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Top 20 Aretha Franklin Songs That Deserve More Than Just a Little ‘Respect’

It’s hard to “Think” of a singer who deserves more respect than the Queen of Soul.

To Jennifer Hudson, Aretha Franklin became much more than a music legend when the talk show host was preparing to play her idol in the 2021 biopic Respect. “You know, I didn’t realize how much of an impact she [made],” Hudson told Florida’s ABC24 news about the master class she received from Aretha Franklin, who frequently met with Hudson. “She was a mom, a working mom, a star, she came from the church.… We connected on so many levels and we would talk all the time, and during a lot of our conversations, I didn’t realize it was like a mother teaching. She was like a mother to me.”

In addition to being a maternal figure to Hudson, the Memphis-born icon has long been the Queen of Soul to music lovers around the world. Countless Aretha Franklin songs topped the charts throughout her 60-plus year career, and she earned not only the Grammy Legend Award and its Lifetime Achievement Award, but 18 Grammy wins out of a total of 44 nominations, with her last trophy coming in 2008 for Best Gospel Performance on “Never Gonna Break My Faith,” on which she’s joined by Mary J. Blige and The Boys Choir of Harlem.

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Aretha Franklin performing (1986)Getty

The song, from the film Bobby (about Robert F. Kennedy’s final day) also won a Golden Globe. “Aretha is a gift from God,” Blige had said of her collaborator. “When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing.”

Aretha, who died at the age of 76 in 2018, was also the first female artist inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Her roots were in gospel, which she grew up singing in her father’s Baptist churches, though there was no genre she couldn’t conquer, from soul, blues and R&B to jazz, pop, and even opera, proven when she filled in at the last minute for Luciano Pavarotti to sing Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” at the Grammys in 1998. From a young age, legends who would visit her father at home — Dinah Washington, Same Cooke, Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, Art Tatum — helped shape her as a pianist, vocalist, and performer.

woman smiling by a mic; aretha franklin songs
Aretha Franklin (1962)Getty

Former President Bill Clinton labeled himself an “Aretha Franklin groupie” at the artist’s funeral, and two other former commander in chiefs paid their humbled respects to the Queen in statements, including George W. Bush, who awarded Aretha her Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. In another tribute, Barack Obama noted that “Through her voice, her own voice, Aretha lifted those of millions — empowering and inspiring the vulnerable, the downtrodden and everyone who may have just needed a little love.”

And who couldn’t use a little more love these days? These Aretha Franklin songs are sure to feel like an aural hug from the entertainer, whose talents are dearly missed by the music industry and fans alike. While it’s impossible to compile a definitive best-of list, these selections are just some of our favorites, so be sure to add yours to the conversation.

20. “Freeway of Love” (1985): Aretha Franklin songs

The MTV generation got a taste of Aretha’s powerhouse vocals thanks to this catchy tune and its accompanying time-capsule of a video, which includes a killer Clarence Clemons sax solo and ends with the diva being driven off in the song’s noted pink Cadillac. Its license plate? RESPECT. The singer, who was making a comeback after suffering the death of her father in 1984, took home a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female, for this 80s classic.

19. “Wholy Holy” (1972)

People, we’ve got to come together, because we need the strength, the power and all the feeling.” So starts Aretha’s powerful interpretation of this Marvin Gaye hit, which appeared on her live 1992 Amazing Grace album recorded at LA’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. The song “is a gospel ‘Come Together’ that Aretha sanctified with her piano playing and five-part harmonizing,” Rolling Stone notes, and her vocals are nothing short of stunning.

18. “Rock Steady” (1971): Aretha Franklin songs

Let’s call this song exactly what it is.” And what it is, what it is is phenomenal. This funky entry, penned by Aretha, was a true gem off her Young, Gifted and Black album (titled after the Nina Simone song, which she masterfully covers on the LP as well). On “Rock Steady,” soul legend Donny Hathaway plays the organ and Dr. John helps out on percussion, but it’s Aretha’s soaring voice that drives the fun.

