The Rock’s Backpages Rewind: Aretha Franklin’s Greatest Tracks
As a tribute on the eve of her 70th this Sunday, RBP hereby presents 20 timeless masterpieces by the Queen of Soul. Happy Birthday, 'retha!——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
"They used to call me a jazz singer," Aretha told Val Wilmer in 1968. "Now I think what I sing is closer to R&B and straight blues..."
For five years Frankin languished as Columbia Records struggled to sell the Rev. C. L.'s daughter as a new Nancy Wilson, an R&B Barbra Streisand. In late 1966, soul svengali Jerry Wexler signed the girl to Atlantic, taking her down to the Alabama hotbed of Muscle Shoals early the following year.
What followed was a stream of sassy, sanctified recordings that defined what SOUL was: the sound of a new black pride and a sensuality that made musical a physical, visceral experience. Towering above any rivals, Lady Ree was swiftly anointed the Queen of this gospelized R&B style — a sound as key to the Sixties as psychedelia.
1 'Dr. Feelgood', from Live at Fillmore West (1971)
If one of Aretha's greatest qualities is, perhaps surprisingly, her restraint — her respect for the song and refusal to "oversoul" — this cut (from her great Fillmore West live album) is Aretha Unbound. Utterly transformed from the somewhat wooden I Never Loved A Man original, with Bernard Purdie's exemplary drums snapping at the slowest of blues grooves, Franklin gets seriously happy with this paean to, frankly, great sex. Hissing out the first line — "sssssssssSSSSSssssssSSSSit around, me and my man, ain't that right girls?" — Aretha pulls the lyric this way and that, paying blithe disregard to such niceties as bars and beats. Lines are spat: "Because company s'alright with me e-ve-ry-once-in-a-great-while". Words are stretched beyond breaking point: "That man takes care of all my... paaaayaaaaayaaaayains and ills." King Curtis's crew hang right in there with her through to climax. Over an astonishingly stretched ending, Aretha calls. The Sweethearts of Soul and the 'frisco love crowd respond. Suddenly the Fillmore has become deep church.
2 'I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)', from I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (1967)
Aretha's Atlantic debut (and first smash hit) was this almost intolerably sexy Muscle Shoals masterpiece, with the lady whooping and swooping over her own piano chords while local boy Spooner Oldham tinkled a watery Wurlitzer beside her. This no-frills blues-soul classic instantly junked Ree's supper-club past and announced the new goddess in town.
3 'Respect', from I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (1967)
Sockittome Sockittome Sockittome Sockittome Sockittome Sockittome!! Otis Redding's song was taken by Franklin, Wexler and the Muscle Shoals gang and turned into the funkiest, most righteous, and most feminist thing Aretha ever did. When 'Respect' comes on, it is impossible to sit still.
4 'Do Right Woman — Do Right Man', from I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (1967)
The yang to 'Never Loved''s yin, 'Do Right' did as much to establish "country soul" as a southern sub-genre as 'Respect' did to blaze a trail for female soul power. Begun at Fame in Shoals and completed in NYC, 'Do Right' is a bruised, anguished plea penned by redneck soulboys Chips Moman and Dan Penn, sung with exquisite care by the Queen and her Sweet Inspirational maids-in-waiting.