Has a nickname ever suited anyone as well as “The Queen of Soul” did Aretha Franklin? With a booming, once-in-a-generation voice and preternatural instinct for arrangements, Franklin — who passed away Thursday at the age of 76 — redefined what mainstream audiences thought of as a true recording artist. From her debut album, Songs of Faith (released at only 14 years old) to her 2017 LP with the the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, her work influenced millions of listeners, shaping soul and popular music forever for the better.
Below, we pay respect to some of Franklin’s best and brightest tracks.
“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”
Decades before hashtag feminism entered the mainstream, Franklin was repping for sexual and emotional equality with laid-bare lyrics like “a woman’s only human, you should understand / she’s not just a plaything, she’s flesh and blood just like her man”—and setting them to one of the most indelible slow-burn melodies in R&B history.
“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”
He’s no good: a heartbreaker, a liar and a cheat. So why can’t she walk away? Maybe it’s chemistry, or maybe it’s a piano-line hook so incendiary this guy had to be invented just to give her a reason to sing it.
1971 was the dawn of a decade, and a whole new funk frontier for Franklin — who found an unforgettable more-cowbell groove on the hip-swinging “what it is, what it is” refrain.
“Freeway of Love”
The synths are unmistakably ‘80s, but the song itself is classic Queen: a sly, seductive bounce —“how’d you get your pants so tight?” she asks, like she doesn’t know — custom-made for pink Cadillacs and stolen summer afternoons.
“Dr. Feelgood (Love is a Serious Business)”
The Doctor is in, and Aretha wants everybody else to get out so they can get naked and stay that way, basically. If it was explicit for 1967, she was clearly too busy feeling good to care.
“Baby I Love You”
A smash hit in 1967, “Baby”’s sweet refrain lived on again two decades later in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas — though it transcended small-time movie gangsters to soundtrack a thousand weddings, and uncountable unrequited crushes too.
“Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby)”
Has a song about losing love ever felt so good? Over a blast of joyful horns and a jump-up backbeat, Aretha’s chorus climbs all the way to heavens; she says she’s on her knees because she’s so blue, but no real man could ever leave her down there for long.
Pity the fool who does her wrong; she “ain’t no psychiatrist… ain’t no doctor with degrees,” but she knows what you’re up to, and she’s about to self-emancipate. The word “Freedom” has never sounded so truly free.
“Ain’t No Way”
A ballad as gorgeously hopeless as any lost-cause love can be. She knows her man isn’t as bad as he seems, but he can’t seem to stop himself: “Stop trying to be someone you’re not/Hard, cold and cruel.” And even if there’s a will, there’s still no way.
No disrespect to Otis Redding. Franklin’s signature song is the rare cover that took the original and transformed it into something wholly different in both sound and meaning — and in Franklin’s case, the interpretation was career-defining. Redding released “Respect” in 1965 and enjoyed certain crossover success, but Franklin’s 1967 version, which earned her two Grammy Awards, is widely considered one of the greatest songs of all time.
“Chain of Fools”
This 1967 single written by Don Covay was initially intended for Otis Redding before Jerry Wexler decided it was more suited for Franklin. He was right: the track became one of her best-known hits, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard R&B Charts and nabbing her a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
“Share Your Love With Me”
Bobby “Blue” Bland’s bluesy 1964 ballad is a cover staple for Franklin, who released her version in 1969 as a single off her 1970 album This Girl’s in Love with You. In the decades since, artists like Kenny Rogers and Van Morrison also famously covered the torch song.
“Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” / “Spanish Harlem”
Two of Franklin’s #1 R&B singles are covers of soul singer Ben E. King (“Stand By Me”). “Don’t Play That Song,” originally released in 1962, toplined Franklin’s 19th studio album eight years later; her take on King’s oft-covered 1960 ballad “Spanish Harlem,” with a lyrical tweak acknowledging African-American Harlem, dropped in 1971.
How sweet the sound of Franklin’s cover of the spiritual masterpiece, which she not only performed at major events (like the Pope’s visit to the United States in 2015) but also used in 1972 as the title and foundation for her third live album — one of music’s most successful and critically-acclaimed gospel records of all time.
“Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)”
Franklin’s 1973 single is considered the definitive version of the 1967 song originally recorded by Stevie Wonder, about a lover pining for their significant other. Franklin’s take was a major hit for the singer, reaching No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 3 on the Hot 100 charts
Franklin paid tribute to the Queen of Soul before her, Dinah Washington, who passed away in 1963 and inspired Franklin to release a tribute album in 1964 named after Washington’s take on Nat King Cole’s 1951 classic.
“Bridge Over Troubled Water”
Franklin joined a long (and ever-growing) list of artists who have taken on the ubiquitous Simon & Garfunkel song, winning a Grammy in 1972 for her gospel-infused cover.
“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”
Franklin took this 1967 track co-written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin and made it into an anthem of transformative love, which hit No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Memorably, Franklin blew the roof off the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015 when she performed the song for King (and the Obamas) at the Center’s 38th annual event.
In 1998, Franklin saved the Grammys when she stepped in for ailing opera singer Luciano Pavarotti to sing “Nessun dorma,” an aria from Turandot. Even more impressive: Aretha managed to pull off the performance at the very last minute.