17. “Jump to It” (1982)

Girl, I gotta go! Produced and co-written by Luther Vandross, this is arguably Aretha at her most fun, as she scats and rattles off some hilarious spoken dialogue — like “You know when we talk we have a lot of fun, don’t we, girl. Dishin’ out the dirt on everybody, and givin’ each other the 411 on who drop-kicked who this week” — which, in the 2014 biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, Vandross revealed were improvised.

16. “Hold On I’m Comin’” (1981): Aretha Franklin songs

Beep beep! Aretha’s spirited pass at this 1966 Sam & Dave hit (penned by Isaac Hayes and David Porter) earned her a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance. This is another fun romp from the Queen of Soul, and — hold on! — a 12” extended dance remix was included when her Love All the Hurt Away album was re-released in 2012.

15. “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” (1987)

“Nobody can emulate Aretha Franklin. It’s stupid to try. I just tried to stay in character, keep it simple — [what I did] was very understated in comparison to what she did,” George Michael wrote in his 1990 book, Bare, of this incredible duet, one of the best from the 80s. Something about the pairing proved to be magical: The song went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and to No. 5 on the R&B charts), and it also won them a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal.

14. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1971): Aretha Franklin songs

Even the King of Rock ’n’ Roll’s version of this Simon & Garfunkel hit didn’t measure up to the Queen of Soul’s, according to songwriter Paul Simon. “[Elvis Presley] didn’t really add anything to the song. It’s not nearly as significant as the Aretha Franklin recording,” Simon has said, and her exquisite interpretation of the original is truly unique and moving. At last year’s Hamptons International Film Festival, Simon elaborated, noting, “When Aretha sang it, she revealed the church influence that was a major influence on the song. You hear it in the piano part of the Simon & Garfunkel record but, with Aretha, she not only plays the piano beautifully — she’s a great pianist — but she sang it ‘church.’” Amen!

13. “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” (1973)

Stevie Wonder co-wrote this song, which he eventually released himself in 1977, but Aretha had a smash hit with her version four years prior, which featured Donnie Hathaway on piano. She took it to No. 1 on the R&B charts and to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. “The song is about romantic obsession, but Franklin turns it into something transcendent and enraptured, her voice soft, the backing warm and alluring,” The Guardian raves.

12. “Something He Can Feel” (1976): Aretha Franklin songs

Aretha delivers powerful, sultry vocals on this song, which was written by Curtis Mayfield. It was featured in the 1976 film Sparkle about a fictional Motown girl group, starring Irene Cara, Lonette McKee, and Dwan Smith. Decades later in 1992, the real-life girl group En Vogue would sizzle with their own version.

11. “I Say a Little Prayer” (1968)

This Top 10 hit for Aretha was a cover of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David-penned original done by Dionne Warwick. “The arrangement allows Franklin to show off her one-of-a-kind voice, transforming the song into something that climbs, yearns, and builds. It’s as if somewhere in her soul, she truly believes the person she’s singing to is the only one for her,” Vox states, noting that Bacharach himself told NPR’s Fresh Air that Aretha’s version was “a better record than the record we made.… It’s just more natural.”

10. “Amazing Grace” (1972): Aretha Franklin songs

For her live album of the same name — which is still the most successful live gospel album of all time — Aretha reaches for the heavens with this traditional gospel song, and succeeds. “‘Amazing Grace’ has been sung and heard in countless renditions, but never like this,” the Pacific Standard declares. “The entire last minute and a half of the song is Aretha doing Aretha, finding a new note to carry into another, even more powerful note, while the audience shouts—half at her to keep going, and half at the Lord to keep pushing her forward.”

9. “Sweet Sweet Baby (Since You’ve Been Gone)” (1968)

“Over a blast of joyful horns and a jump-up backbeat, Aretha’s chorus climbs all the way to the heavens,” Entertainment Weekly raved of this early hit off her Lady Soul album. She co-wrote this one with her then-husband Teddy White. Jennifer Hudson revealed this was a song she used to perform back in her American Idol touring days. When the tune wound up on the Respect soundtrack, it “helped me” prepare for the role and her performances in the biopic, the singer-actor noted, “but the trickiest part was it is Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul! It is kinda scary but it’s exciting at the same time.”

