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Aretha Franklin’s long reign as the Queen of Soul, explained in 12 performances

The Queen of Soul held her crown for more than 50 years. These performances show why.

Aretha Franklin performs during the Muhammad Ali Variety Special on May 16, 1975. 
ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

Aretha Franklin, who died at her home in Detroit on Thursday, carried the moniker “Queen of Soul” for more than five decades. One of the most-charted female artists of all time, one of the highest-selling artists of all time, and the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Franklin is a musical legend by any definition.

But her legendary status doesn’t need to be burnished by sales numbers and awards — it was all right there in her voice, in her very presence, from the earliest moments of her career. Franklin’s four-octave range and mastery of melisma made her a force to be reckoned with both on record and on the stage. Her pop stardom may not have been immediate — it took a decade for her to break into the mainstream — but her star power was always evident.

So in celebration of one of the definitive voices of pop, soul, and R&B, here are 12 performances, presented chronologically, that highlight why and how the Queen of Soul held her crown for more than 50 years.

1) “Won’t Be Long,” live on The Steve Allen Show (1964)

At 18, Franklin dropped out of school to sign with Columbia Records, where legendary talent scout John Hammond (who discovered Count Basie and Billie Holiday, among many others) positioned her as a jazz and blues artist. Her 1961 Columbia debut, Aretha: With the Ray Bryant Combo, was produced by Hammond and spawned her first Billboard Hot 100 hit, “Won’t Be Long.”

Even at this early point in her career, Franklin was frustrated creatively, yearning to record more contemporary music. Yet the seeds of her later work are evident as she performs the song live on The Steve Allen Show: Even at 22, her mastery of both the piano and her performance was captivating.

2) “Respect,” from I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)

In 1967, Franklin left Columbia to sign with Atlantic Records, where she would go on to enjoy the creative and commercial success that eluded her at Columbia. Franklin’s fiery, take-no-mess performance helped make her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” her signature song, and the first of many covers she turned completely into her own. “Respect” earned her not only her first two Grammys but the first-ever awarded Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance, Female. The song went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, propelling Franklin into mainstream popularity.

3) “I Never Loved a Man the Way That I Love You,” the Royal Concertgebouw, Amsterdam (1968)

When Franklin signed to Atlantic, Jerry Wexler took her to the famed Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama to record, but Franklin only stayed one night. Her then-husband and manager Ted White got into a physical fight with a session musician and left Muscle Shoals immediately. Franklin followed. However, the session produced the song that set the course for the rest of her career, pulling out all of the soul she’d had to hold back from her Columbia recordings. “I Never Loved a Man the Way That I Loved You” is thought to be about White, a rumored Detroit pimp who was significantly older. In her performance here, there’s no polish or pretense — Franklin seems like she’s singing directly to her no-good lover.

4) “I Say a Little Prayer,” This Is Tom Jones, 1970

Franklin always desired pop stardom, but it took her almost a decade to get there. While Franklin was building her career, Dionne Warwick was a celebrated pop star, charming fans both stateside and in the UK with her poise, grace, and magical voice — and, by many accounts, Franklin couldn’t stand it. With her mainstream star ascending, Franklin took the route of one-upmanship, covering “Say a Little Prayer,” which Warwick had released just a year prior. Franklin went a step further and featured backup singers the Sweet Inspirations, which included Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother and Warwick’s aunt, on the track.

The sonic opposite of Warwick’s smooth, lounge-y take, Franklin’s bombastic version of the song became her ninth consecutive Top 10 hit. And while Warwick’s version was also a hit and technically charted higher, peaking at No. 4, even the song’s composer, Burt Bacharach, declared it better than the original.

5) “Dr. Feelgood” at the Fillmore West (1971)

When you think of Aretha Franklin, you think of soul, spirit, strength, and maybe sass. But sex? Franklin wrote the bluesy “Dr. Feelgood” during the same era of her career as the I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You album, and it’s easy to imagine the song was also inspired by her husband and manager at the time. Franklin’s Live at the Fillmore West is regularly cited as one of music’s best live albums, in part because of the approximately nine minutes she spent on this song, backed by King Curtis and the Kingpins.

The latter half of “Dr. Feelgood” is the key: The song seems to end normally, but then there’s a church-style call and response between Franklin and the Sweet Inspirations and musicians. She toes an almost imperceptible line between moans of ecstasy and cries of spiritual praise. This is raw Aretha.

6) “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” at Mahalia Jackson’s funeral (1972)

Like many soul artists, Franklin began her singing career in the church. She and her sisters grew up in the music ministry of her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, in New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. A civil rights activist and widely sought-after speaker and preacher known as the “Million Dollar Voice,” Rev. Franklin often brought his daughter with him to sing at his preaching engagements, and acted as her manager in the beginning of her professional career.

