With 40-odd studio albums over a 60-plus-year recording career, it would take many days just to listen to Aretha Franklin’s peerless archive of music, let alone assess it. Yet with years of fandom behind him, longtime Variety contributor Chris Morris has chosen a necessarily subjective selection of 10 exceptional performances from the one and only Queen of Soul, who passed away Thursday, which offers some idea of the scope of her achievement over the breadth of her virtuosic career. Beginners are pointed to her early albums for Atlantic, particularly “Lady Soul” and “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” as well as compilations like “30 Greatest Hits” and “Queen of Soul.”
“The Day Is Past and Gone” (JVC/Battle, 1956). Aretha Franklin’s prodigious talent was on full display in her first recording, made at the age of 14 at her father’s church in Detroit. It’s a pure gospel performance, but all the elements of her mature soul style — her vast and mercurial voice, the strength and control of her attack, and her hard-hitting, straight-out-of-church piano style — were already firmly in place.
“Maybe I’m a Fool” (Columbia, 1961). Aretha was co-billed with pianist Ray Bryant’s jazz trio on her Columbia debut, but on three tracks the 18-year-old singer played the keyboards; this full-throated blues, which would not have been out of place on her records of the late ‘60s, gives an idea of what she might have accomplished for the label if she hadn’t been saddled with the standard repertoire.
“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” (Atlantic, 1967). Here is where it all came together: Aretha with the legendary house band of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, hitting the sonic stratosphere against the taut playing of some of Southern soul’s greatest musicians, and adding to the potent instrumental mix with her own cascading piano work. Six years after her first major-label release, all the elements jelled in a work that defined soul’s greatest era.
“Respect” (Atlantic, 1967). Number One across the board, Aretha’s blow-top interpretation of Otis Redding’s 1965 R&B hit took her to the pinnacle. She put a new and forceful twist on Redding’s lyrics: You didn’t often hear a female vocalist demanding, “Give me my propers when I get home.” Her version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” the same year served as a perfect complement.
“(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” (Atlantic, 1968). A reunion with the Muscle Shoals band in a New York studio resulted in this explosive top-five hit, which was co-authored by Aretha and her then-husband Ted White. Clocking in under a lean two-and-a-half minutes, it is unrivaled in the Franklin canon for pure power.
“Spirit in the Dark” (live) (Atlantic, 1971). Making a rare appearance in front of a rock ballroom audience, Aretha joined forces with Ray Charles, backed by a tight band led by saxophonist King Curtis, at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West. With this revival-styled reading of her genre-bending self-penned song, the title track of her 1970 album, Lady Soul and Brother Ray, to use the gospel term, wrecked the house.
“Wholy Holy” (live) (Atlantic, 1972). A year later, Aretha returned to her gospel roots for the sacred music recital “Amazing Grace,” cut in a Los Angeles Baptist church with a full choir. In the most unexpected performance on this extraordinary recording, she created a spiritualized improvisation on Marvin Gaye’s memorable composition for “What’s Going On.”
“Day Dreaming” (Atlantic, 1972). Aretha’s penultimate top-five single for Atlantic was a self-authored outlier in her catalog. Sparely produced by the standards of most of her records, largely lacking in vocal pyrotechnics and by turns ethereal and rapturous, this Latin-tinged reverie is perhaps the most novel entry in her catalog of hits, and a record as dreamy as its title.
“Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” (Arista, 1985). After several years in the commercial wilderness, Aretha returned in ’85 with a pair of rocking top-10 hits, “Freeway of Love” and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who.” But this collaboration with Eurythmics may be the most entertaining product of her renaissance, and the canniest example of Clive Davis’ mix-and-match strategy: a sassy feminist blast that found Annie Lennox matching her note for note.
“Nessun Dorma” (live, 1998). This mind-boggling performance never made it to record, but it remains the most startling example of Aretha Franklin’s remarkable abilities. At the 1998 Grammy Awards, she stepped in at the last minute to substitute for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti and sing the aria from Puccini’s “Turandot” before a full symphony orchestra. The drama of the moment was matched by the impact of the performance – the work of an artist who proved over the course of her career that she could sing virtually anything, brilliantly.