Now, let me share my Top 12 favorite Aretha Franklin songs.
12. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1986). These days the 1980s production sheen and slightly leaden pace (compared to the sprightly Rolling Stones‘ original) make this number sound dated, but at the time when I first heard this song, I was enthralled. It was used for a forgettable Whoopi Goldberg film of the same name and I was hoping for this to be another big Top Ten hit for Aretha, but well, it only went as far as number 21 in the Billboard Hot 100. The music video was the first time I saw Aretha’s piano-playing prowess–most articles I read wax rhapsodic about her vocal skills that I didn’t know she also has that skill in her arsenal, too.
11. “I Say A Little Prayer” (1968). This is the flip side to “The House That Jack Built” that also became a hit in its own right. Yes, it’s a cover of Dionne Warwick‘s original*1 but Aretha’s slowed down soul treatment does make indelible impact. I have a feeling these days more people are playing this version than Dionne’s.
*1 Composer Burt Bacharach complained that the tempo on Dionne’s recording was too brisk and was reluctant to have her version released, but the record company overruled him. At the time, people did love the brisk version, but most versions recorded after that featured a slower pace, closer to Aretha’s tempo than Dionne’s.
10. “Spanish Harlem” (1971). The vocal intro I first heard it on En Vogue‘s 1992 Funky Divas track “Hip Hop Lover“so I was pleasantly shocked that this is where that vocal riff came from, a cover of Ben E. King‘s 1960 original. It also caused me to internally debate which version was better, En Vogue’s well-produced and slick version (where they turned the “la las” to “na nas”, or the slightly raw harmonies delivered on this recording. I continue to vacillate up to this day. Another En Vogue note–on the same album they also covered two Aretha songs from the soundtrack album to the 1976 film, Sparkle, “Something He Can Feel” (which they retitled by adding “Giving Him...” to the original title) and “Hooked on Your Love“.The former even became a Top 10 hit for the group, with a music video that evoke the scene from the film.
Now speaking of Ben E. King’s original: to these ears it sounded milquetoast and lounge-y–though Phil Spector‘s lauded production featured marimba percussion that will still evoke the image of a señorita, albeit a señorita standing demurely hidden by a fan. Aretha’s version gave me visions of a señorita flouncing her voluminous skirt around with that breathier rhythm, and for me that evokes more authentically Latin than the original. But then again, I suppose we have to understand the morals and ethos of the eras those versions were recorded.
9. I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) (1987) [with George Michael]. Two of the best vocalists in popular music of all time together in one song? That alone is worth the price of admission, even if the song itself (and its production) didn’t quite age well to become an unqualified classic. Still, there is a lot to enjoy listening to this epic duet.
8. Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves (1985) [with Eurythmics]. Feminist empowerment anthems don’t get as epic as this one, with Aretha and Annie Lennox at the top of their games. And it still sounds powerful and relevant today as it did over 30 years ago. And I highly recommend everyone listen to the extended album version found on Aretha’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who and Eurythmics’ Be Yourself Tonight as the closing extended vamp and ad libs they deliver are a treat.
7. Spirit in the Dark (1970). This gospel tune was the big revelation for me when I purchased that 30 Greatest Hits double cassette. The way the song transitions from a slow jam then going funky and then ends into a full-gospel rave-up. With lines like “I saw Sally Walker…”, it also slyly reveals the “human” side of spiritual gatherings, as I know church gatherings could sometimes be places where you gossip. For that this song has remained embedded in my head.
I also unearthed a video from her epic 1971 Filmore West concert where she turned the song into a 15-minute extended jam (actually it’s more of repeating the song so she can have Ray Charles duet with her after she performed it first). Check out the epic moment.
6. Think (1968). This is your quintessentially sassy R&B number, brimming with attitude and power. The rhythmic groove and Aretha bellowing “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Oh, Freedom!” are indelible. Aretha has a deep fondness for this number as this is probably the most successful single that she actually wrote (with her first husband), hence earning hose crucial songwriting royalties. And the rhythmic hook was prominently sampled/interpolated in C+C Music Factory’s 1991 gem “Things that Make You Go Hmmm…” (along with a homage to “Respect” at the breakdown portion), and George Michael might have had this song in mind when he crafted that chorus on his now-classic hit “Freedom ’90“.
At the end of the 1970s, Aretha was dropped by Atlantic Records after her streak of hits dried out. It took her cameo appearance in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers reprising the aforementioned song to claw her way back and secure a recording contract with Arista. Both the original and the Blues Brothers versions I would highly recommend. What about her 1989 re-recording? For me that version does not age well and would rather stick to the older versions.
5. Chain of Fools (1967). I forgot to mention that a key factor that make “Think” a classic was that it also has a political resonance beyond the song’s purported subject matter–during the Vietnam War, that song expresses the pleas of the American public towards politicians about deploying soldiers to Vietnam, and may also evoke significance in today’s political milieu with the choices of politicians that are currently running that country (and other countries for that matter). That political resonance is actually even more pronounced in this song, as this is deemed one of the anthems for Vietnam War veterans expressing what they felt being on the battleground, or what they felt about the politicians who sent them there. And again, this song is relevant today because of the state of politics in the US (and yes, in other countries, too).