8. “Spanish Harlem” (1971): Aretha Franklin songs

Aretha took this Ben E. King hit and tweaked the lines “There is a rose in Spanish Harlem, a red rose up in Spanish Harlem” to “There’s a rose in Black and Spanish Harlem, a rose in Black and Spanish Harlem.” Her version, The New York Times noted, took the original’s “romantic air and a faithful Latin lilt [and] turned it into a rumbling, funk-rock rave-up” that went all the way to No. 2 on the pop charts, while reigning for three weeks at No. 1 on the soul charts.

7. “Baby, I Love You” (1967)

The high “I dos” make for fun punctuation in this smooth, soulful tour de force from the young singer who titled the album this is included on Aretha Arrives. The No. 1 R&B hit peaked at No. 4 on the pop charts, and it “has an insouciant, playful sway…and a strident, swinging vocal from Franklin that can lift into a high gospel wail on a moment’s notice,” according to Rolling Stone.

6. “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)” (1967): Aretha Franklin Songs

This gem, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2009, is a product of Aretha’s recording session at the FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. After the musicians initially struggled on it, the singer told NPR’s Fresh Air that, “Finally someone said, ‘Aretha, why don’t you sit down and play?’ And I did, and it just happened. It all just happened.” The result was what music critic Peter Guralnick described, according to Fresh Air host Terry Gross, as “one of the most momentous takes in the history of rhythm and blues, in fact, in the history of American vernacular music.”

5. “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” (1967)

After the initial recording session on this one was paused, Aretha returned to it weeks later, knocking it out on her own in one take. Her inspired performance, The Guardian notes, “is calm but firm, precise and commanding.” The song has gone on to be covered by a uniquely diverse group of artists, from Cher, Sinéad O’Connor and Joan Baez to Willie Nelson, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Joe Cocker.

4. “Chain of Fools” (1967): Aretha Franklin songs

“The breakdown in the middle — when Aretha soars over the ‘whoop-whoop’ refrain of her backup singers, the Sweet Inspirations — showed just who in this romantic relationship would end up on top,” noted The New York Times of this fun, feisty entry that topped the R&B charts and went to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It earned the singer a Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, and it was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

3. “Think” (1968)

This is another one penned by the artist and her then-husband, Ted White. “Recorded a week after Franklin sang at Martin Luther King’s funeral, the repeated cry of ‘Freedom!’ and the demand for listeners to ‘let yourself be free’ clearly had other resonances, giving the song a fraught power and impact,” notes The Guardian of the classic, which topped the R&B charts for three weeks. She also appeared in 1980’s The Blues Brothers as a diner waitress who belts this out, showing Jake and Elwood exactly how it’s done.

2. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” (1967): Aretha Franklin songs

Carole King, who wrote this song with Gerry Goffin and Jerry Wexler, visibly lost her mind when Aretha surprised her by not only singing it for King’s 2015 Kennedy Center Honors induction, but playing piano on it as well. “And then everything went up, and up, and up, and then she gets to some of these notes,” King told Variety, “and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God!’… She was just giving it her all in a way I had not seen her give in a long time. And Aretha, if she gave ‘this much,’ it would be more than most people would be giving on their best day.”

1. “Respect” (1967)

The all-time Aretha masterpiece is her personalized take on the 1965 Otis Redding tune he wrote and recorded himself. Aretha’s version went on to win Grammys for Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance and Best Rhythm & Blues Recording. “It was the need of the nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher — everyone wanted respect,” the singer wrote in her autobiography, Aretha: From These Roots about the song landing — and resonating — with the audience.

“There is no mistaking the passion inside the discipline of Franklin’s delivery; she was surely drawing on her own tumultuous marriage at the time for inspiration,” notes Rolling Stone, and since 2021, “Respect” sits in the No. 1 spot on their list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

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