Music

A Beginner’s Guide to Aretha Franklin

The 10 best gateway songs for newcomers to the Queen of Soul.

Collage of two photos of Aretha Franklin.
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Photos by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images and Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images.

So you’ve never really listened to the late great Aretha Franklin. Cool. So, here’s a playlist that you can … Wait, whaaaat? You’ve never listened to Aretha Franklin? Never? Where have you been all your life? What?

OK, judgment-free zone: It’s time to get you on track. Detroit-reared Franklin started in late 1950s gospel before applying her Baptist, Holy Ghost fervency to soul music’s secular concerns around romance, love, and loss. On the heels of her startling 1967 Atlantic Records debut, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Aretha became the most sought after and famous of all soul singers, and every successive album she released for the next nine years on Atlantic Records seriously raised the bar for soulful R&B music and pop as a whole. From there she had a steady string of hits on Arista Records under the guidance of head honcho Clive Davis. But her catalog—stretching over an incredible six decades—is rich, varied, and contains a wide variety of music across a variety of different labels.

Here’s a playlist that covers some of Aretha’s variegated moods and different approaches to music-making. While some singers can only conjure a limited emotional range, Aretha seemed unafraid to present a vista of feelings. The result of combing through her rich back catalog is that you’re left with the impression of a sophisticated woman who lived to exorcise her personal demons on record and on stage in the hopes that she’d exorcise yours, too. When cover songs didn’t suit her sensibilities, she could sit at the piano and pen an original that spoke directly to her sensibility. She was just that good. Ultimately, Aretha was a total musician offering us bone-deep, soulful emotionalism. That was her genius, and we were all made greater for it.

1. Early Aretha – “Skylark” (1963)

When he signed her to top-flight Columbia Records in the early 1960s, label scout and producer John Hammond largely saw Aretha as a blues, jazz, and pop singer, not an R&B one. As a result, she was given material that mostly boxed in her talent. Taken from her 1963 Laughing on the Outside album, Aretha’s cover of Tin Pan Alley scribes Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael’s 1941 jazz standard gives you a flash of the genius we’d come to know later once she jumped ship to Atlantic Records. Aretha’s “Skylark” also happens to be one of the best renditions of the song ever recorded. Using the fullness of her majestic pipes, especially on the octave-leaping second verse, Aretha wrenches every ounce of poignant feeling out of the yearning lyric and out of the angular melody. In David Ritz’s 2014 unauthorized autobiography, Respect, Etta James talks about not wanting to ever sing “Skylark” again after hearing Aretha gloriously “pee” all over it. Yup, once Aretha got her hands on a tune, she often made it totally definitive.

2. Anthemic Aretha – “Respect” (1967)

Southern, bacon-fat greasy, tough and assertive, Aretha’s landmark anthem, taken from her 1967 Atlantic debut I Never Loved a Man, will never die or run out of energy or steam. Soul icon Otis Redding originally wrote and performed the song in 1965: A modest hit, his version was about a man demanding “propers” from his woman when he comes home from work. Aretha completely deconstructs Redding’s original, giving it a brand spanking new arrangement and rejiggering the lyrics, too. In Aretha’s creative hands, “Respect” is a whole new thing: It becomes an equal-rights dance floor anthem about a woman demanding respect from her man, and it can serve as a feminist anthem just as much as it can double as a black civil-rights anthem. Aretha’s special genius is the push and pull, call and response interplay with her sisters, Erma and Carolyn, on background vocals, including that irrepressible and indelible “sock it to me” chant. Speaking truth to power and never less than propulsive fun, “Respect” became the essential ode to the human will to be taken seriously.