Franklin was a gospel artist before she signed with Columbia, and often returned to those musical roots. At the funeral of gospel pioneer Mahalia Jackson, who was friends with Rev. Franklin, Aretha sings “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” one of Jackson’s standards. She also sang the spiritual at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968.

7) “Day Dreaming,” Soul Train (1973)

Franklin’s Young, Gifted, and Black, her last big hit album of the ’70s, is her at arguably her most self-possessed. Released during the peak of the Black Power movement, the album paired political messaging with funk, soul, and gospel grooves. But there were also lighter moments, like “Day Dreaming.” Featuring soul legend Donny Hathaway on the keys, the song is wistful and airy, revealing a sensual side of Franklin.

Franklin’s career around this point was dogged by stories of her comparing herself to her female soul and pop contemporaries and suffering from insecurities and jealousy. However, in this performance, she’s comfortable, easy, and confident. There were only a handful of live vocal performances on Soul Train during its entire 35-year run, with artists for whom lip-syncing to track would have been not just off brand but insulting. Those artists included Al Green, Luther Vandross, and Franklin.

Introducing this performance, host Don Cornelius said, “I consider myself very fortunate to have lived on earth during her career, and that I was able to see and hear what she has done. She deserves all the titles she has been given, for she is the Queen.”

8) “Think,” The Blues Brothers (1980)

Franklin joined the ranks of soul and blues stars including James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker for John Landis’s 1980 cult comedy The Blues Brothers. In one of the very few acting roles of her career (which also included the misbegotten 1998 Blues Brothers sequel), Franklin plays a no-nonsense diner owner challenging her man to consider what he’s walking away from before he runs off to join the Blues Brothers band.

Franklin hadn’t had a hit in years at this point, but the movie’s reworked version of her 1968 feminist anthem “Think” became a definitive performance of one of the most powerful popular songs of the 20th century.

9) “Nessun Dorma,” the 40th annual Grammy Awards (1998)

Twenty minutes prior to the Grammy Awards telecast, opera legend Luciano Pavarotti pulled out of his own Living Legend Award performance due to throat issues. So Franklin, who had performed his signature aria “Nessun Dorma” a couple of nights prior for the Grammys’ annual MusiCares fundraiser, stepped in to pinch-hit for her friend. The performance confirmed what has become a universal truth: No matter the genre, when Aretha Franklin sings a song, she transforms it. Some opera purists reportedly disapproved of Franklin’s soulful rendering, including her switch from Italian to English at the end, but the reaction to her performance was mostly, “Brava!”

10) “Freeway of Love,” Late Night With Conan O’Brien (2002)

Franklin’s career declined in the mid-’70s after a decade-long hot streak, but she staged a triumphant second act in the ’80s after moving from Atlantic to Clive Davis’s Arista Records. At 43, Franklin returned not only with hits but with pop hits. The 1985 album Who’s Zoomin’ Who introduced Franklin to the MTV generation, restored her name to the Billboard charts, and produced one of her biggest career hits with the lead single “Freeway of Love.”

This 2002 performance of the song on Late Night With Conan O’Brien showcases a Franklin live performance signature: transforming a secular song into high-spirited gospel at the end, bringing the good news that Jesus will guide you on the freeway of justice, peace, and love.

11) “Rolling in the Deep,” The Late Show With David Letterman (2014)

In 2014, after some years of speculation and rumors about her declining health, Franklin released Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, a cover album of songs made famous by other larger-than-life female voices she respected and admired. The album included renditions of “At Last,” “People,” and Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” which was only a few years old.

In this Letterman performance, Franklin brought back longtime backing vocalist Cissy Houston (who possibly didn’t care to be there, judging from her expressions during the performance), and proved she hadn’t lost a step or a note, nor had her unique gift for transforming and elevating already iconic songs faded. In her style of transforming the end of a song, she transitions into “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” playing to the audience with her hand on her hip as though to emphasize her continued reign.

12) “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” Carole King Kennedy Center Honors tribute (2015)

If there’s only one live Aretha Franklin performance you ever watch, it should be this one. Her instantly legendary tribute to songwriter Carole King overwhelmed not only President Barack Obama, who was moved to tears, but everyone else who witnessed it.

In front of an audience that included Clive Davis, Franklin casually strolls onto the stage in a ball gown and full-length fur, resting her clutch on the piano (Franklin often brought her purse onstage) before taking her seat. King gasps when she realizes Franklin isn’t just going to sing the song she wrote for her but also going to play. For the next four minutes, Franklin delivers a transcendent performance, full of every element and characteristic that makes her the Queen of Soul. She reaches soulful depths and spiritual heights, eventually leaving the piano bench and dropping her fur to the floor so she can sing it how she feels it.

If Franklin’s performance alone isn’t enough to move you, watching Carole King freak out like a kid on Christmas morning through the duration should do the trick. It’s Aretha at her most Aretha.

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