Aretha Franklin

Rock Steady Young, Gifted And Black
Call Me This Girl’s In Love With You
The House That Jack BuiltAretha’s Gold
Do Right Woman, Do Right ManI Never Loved A Man
The Way I Love You
I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)I Never Loved A Man
The Way I Love You
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural WomanLady Soul
Don't Play That Song Spirit In The Dark
RespectI Never Loved A Man
The Way I Love You
ThinkAretha Now
I Say A Little PrayerAretha Now

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Aretha playlist


Contributor: Glenn Smith

Chips Moman and Jerry Wexler, not exactly household names and yet they did so much to shape popular culture in the second half of the 20th century. Chips of course had a key role in resurrecting Elvis’s late 60s career but look closely and we will see him on the fringes of the Aretha resurrection, a key player in the FAME Studios crew and the songwriting partner of Dan Penn. Do right Chips my man. And Jerry Wexler? He’s just the genius that decided after nine flop albums on Columbia what he needed to do was get Aretha back behind the piano to play and sing live with a cracking band. And hey presto, with a bit of fighting in the studio, the husband getting in the way, running from Muscle Shoals back to New York, probably the greatest post Fabs artist of the late 20th century emerges. Jerry, simply put, we love your work.

It is interesting to note that Aretha’s last flop on Columbia came out in January 1967. It is worth a listen as you can hear her straining to be let free on her self-penned eponymous track Take It Like You Give It, which would have fitted nicely into her Atlantic work. Incredibly, in March 1967, yes a mere three months after her last flop, she releases I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) and we are away. The universe that is Aretha has been released!

What’s in the mix? The three backing singers, Cissy Houston and Erma and Carolyn Franklin, check. Spooner Oldham, Dan Penn, Chips, Tommy Cogbill on bass and Jerry pulling the levers, check. Aretha singing and playing piano, triple check. There’s your Aretha sound.

Released as a single in late 1971, but famously part of her 1972 album Young, Gifted And Black, we open with Rock Steady for two reasons: firstly her vastly underrated song writing and secondly Rock Steady’s out and out funk. Yes, the Queen of Soul could match Mr. Dynamite in the funk stakes. This hits a groove from the opening note, a jagged guitar figure taking you deep while the rhythm section pumps. Aretha sways her way into it, while the Franklin sisters urge her on to a classic early 70s horn break. Within an extraordinary body of work this is an often overlooked funked out classic. Start your day to this, walk out the door as the horns do their thang … what it is, what it is.

Call Me is an early 1970 single taken from her sublime This Girl’s In Love With You album. Again, an Aretha original, this is a beautiful piano ballad that in the hands of lesser mortals would probably come across as a tad trite. When she sings “I love you, and I love you too”, you’d like to think she’s singing that directly to you, it is that intimate and heartfelt. Let me tell you, you’d love to be the guy she had in mind, telling you this girl’s coming for you. Another prime example of why Jerry was right to get her behind the piano while she sang.

There is an alternative universe where Thelma Jones is lauded for The House That Jack Built and Dionne Warwick similarly admired for I Say a Little Prayer (more on that later) and Otis loved for Respect. Sadly for them, Aretha blew them out of the water with her incredible song altering, generation shaping versions. Thelma’s House is fantastic, but a tad too fast and strident when compared to the complete groove that Aretha drops on it. Thelma is still kind of forgiving in her urgency, Aretha is after his backside as he dares to walk out that gate, she turns the lyric around as only she can, you know you don’t want to be Jack by the time she’s turned her back on him, he’s coming back on her terms. The drumming kicks, the horns menace, a nasty bit of serious soul from the greatest interpreter of the American song book ever.

Do Right Woman, Do Right Man. In comes the church organ, setting the tone, the vibe, welcome brothers and sisters. That’s Aretha on both the piano and the organ, calling for her sisters to join her exhortation to her man to do right. Here’s Chips working with Dan to write a soulful ballad in the female voice, something that sadly would be a problem 23 years deep into the 21st century, think on that pop music fans. The middle eight, a woman’s only human, is the perfect marriage of gospel and pop, but more on that later.