3. Heartbroken Aretha – “Angel” (1973)

Working with Quincy Jones for the first time, Aretha’s 1973 set Hey Now Hey (the Other Side of the Sky) was a flop. Still, there are a bunch of gems on the album, including the stunning ballad “Angel,” written for Aretha by her sister Carolyn (herself a powerful singer and recording artist). What’s great about “Angel” is Aretha’s improvised, pensive spoken intro that reminds you that Carolyn’s song is a family affair: “I got a call the other day/ It was my sister Carolyn sayin’/ Aretha, come by when you can/ I’ve got somethin’ that I want to say/ And when I got there she said/ You know rather than go through a long drawn-out thing,/ I think the melody on the box, will help me explain.” By the time Aretha gorgeously croons the heart-rending opening line, stressing the word away—“Gotta find me an angel/ To fly away with me”—she has you eating out of the palm of her hand. Aretha and Carolyn spent much of their life in squabbles over music and relationships, but here, for a precious 4 minutes and 30 seconds, they found their magic together.

4. Afrocentric Aretha – “Young, Gifted and Black” (1972)

In 1969, singer, songwriter, and activist Nina Simone connected with musician pal Weldon Irvine to concoct a song about her late BFF, A Raisin in the Sun author Lorraine Hansberry. Simone recorded “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” for her 1970 Black Gold album: The song quickly became known as a civil rights anthem, especially after Donny Hathaway recorded a simmering, back-phrased rendition for his Everything Is Everything that same year. Not to be outdone nor to miss out on a cultural moment, Aretha—newly sporting Afrocentric style in keeping with the black-power era times—named her album Young, Gifted and Black and she anchored the album with a wailing Baptist church version of Simone’s song that sounds more like a sepulchral hymn, especially during that ultra-dramatic, ad libitum intro. The groove doesn’t kick in until about 1:45; at that point, we’re thick in the middle of a pile-driving, funky, black self-determination anthem. Aretha’s rhythmic piano playing throughout the track is no joke, either.

5. Confessional Aretha – “First Snow in Kokomo” (1972)

Guarded and private to a fault, Aretha Franklin rarely wrote a confessional autobiographical tune. “First Snow in Kokomo,” also from her Young, Gifted and Black album, is a rare exception. In a supportive relationship at the time with entrepreneur Ken Cunningham, Aretha accompanied him on a visit to meet his mother at her home in Kokomo, Indiana. Observing Cunningham and his friends socializing, Aretha penned an original, chock full of impressionistic detail: A guy named Kenny is learning to play his horn, a “funny friend” named Chuck bumps his head, and at some point, a baby named Moishe is born. Musically rapturous and full of pensive quietude, “First Snow in Kokomo” starts with a classical ostinato and features quirky call-and-response background vocals by her sisters. For a moment, we get a glimpse of Aretha’s potential to have emerged as poet-troubadour like Joni Mitchell or Laura Nyro. But she never went further in that direction, and to be fully transparent, her catalog never really suffered for it.

6. Sanctified Aretha – “Wholy Holy” (1972)

After five years of enormous success, and having been universally crowned the Queen of Soul, Aretha may have worried that she’d strayed too far from her early gospel roots. Working in tandem with Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, Aretha OK’d the decision to record a live double album gospel set featuring the likes of gospel legends James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, Clara Ward, Albertina Walker and the Caravans, and a crackerjack band including Chuck Rainey on bass, Cornell Dupree on guitar and Bernard Purdie on drums. Aretha’s intervention, and the reason Amazing Grace remains one of the greatest gospel albums ever recorded, is to bridge secular and sacred worlds by matching traditional hymns to popular tunes of the day. “Wholy Holy,” an album cut from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album (released the year before), is a blissful rendition that takes Gaye’s gauzy, dissociated original and turns it into an even woozier spiritual affair. It’s almost hard to believe this is sung live, and Aretha’s last notes in which she climbs the octaves on the words “holy, holy” sound like she’s reaching into the heavens itself.

