On Thursday, Aretha Franklin died in her Detroit home at the age of 76. The Queen of Soul, Franklin leaves behind an impressive legacy as a trailblazer and the voice of an entire genre. To celebrate her life—and her inimitable, decades-spanning career—Ringer staffers called to mind her greatest songs and most unforgettable performances.
Victor Luckerson: Before signing to Atlantic Records and crafting some of the most famous songs in the history of popular music, Aretha spent six years trying on different personas at Columbia. She bounced from gospel to Broadway covers to uptempo jukebox fillers, amassing a varied catalog that never quite yielded a smash hit. The bluesy ballads of this period have held up best, in particular “Blue Holiday.” A lot of Motown-era slow jams—including the original version of this song, by the the Shirelles—have a catchy, performative moroseness. But Aretha’s 1962 cover finds power in its anguish. Amid the wailing trumpet, the downtrodden piano, and the indifferent bass licks, her forceful voice is the most precise, impassioned instrument. Listen to the way she nearly elevates into hysterics two minutes in, then recenters herself on the very next note. She won’t give the lover who’s disappeared the satisfaction of hearing her unravel. It’s vulnerability delivered confidently, a confession of loneliness with the bite of rueful acceptance. Every Christmas, I return to the ache of these three minutes.
“The Dark End of the Street”
Chris Ryan: “Dark End of the Street” is a standard, by any standard that matters, and it’s probably my favorite love song. There are wonderful versions by Gram Parsons, Percy Sledge, Linda Rondstadt, and Chan Marshall, and you should probably spend a lot of time with the original version by James Carr and the one sung by the song’s writer, Dan Penn. But when Aretha Franklin did a standard, the standard became an Aretha Franklin song. Most renditions of “The Dark End …” are lonely, haunted whispers, but not hers. She is screaming into the void. Franklin would not be bound by the emotional parameters of the writing. She routinely transcended them. In her hands, “The Dark End …” became a celebration for having had loved at all. It’s still deeply moral—the lovers still have to pay for what they’ve stolen—but Franklin’s connects heartbreak with ecstasy. That’s the thing about love—having it and losing it can feel a lot like the same thing. Aretha Franklin taught me that.
“Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” The Cliff Richard Show, 1970
Micah Peters: There’s a Rolling Stone item that you can read right now, an album review from 1968, wherein Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man” is described as “dull and repetitious.” “Think”—that song she brought blues guitarist Matt Murphy under heel with in Blues Brothers?—was apparently tied with “Chain of Fools” for her worst-ever single, devoid of melody, and full of lyrics that are both “trite” and “banal.” It’s tough to imagine a time when Aretha Franklin, in living memory, was not ARETHA FRANKLIN, when these words would pass as fair criticism instead of something close to blasphemy. You can scarcely think of Aretha campaigning, still becoming, when surely, anyone who had laid ears on her voice, rich and commanding, knew she already was.
It was my mom who first introduced me to “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied).” Aretha went on The Cliff Richard Show to push her 1970 album, Spirit in the Dark, with a few live performances you can find on YouTube, one of them a cover of Ben E. King’s 1962 single, which was jointly written by King’s wife, Betty Nelson, and a Turkish American businessman named Ahmet Ertegun. It tells the story of a jilted lover, whom I was convinced was actually Aretha. Maybe it was in the way she thumped the keys with such passion, or the way she furled her bottom lip in disgust after firing “YOU LIED” from a figurative cannon.
There’s a comment beneath this video that you can read right now that might suffice as an album review. It gets the point across rather neatly: “No wonder Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul.”
“Nessun Dorma,” The Grammys, 1998
Katie Baker: Even if Luciano Pavarotti hadn’t called in sick at the last minute, the 1998 Grammys would have been a wild, unscripted ride. The Wu-Tang Clan’s ODB grabbed the mic to protest a loss to Puff Daddy. Some performance-artist dude interrupted Bob Dylan with the words “SOY BOMB” written on his chest. R. Kelly got a standing ovation for a song written for Space Jam. (The love theme to Con Air, meanwhile, lost out to a different version of the song.)
But all that was overshadowed by another improvisational, ovation-earning performance that evening: When Aretha Franklin, on almost no notice, stepped in to sing the opera classic “Nessun Dorma” after Luciano Pavarotti called in sick. (She had performed the song a couple of nights earlier at a charity event, but had about 20 minutes of warning before taking the stage at the awards show.)
Introducing her, even presenter Sting seemed caught off guard by the sudden change. When the camera cut to Franklin, she stood in her brocaded, fur-trimmed finest, hands clasped, smile beatific and ever-so-slightly martyred. From her first growling note (in tenor!) she put her own mark on the classic aria, singing in both Italian and English, adding her verve to the purist’s vibrato. “We already knew she was the Queen of Soul,” said Trisha Yearwood in an oral history of the night, “and she just proved that she could do anything.” Celine Dion’s reaction in the audience, really, speaks for us all.
Kate Knibbs: Look, Aretha Franklin is the best vocalist in America, period, and I hope you enjoy all of my colleagues’ opinions about her best performances. She is a legendary artist, and we should celebrate that.
But we should also celebrate what an incredible trailblazer she has always been at being a shady, shady, shady diva. If she didn’t have anything nice to say, she’d find a perfectly sly way to say it. Case in point: When asked what she thought about Taylor Swift, Franklin offered the following comment:
“She just went straight to the only thing she could other to compliment her about knowing good and goddamn well they weren’t asking her about Taylor Swift’s gowns,” shade expert Kara Brown wrote, described this moment for Jezebel. “Also, it still almost works as a real compliment if you’re not reading too much into it—flying over the heads of many but landing exactly at its target.”
In conclusion, “Chain of Fools” is a powerful bop, “Think” is a feminist masterpiece, and “Great gowns, beautiful gowns,” are the most devastating four words in the English language.
“One Step Ahead”
Donnie Kwak: The WhoSampled database lists a total of 414 songs that sample Aretha Franklin, including those by Kanye West, Outkast, and Dr. Dre. But WhoSampled’s top search return for the singer remains Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty,” and for good reason: No Aretha sample has ever been as effective, or affecting. For the 1999 single, producer Ayatollah masterfully melded together three separate pieces from the 1965 track and set them as the lilting backdrop for Mos’s elaborate tale of an ill-fated seduction. Via Aretha, an unforgettable hook: “I know I can’t afford to stop, for one moment … that it’s too soon to forget you.”
Seventeen years later, Barry Jenkins gave the original song new life in the film Moonlight by employing it in the scene when Black first enters the diner to reunite with Kevin. In doing so, the director ensured that Aretha’s bittersweet expression of melancholic love will continue to live on in memory.