4. Until You Come Back To me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do) (1973). I actually first heard of this song via the dance version delivered by Basia in 1990, which despite its obvious 1990s beats still sounds great to my ears. The “rap on your door, tap on your windowpane” line also reminded me of a catchy commercial jingle for Electrolux (then Euroclean, but modified when the entity became Electrolux), which was one of my indelible memories of childhood. I wondered if that catchy jingle was inspired by this song. As it turns out, no–the jingle was directly lifting from an earlier song called “I’m Gonna Knock on Your Door“, originally recorded by the Isley Brothers in 1959 but made popular by then adolescent star Eddie Hodges two years later. It made me then ponder: perhaps songwriter Stevie Wonder had either the Isley Brothers or Eddie Hodges song in mind when he came up with this lovelorn masterpiece.
Let me tell a personal note related to this song–Basia happens to be one of the favorite artists of my aforementioned dearest friend and we had an acrimonious falling out (my fault) 23 years ago. I don’t regret having to let this guy go, as it was more important that I be truthful to who I am instead of conforming to what society (and my dearest friend’s conservative faith) dictates. Still, I missed him dearly and when I hear this song (which I was surprised is more of a slower pace as I was more accustomed to Basia’s danceable version), it made me wistful at his memory. There is somewhat of a happy coda to this story–one of Facebook’s functions is that it sometimes nudge you to add some people in your friend list, and a few years ago, this guy popped up. I didn’t dare add him, but I was surprised when last year, I had a friend request from him. I know “Facebook Friends” doesn’t really have that much value or meaning as real-life friends, but this seems to be a good start–maybe he forgot about our falling out and this is reflective of his very forgiving nature. I also have a feeling he doesn’t read my blog and would probably be not aware that I’m writing this piece about him. If that’s the case, let this be a little secret between you, the reader, and me.
3. (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (1967). Reviewing the chart history of this Carole King–written song and how this has become Aretha’s biggest signature song behind “Respect”, I was surprised that in its regular chart run it only peaked at No. 8 and stayed in the entire Hot 100 for a short 8 weeks. Goes to show chart performance is not a good indicator of what makes a song a classic.
Like many of the songs, I did not first encounter this song directly from Aretha Franklin’s recording. Instead, I first heard this classic via the sitcom Murphy Brown starring Candice Bergen. In my younger days, we get many quality US TV shows tapping on UHF from the US Armed Forces Network (as in those days, the US maintained military bases in Clark and Subic and their TV signals reach Metro Manila). The pilot episode was a classic partly because of that famous scene where Murphy let her hair down at home and sang along to this song. That scene resonates as Murphy is like everyone of us who would like to sing out our favorite songs, even if we don’t have the ability to sing. This song is also prominently featured in this searies at least twice later on–one, as a lullaby after Murphy famously gave birth to her son, and the other that has a guest appearance from the Queen of Soul herself, which I also featured below.
2. Respect (1967). Just like “Think” and “Chain of Fools”, this song has a resonance beyond its domestic theme–in this case, it also became somewhat of a feminist anthem, a message of empowerment for women to demand they be treated with more respect by the society at large. It still resonates to this day as injustice and inequality against women still exist to this day. I would also like to also use this moment to also note the way Aretha has a knack for covering songs and making it her own–this song is actually a cover version of Otis Redding‘s 1966 original, a minor Top 40 hit then. Aretha’s twist on this song is to add an instrumental sax solo bridge lifted from the chords of Sam & Dave‘s “When Something is Wrong with My Baby“, and adding the spelling out of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and those “Ree-ree-ree” and “Sock-it-to-me” lines from her backup vocalists. With this and other covers like “Spanish Harlem” and “I Say a Little Prayer” Aretha is proven a master of inventively covering a song and making it her own, way before we were treated to the awesome song reinventions made by American Idol Season 7 winner David Cook, Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox and a capella superstars Pentatonix. In some ways, these greats need to bow in homage to the Queen.
1. Rock Steady (1971). As terrific and iconic as “Respect” and “Natural Woman” are, my all-time favorite Aretha song is neither of them but this utterly funky 1971 jam. I love funk music, and the groove of this song delivers the funk in spades. The instrumental breakdowns, I realized just lately, are speeded up versions of the groove used on “The House that Jack Built”–perhaps that subliminally played a part on why I adore this song. And finally Aretha going gale force tornado on her vocals–an added feather to her reputation as a force-of-nature vocalist. If there is any song hat would guarantee me to hit the dancefloor (mind you, this is not actually that difficult), this song is one of your guarantees that I shall be compelled to dance. I just enjoyed this slice of funk every time I hear it and it never fails to hook me to this day. So what if like “Natural Woman” it peaked at a lowly No. 9 and also had a very abbreviated chart life?
I just have to share this footage of Aretha at Flip Wilson‘s variety show. First, though I sense Aretha was intending to project Afro-realness in her gold outfit, for me it evoked a Thai princess vibe. But what made an indelible vision was one of the backup singers–check out the girl with the Afro-puff hairdo–doesn’t the look evoke Star Wars’ Princess Leia? I wonder if somebody working for George Lucas was watching this and was inspired to dress the late Carrie Fisher up that way based on the look of that backup singer.
It turns out I’m not the only one who has a fondness for this song. Japanese pop idol and icon Namie Amuro released a three-track-single packaged as “60s 70s 80s” where she recorded Japanese versions of iconic songs from that era. For the 1960s, she covered the Supremes‘ “Baby Love“, retitling it as “New Look“. For the 1980s, she took on Irene Cara‘s “Flashdance (What A Feeling)“, dropping the Flashdance (and the verses) and leaving only the chorus and the subtitle as the main title. For the 1970s, guess what she chose? No way Namie’s vocal ability could approach Aretha’s ability, but still it’s an enjoyable effort..
It’s a nice trip down memory lane for me to pay homage to the Queen of Soul. Her music will live on forever.