7. Flirtatious Aretha – “Something He Can Feel” (1976)

Aretha finally found widespread commercial success in the late 1960s on Atlantic Records working with producer Jerry Wexler, but by the mid-1970s her fortunes had changed. On the heels of a string of commercial failures, Aretha was in search of newer, hipper producers who could deliver chart hits. Aretha had long admired the Impressions singer-songwriter Curtis Mayfield, who’d become a groundbreaking solo recording artist in his own right and had also crafted the astounding soundtrack to 1972’s Super Fly. Though Mayfield had originally promised Aretha’s sister Carolyn a batch of original songs he’d written for the feature film Sparkle, Aretha got wind of the songs and took them for herself. Chicago-style doo-wop shuffle ballad “Something He Can Feel” is only one of Sparkle’s standouts: Church girl Aretha gets to stretch her sexy wings. This is R&B music as a sassy, seductive come-on. Especially after the last chorus, where she gets to improvise and riff, Aretha sounds lithe, relaxed, and deliciously licentious. If you’ve only heard the En Vogue cover from their 1992 Funky Divas album, cop Aretha’s original, will ya?

8. Nostalgic Aretha – “School Days” (1980)

By 1980, Aretha had left Atlantic Records (she’d finished out her contract with a disastrous disco record called La Diva) and set up shop at Clive Davis’ Arista in search of more hits and a bigger fortune. Her debut 1980 set is all over the place, frankly, but it ends on a high note. Penned by Aretha herself, “School Days” is a finger-snapping, foot-stomping romp that falls somewhere between fast-talking musical theater and fiery gospel. On the lyric, Aretha waxes rhapsodic about what it was like to grow up in the 1950s. Except her memory of the 1950s doesn’t have much to do with civil rights struggles or segregation: Instead, it’s a rose-colored glasses version of the 1950s seemingly cribbed from Grease in which girls wear tight skirts, big socks, pony tails, hoop skirts, and petticoats. Willfully naïve and so much fun, “School Days” is Aretha at her most freewheeling, exuberant, and relaxed. If you don’t find yourself clapping along, or slapping something, do you still have a pulse?

9. Dance Floor Aretha – “A Deeper Love” (1994)

More than just a soulful balladeer, Aretha Franklin has a long history of getting funky and lowdown: Just think of early tracks like 1971’s made-for-Soul TrainRock Steady.” Flash forward to 1994: Smack dab in an era ruled by electronic music remixes and downtown New York house music, Aretha decides to try her hand at the current sound. Clivillés and Cole, the production duo behind late ’80s smash C&C Music Factory, had a minor hit with Deborah Cooper on 1991’s “Pride (a Deeper Love).” Aretha’s galvanizing cover keeps the original’s Korg house piano and stomping beat but that churchy, sublime Aretha vocal is the centerpiece. Though it went to No. 1 on the dance charts for a couple of weeks, Aretha’s rendition is mostly known for being part of the end credit sequence of the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit and it also became the lead single from Aretha’s Greatest Hits (1980–1994) collection. “A Deeper Love” is a glimpse into what Aretha might have sounded like in later life if she’d committed to transforming herself into a house music goddess.

10. Jilted Aretha – “It Hurts Like Hell” (1995)

Hmmm, about half of Aretha Franklin’s legendary catalog, including her signature classic “Ain’t No Way,” seems to be songs about being hurt by a man or jilted in love. That’s because off microphone, Aretha suffered through enormously difficult relationships, including an abusive one with first husband and manager Ted White. In 1995, actor-director Forest Whitaker tapped into the resurgent black film boom by helming the Whitney Houston-starring feature adaptation of Terry McMillan’s popular book Waiting to Exhale. LaFace singer-songwriter extraordinaire Babyface produced the star-studded, all-women soundtrack, writing all the songs from the point of view of the film’s spurned female characters. Aretha’s gripping contribution, the string-laden “It Hurts Like Hell,” is a slowly unwinding essay on personal pain. It reminds us that wisened Aretha, nearly four decades into her career at the time, had plenty still left to give.

Read more in Slate about Aretha Franklin:
• “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin Dies at 76
• Aretha Franklin Was the Defining Voice of the 20th Century
No One Covered the Beatles Like Aretha
“Rest in Peace, Soul Sister”: Musicians and Admirers Pay Tribute to Aretha Franklin