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Remembering Aretha Franklin: Her Greatest Live Performances

Legendary soul singer Aretha Franklin died on Thursday at 76 after a battle with cancer, but her decades-long career featured some of the most memorable live performances in modern music history.

From her legendary 1968 tour dates in Sweden and Amsterdam to her melodic tributes at presidential inaugurations, Franklin brought audiences to their feet and to tears just about anywhere and anytime she took the stage, which makes choosing her best moments nearly impossible.

In memoriam, here’s a sample of Franklin’s most iconic live performances throughout her life.

“Night Life,” Sweden, 1968

Franklin’s 1968 European tour included a number of unforgettable performances, featuring live renditions of songs primarily from the three albums she’d released on Atlantic to date. But one in particular that has withstood the test of time is bluesy cover of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life.”

“Nessun Dorma,” Filling in for Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards

Just hours before he was scheduled to perform, world-renowned opera singer Luciano Pavarotti opted not to take the 1998 Grammy Awards stage to sing “Nessun Dorma” from “Turandot,” reportedly in order to rest his vocal cords. But luckily, his good friend Franklin happened to be in town, and she knew all the words. Backed by a full orchestra, Franklin effortlessly delivered the Italian lyrics to a stunned and rapturous audience, which bestowed her with a standing ovation. Who knew the Queen of Soul could sing opera, too?

“America,” Barack Obama’s Inauguration, 2009

Barack Obama’s first presidential inauguration was the picture of patriotism, thanks in part to American music legend Franklin, who belted a spirited rendition of “America,” or “My Country Tis of Thee,” while sporting a now-iconic purple bow hat. The first family looked silently as Franklin honored them with an extended version of the classic tune.

“I Dreamed a Dream,” Bill Clinton’s Inauguration, 1993

Obama’s was not the only presidential inauguration for which Franklin sang. In 1993, the songstress also helped swear in Bill Clinton with a cover of Fantine’s ballad “I Dreamed a Dream” from the Broadway musical “Les Miserables.” By the end of the performance, Franklin began executing her trademark vocal riffs a capella , backed by a children’s choir.

“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” 2015 Kennedy Center Honors

One of the most popular cover songs of all time, Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” has been sung by many talented artists, but none can belt it quite like Franklin herself. The singer gave one of her most memorable performances of the tune three years ago at the 2015 Kennedy Center honors, bringing audience members like Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, and Viola Davis to their feet before she’d even finished singing — and showed some trademark sass by throwing her fur coat onto the stage floor.

“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” first “Divas Live,” 1998

More than a decade before her Kennedy Center Honors iteration, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Gloria Estefan, and Shania Twain joined Franklin to harmonize on “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the inaugural “Divas Live,” bolstering Franklin’s runs with riffs and accessories from their own vocal repertoires.

“Think,” “The Blues Brothers,” 1980

Though not technically a live performance, Franklin’s cameo in 1980’s “The Blues Brothers” deserves an honorable mention for its scene-stealing power. While portraying diner employee Mrs. Murphy, Franklin momentarily broke character to perform her hit “Think,” flanked by black-fedora-clad backup dancers Dan Aykroyd  and John Belushi.

“Respect,” Amsterdam, 1968

In another memorable stop on her 1968 tour, Franklin gave the performance of a lifetime at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. During the Netherlands show, she treated audiences to a dynamic live version of her hit “Respect,” accentuated by a full line of backup singers.

“Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” Martin Luther King Jr.’s Funeral, 1968

As the world mourned Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Franklin gave one of her most emotional performances at his funeral, crooning the gospel tune “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” King’s family and friends looked on as Franklin sat at the church organ and belted the song with eyes closed.

“Mary Don’t You Weep,” “Soul Train Christmas” Special 1979

Franklin got everyone into the Holiday spirit when she appeared on 1979’s “Soul Train Christmas” special to play and sing “Mary Don’t You Weep.” A version of the song sung by Prince appears in a drastically different context at the end of Spike Lee’s new film, “BlacKkKlansman.”

“Won’t Be Long,” “The Steve Allen Show,” 1964

In one of her first live performances ever, Franklin appeared on “The Steve Allen Show” in 1964 to perform her first single to land on Billboard’s Top 100 chart, “Won’t Be Long.” Backed by a full jazz band, the singer shimmied in a sparkly dress on lead piano while showing off the extent of her vocal range.

“Chain of Fools,” 1968

Franklin performed another of her most iconic records, the slow groove “Chain of Fools” in 1968. Sans band, backup singers or backup dancers, Franklin commanded the stage on her own with her Go-Go style costume and sultry voice.

“Do Right Woman,” “The Merv Griffin Show,” 1967

Throughout her career, Franklin made several more talk show appearances after “The Steve Allen Show,” including a performance of “Do Right Woman,” on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1967. Though surrounded by a neon set and brightly-dressed backup singers, all eyes were on the lead soul singer as she nailed each note on the complex track.

“I Say a Little Prayer,” 1970

One of her most recognizable numbers, Franklin performed “I Say a Little Prayer” live more than a few times throughout her life. Clad in a silver hat and sparkly suit jacket, Franklin bounced along as she packed power into every note and glance into the camera during one such performance in 1970.


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