R.I.P. Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul whose hits soundtracked our lives
Image: The Everett Collection
At just 18, Aretha Franklin became inspired by the great Sam Cooke to go from gospel and blues to a pop and R&B singer. Her hits immediately shot up the R&B charts and sent her to TV to perform “Won’t Be Long” and “Runnin’ Out of Fools” in her earliest TV appearance on Shindig! in 1964. That might be the exact moment she became the Queen of Soul, dancing out chic and glamorous in a sparkling white dress and earrings that shone, and overpowering all that the second she nails her first note. She sang then, “Don’t you keep me waiting,” and the world sang it back, eager for her next hits to completely bowl us over.
True to her song, Aretha did not make us wait long. By 1967, she’d switched labels and landed her first Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hit with “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” backed by none other than the Swampers, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section some claim to be the finest studio musicians in the world. Franklin always came immaculate, powerful, emotional. And her biggest hits were still stirring inside the young singer.
This quickly became regarded as the period of peak Aretha Franklin, with recordings that still rock radios everywhere like “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think” and “I Say a Little Prayer.” She opened the highly publicized 1968 Democratic National Convention with the national anthem (watch). On TV, we watched her sing out to demand “Respect” on The Kraft Music Hall in its very first season to close out 1967. Respect we gave, as well as ample praise for the soul singer’s incredible range. In 1968, Aretha Franklin graced the cover of Time, and if you look closely, she appears on that cover pretty much as she did in that very first TV appearance, shimmering as a reigning pop singer, but eyes downturned like the moment before she grabs the mic.
In the early 1970s, Franklin only got more sensational. Her 1971 recording Aretha Live at Fillmore West is one of the most thrilling live soul records, bottling all the energy of the next-level singer. She continued releasing critically acclaimed albums throughout the ‘70s, even returning to her gospel roots to gift us with Amazing Grace. It was also the decade with the only time she acted on TV and when we first started hearing Aretha on movie soundtracks, including one she worked on with Curtis Mayfield for Sparkle in 1976.
Apart from her electric TV performances, Franklin’s music reached us through the soundtracks of our favorite shows and movies from the 1980s on. Hits like “Respect,” “Think” and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” were heard on TV shows like Moonlighting, Murphy Brown, and Miami Vice and movies like The Blues Brothers, Desperately Seeking Susan and St. Elmo’s Fire. In the 1990s, we got “Baby I Love You” in Goodfellas and “Respect” was used not once, not twice, but three times on The Wonder Years. Aretha Franklin didn’t just soundtrack the scenes that touched us, she accomplished the feat of embodying the sound of those emotions.
Earlier this morning, the news broke that Aretha Franklin passed away at the age of 76. As the Queen of Soul, her songs, performances and legacy will surely be treasured for ages to come.