Music

Aretha Franklin Was Also One of R&B’s Greatest Pianists

Even if she’d been born without a voice, she would have made a killer session musician.

Aretha Franklin performs on BBC TV show It's Lulu in London, August 1970.
Aretha Franklin performs on the BBC TV show Its Lulu in London, August 1970.
David Redfern/Redferns

Time is one of the most elusive concepts in music. To praise an artist’s “sense of time” might sound like you’re complimenting something scientific and measurable, but in fact it’s anything but—the greatest musicians, the true geniuses, operate on a clock just slightly different than everyone else’s, like they are inventing the beat rather than simply following it. The best drummers have this, of course, but so do many of the very best nondrummers: Thelonious Monk, Keith Richards, J Dilla. It’s the mark of someone who feels the world just a little more perfectly than other people, which is everything we want from music.

Aretha Franklin’s sense of time was utterly unique and completely extraordinary, a quality evidenced not just in her voice but also in her piano playing. Even if Aretha Franklin had been born without vocal cords, she would still be one of the greatest R&B pianists of the 20th century. She played the piano like a percussion instrument, which it is, and did so with the feathery touch and intuitive authority of the world’s greatest drummers. Many, including her producer Jerry Wexler, have attributed Aretha’s commercial breakthrough on Atlantic Records in 1967 in part to the decision to let her accompany herself on piano, an instrument she’d been playing since early childhood. Having the keys in front of her seemed to unleash her full force and capacity as a singer.

But Franklin’s piano playing was never simply a byproduct, or a secondary aspect, of her musicality. On many of her greatest recordings, her piano is as arresting and thrilling an instrument as her voice is. She frequently played alongside other world-class keyboardists—Billy Preston, Donny Hathaway, and Spooner Oldham, to name just a few, usually on organ or electric piano—but her own acoustic playing was always the star of the show.

There are too many great Franklin piano performances to list, but to start with an extremely well-known one, go listen to “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman,” and pay attention to how much the piano shapes the song. It’s unquestionably the lead instrument on the track, and if you can manage to distract yourself from Franklin’s incredible vocal performance, you’ll quickly notice how crucial its presence is. It’s understated yet completely assertive, the left and right hands operating in complete concert with each other but almost never in total unison, because when you’re this good, they don’t need to be. She works the instrument like a great conductor, often hitting the downbeat a split second before the rest of the rhythm section does, as though she’s showing them where they’re going. The recording has a more elaborate string arrangement than many of her early Atlantic sides, but Franklin seems to almost be controlling it from her fingertips, her playing perfectly in sync with the orchestra’s swells and flourishes.

I am a lifelong piano player (I started at age 6 and never managed to stop), and I’d like to think a fairly decent one, and over the years, Aretha Franklin’s piano playing has shaped my own approach to the instrument as much as anyone’s. To my ears, her greatest influence on the instrument is Ray Charles: They have a similar command of rhythm and its capacity for drama, and similarly impeccable taste in accompanying their own voices. But Aretha deployed the sustain pedal much more actively than Ray did, who used it with rather startling infrequency. Many pianists use sustain to hide their own rhythmic imprecision, but this was never a problem for Aretha, to put it mildly. Instead, she used sustain as space-creating device, in service of a distinct sort of sonic enormity: Her playing simply boomed.

For a clear example of this effect, check out this incredible 1966 demo recording of “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business).” The opening seconds are pure virtuosity, an unusually flamboyant display of mastery from a player who tended toward understatement. But on this recording, which features only a bass player and drummer as backdrop, Franklin’s piano playing has to take center stage, and the results are stunning. “Dr. Feelgood” has a pretty basic chord structure, but Franklin’s voicings are simply exquisite, suitably bluesy but also counterintuitive and remarkably rangy, effortlessly encompassing the whole expanse of the keyboard. She lets chunky and earthy cords linger in the middle range of the keyboard before punctuating them with quick flourishes on the upper octaves, a Franklin signature. It sounds like wings spreading and taking flight.

Although it was never released as a stand-alone single (it was the B-side to “Respect“), “Dr. Feelgood” was one of Aretha Franklin’s signature songs. Most people with a pulse would agree that its most breathtaking moment, regardless of which recording of the song you’re listening to, is the stop-time section at the top of the song’s final verse. “Don’t send me no doctor/ Filling me up with all of those pills,” it begins, an indelible bit of swagger that would be echoed in Prince’s “Went to the doctor/ guess what he told me” verse in “Nothing Compares 2 U” nearly 20 years later.

But listen to the piano underneath it, thundering and rattling, powerful polyrhythms perfectly in time. It, as much as the vocal, makes the moment, an engine of complete musicianship and heart-quickening drama. It doesn’t feel like an accompaniment instrument so much as a totally natural extension of the voice it’s attached to, which of course it is; it’s almost impossible to imagine a session musician, even a truly great one, achieving the same effect. There it is: the sound of a person who feels the world a bit more perfectly than the rest of us do.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Aretha Franklin.
A Beginner’s Guide to Aretha Franklin, in 10 Songs
No One Covered the Beatles Like Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin Was the Defining Voice of the 20th Century