, which earned her 73 hit singles on Billboard’s Top 100.
The foundation the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer laid earned her a spot atop music’s Mount Rushmore. Even as she aged Franklin’s vocal ability stood the real test of time.
In memoriam, EBONY gathered a selection of the Queen of Soul’s most iconic live performances.
Early in her career, Franklin performed on the now-legendary Westinghouse Show, a late-night show hosted by Steven Allen, three times. Her performance of “Won’t Be Long” became known for the powerful and blues-influenced vocal delivery. The song peaked at No. 7 on the R&B Charts and appeared on her first secular album, Aretha: With the Ray Bryant Combo, released in 1961 on Columbia Records.
Though the Don Covay-written song appears on many of the Queen of Soul’s albums, it was released as a single in 1967. The following year, Franklin commanded the stage when she performed the chart-topping hit without the assistance of a band or backup singers.
“Chain of Fools” won the Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance at the 11th Annual Grammy Awards.
In May, the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer performed a version of the Rolling Stones hit in Amsterdam at Concertgebouw during her first tour abroad. She was promoting the release of Lady Soul, her first album after switching from Columbia Records to Atlantic Records. It would be one of the few times Franklin would perform overseas because she had a fear of flying.
Franklin met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 when she marched with the late activist during the Walk to Freedom, a Detroit march organized by her father, the Rev. Clarence LaVaughn Franklin. They remained good friends and worked closely together. After King’s 1968 assassination, the singer performed “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” not at his funeral but during a Memphis memorial service in August. She later performed the song at the funeral of Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel, in 1972 and at her father’s funeral in 1984.
In 1968, Franklin landed six records on the Top 20 hitlist including her rendition of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David song. The success of the year landed the Grammy winner the cover of Time magazine in June, making her the first Black woman to grace an issue. Two years later, she performed the record on The Cliff Richard Show, a U.K. music show hosted by the British singer-songwriter.
“Say a Little Prayer” was the last song Franklin performed before her passing.
The song was written by the Detroit native and released on her Young, Gifted and Black album in 1971. The funky feel of the record made it the perfect song for her to perform on Soul Train, the Don Cornelius-hosted American music-dance show, which premiered the same year.
Franklin, who got her start singing at her father’s church in Detroit, recorded the live gospel album Amazing Grace over the course of two days in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. She was backed by the Rev. James Cleveland on piano and the church’s choir. The album is the best-selling gospel album of all time and is the biggest album in the singer’s catalog.
Her performance of “Amazing Grace” captured her ability to control a room with the power of her voice effortlessly.
Live from Park West, a music venue in Chicago, the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Famer performed the Curtis Mayfield-written song from the soundtrack for the film, Sparkle. In 1976, it became the No. 1 song on Billboard’s R&B singles chart.
Luciano Pavarotti, arguably the most known opera singer of the late 20th century, was unable to perform “Nessun Dorma” at the 40th Annual Grammy Awards. Franklin reportedly had only 20 minutes notice that she would be Pavarotti’s replacement. She got on the stage wearing a fur coat and mixed her years of gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and funk into a performance that would showcase her vocal range.
With a history of speaking up for and defending Black people, it made sense for the music legend to sing at former President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. It wasn’t her first time performing for an incumbent of the Oval Office, and she did the same for Bill Clinton in 1993. Both Obama and Clinton eulogized Franklin’s contribution to American music when she passed.
Many famous music artists have covered Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s song. However, when Franklin sang it in 1967, it became one of the signature songs of her career. While King was being recognized with a Kennedy Center Honors Award, the 18-time Grammy winner surprised her with a memorable performance of the more than 50-year-old song. In one of her most memorable performances, Franklin hit the stage and sang life into everyone in the room, including moving Obama to tears and bringing Viola Davis to her feet. She ended the tribute throwing her signature fur coat to the floor of the stage, which leaves a lasting memory of her sassy personality.
The Queen of Soul emoted during her performances like no other. Outside of her backup singers, she barely needed much to belt out any song beautifully. In this rare performance on Soul Train, she performs Smokey Robinson’s 1964 hit, “Ooh Baby, Baby,” alongside the Motown legend.
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Christina Santi is a news and culture writer for EBONY.com. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, she considers herself a well-read, not so traditional feminist with a heavy interest in music, fashion and pop culture. Christina currently lives in New York City, where she refers to her Cuban & Jamaican descent often while writing about her experiences as a first-generation Afro-Latinx in America. She also devotes time writing personalized reading material for her tutees and turning ideas into words for streetwear brand, PUER By Noel Bronson.