Stories behind 5 of Aretha Franklin’s biggest songs
With her powerhouse voice, Aretha Franklin could make any song an event.
The late singer drew from a range of inspirations — her life, her loves, her faith — to bring passion to every verse. When she sang it, you believed it.
Behind every great song is a story. Here are five of hers.
‘(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman’ (1967)
This top-10 hit, a key part of Franklin’s repertoire, was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin.
King says she and Goffin were walking down the street in New York one day when music producer Jerry Wexler, a top exec at Atlantic Records, pulled up in a limo, rolled down the window and said, “I’m looking for a really big hit for Aretha. How about writing a song called ‘A Natural Woman?’ ” The songwriting couple, who were married at the time, went home that night and came up with the music and lyrics.
So what does it mean to be a “natural woman?” Scholars have debated this question, but nobody seems to know exactly. Although the song was written as a thank you of sorts from a grateful woman to her lover, Aretha turned it into a broader statement about the power of a confident woman who is at peace with herself.
“I can relate to it (the song) very easily,” Franklin once told Vogue.
In the days since Franklin’s death, her impassioned performance of the song at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony has become an internet sensation. Wearing an ankle-length fur coat, Franklin began the song at the piano before stepping to the center of the stage for a big finish. Her still-potent voice building to a crescendo, she slipped out of her coat and dropped it to the floor while raising a hand towards the ceiling.
The audience rose to its feet. King, watching from the balcony, was overcome with joy. President Barack Obama wiped a tear from his cheek.
“Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll — the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope,” Obama told The New Yorker at the time. “American history wells up when Aretha sings. That’s why, when she sits down at a piano and sings ‘A Natural Woman,’ she can move me to tears.”
With its defiant lyrics and fervent vocals, this No. 1 R&B hit is a cousin of “Respect,” Franklin’s rallying cry for any woman who has felt mistreated. “You better think … about what you’re trying to do to me,” she warns, and woe to the man who stands in her way.
Franklin co-wrote “Think” — one of the only hits she penned herself — with then-husband Ted White, and it’s hard not to see it as a reflection of her stormy marriage at the time. She left White the year the song came out, and they divorced soon after.
The song got a second life 12 years later when she recorded another version for “The Blues Brothers,” the Dan Ackroyd-John Belushi movie. In one of the movie’s best scenes, the brothers show up at a diner where Franklin works as a waitress and try to coax her guitarist husband, the diner’s cook, to join them on the road. Franklin, not having any of it, gives him the stink-eye and launches into “Think.”
“I don’t remember her being a diva or anything like that. She was actually a real soldier,” recalled the film’s director, John Landis. “The only complaint Aretha made was that there were too many takes and she had issues with lip-syncing. Like many great artists, she never sang a song the same way twice, so there were issues getting her to match her lips.
“But she pulled through. I knew she’d be a wonderful actress even though she ended up making only two movies in her whole career.”
‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ (1971)
Simon & Garfunkel had a smash hit in early 1970 with this Paul Simon-penned tune, which topped the charts in five countries and won five Grammys. With his soaring tenor, Art Garfunkel sang it beautifully.
But that didn’t intimidate Franklin, who recorded a live version at the Fillmore theater in San Francisco a year later and turned it into a No. 1 song on the R&B charts.
Franklin grew up singing gospel at her father’s church in Detroit, so “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was right in her wheelhouse. She slowed the song down, funked it up a little, added an organ and brought out its inherent gospel roots.
A rare video from one of those Fillmore shows reveals Franklin at the piano, resplendent in white, belting out the song while backed by a small chorus.
“Paul says he heard the phrase ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ sung as a Baptist riff,” Garfunkel told Rolling Stone after Franklin’s death. “I took it to mainstream radio. Then Aretha so brilliantly brought it back to church.”
‘Amazing Grace’ (1972)
Once Franklin became a star in the late ’60s, it was only a matter of time before she lent her singular voice to this popular hymn.
Recorded live at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in January 1972, “Amazing Grace” found Franklin at the peak of her powers. She took her time with the song, drawing out each word as a gospel chorus swelled behind her and audience members exhorted her on.
The song itself wasn’t a hit — her languid version was almost 11 minutes long — but the resulting live album, also called “Amazing Grace,” became Franklin’s most popular album and the top-selling live gospel album of all time.
Franklin’s brother Cecil believes the song and album were just what black America — maybe all of America — needed at the time.
“Think back. We had lost Martin. We had lost Malcolm. We had lost Bobby Kennedy. We were still fighting an immoral war …” he told his sister’s biographer. “We needed reassurance and recommitment. …So when Aretha helped lead us back to God — the only force for good that stays steady in this loveless world — I’d call it historical.”
‘Freeway of Love’ (1985)
The late ’70s and early ’80s were not kind to Franklin. Her music did not fit the disco era, and she took several years off to care for her ailing father before his death in 1984.
But she returned with a vengeance in 1985 with a string of snappy hits, many of them produced by hitmaker Narada Michael Walden, who also produced songs for a young Whitney Houston.
“Freeway of Love,” with its breezy, “let’s cruise around in my convertible Cadillac” vibe, was a summer smash and Aretha’s last No. 1 R&B hit. Its video, which mixed performance footage — yes, that’s Clarence Clemons on sax — with scenes of auto assembly lines, was also a valentine to her hometown of Detroit.
“She sang the hell out of it,” Walden recalled in 2012. “In fact, she had the whole thing memorized, even down to all the ad libs on the ending. Everything about the song was memorized. So I went, ‘Damn, now I know why they call you the Queen of Soul.'”