Spooner Oldham gently holds our hand as his keyboard riff on I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) leads us towards the soul salvation of a howling prowling Aretha, speaking for a generation of late sixties women, unleashing a passion and sexuality like we’ve never heard before. And those horns, creeping up on us as she hits the chorus, how did she do this, could she match it? Yep here comes the bookend:

(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. It is worth going back to Carole King’s demo of this startlingly brilliant tune, now released on a demos album on Spotify, well worth a rummage around the pop music Dead Sea Scrolls basement. Carole, through the words of Gerry Goffin, of course invests her own take on the path to love, inspired by Jerry Wexler’s idea of a song for Aretha the ultimate natural woman. And good grief what a take on the idea, the sisters doing their best doo wop, the strings moving towards her exultation, Bacharach horns gliding over it all, she moves to the crescendo speaking again for a generation of women who could now speak to the world, she makes us all feel so alive, what a performance. Never Loved A Man and You Make Me Feel; the perfect double A-sided single for the ages.

Don’t Play That Song is a rework of Ben E. King’s 1962 hit, taken from her early 1970 album Spirit In The Dark, and yes you’ll have noted just how prolific she was in that golden late sixties – early seventies era. A piano stride blues which highlights her incredible range as a singer and arranger, it is an update on that early 60s sound, it swings and swings hard, joyous.

Otis famously said at Monterey about Respect, “this girl she just took this song”, and wasn’t he happy to hand it over. His is Stax, hard hitting, march type rhythm, and of course an absolute cracker in its own right, but good gosh a mighty here comes Aretha! Chips, Spooner, the Franklin women, a heavy piece of piano from Aretha, she hits those bass notes hard, respect. Chips ripping out the guitar riff, King Curtis howling man howling and hey presto, a groove for the ages with a vocal line that speaks to everyone and anyone for any generation, what do we want? Just a little respect. Sock it to me.

Think is from 1968’s Aretha Now and she wrote it with her somewhat troublesome husband Ted White. Seen through that prism the lyrics have a deeply personal meaning, think about what you are trying to do with me, oh freedom! Now, this song in some ways suffers from its presence in The Blues Brothers; Aretha kicking it in a dirty apron, challenging the impossibility of four fried chickens and a coke. But this is a superb performance with her wrecking crew delivering yet again, a real highlight from an era awash with timeless classics.

What is it with wedding songs? If you go to the Nashville Country Music Museum there’s a great video where Dolly talks about writing I Will Always Love You, and in explaining how it is about the end of an affair, she asks people to stop using it as their wedding song! Similarly, the Australian band Powderfinger had to come out and explain that their tune My Happiness was about the pain of being away from home as so many people were telling them they used it for their wedding. And then with I Say A Little Prayer, this astonishing piece of pop music is used in, yes, a wedding scene in a rom-com My Best Friend’s Wedding, oy vey. So why am I getting baby boomer grumpy about how that wedding party theme relates to this perfect piece of pop music?

The Vietnam War. There are two classics from the late sixties that were inspired by that dreaded conflict: Jimmy Webb’s Galveston about a soldier going off to war, dreaming of his small town and the woman he left behind; he can see her standing on the shore. And of course, Hal David’s meditation on the woman going about her life, praying for her man to come home, to hear her prayer for him. And here it is the perfect synergy of all the elements of the great American songbook. A song written by two middle-aged, middle class white Jewish men and sung by the greatest African American performer of the 20th century. In just over three and half minutes we get to hear a history of popular American music. It reaches back to the call and response of the cotton fields, of gospel, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway music hall, of rhythm and blues, country and western, rock and roll. Hal, writing in a female voice, creates a short story, the narrative of a day in the life unfolding, small moments writ large as the drama of his absence and her pleas are revealed. Burt produces a melody that glides on by with subtle changes in time signature as only he could; he walks us along the journey of Hal’s protagonist. They tried it out with their go-to muse Dionne Warwick and despite a million sales (yep a million for the unsuccessful version) they just knew it was not right. But little did they know that the artist who would take it to where they knew it needed to go, was ready to swoop.

And yet again, as she did so many times before, Aretha turned it into a song for the ages. The instrumentation is simple; a piano played by Aretha, bass and drums and a guitar line so subtle that you don’t even notice it until the last minute and yet the sound is huge. A simple piano introduction, moving along nicely as Aretha takes us to that moment before she puts on her makeup. The sisters quietly announce their presence, they are there with her. And then it hits. Forever and ever. The sisters take over, pushing Aretha aside as she mulls her next move. How many times in pop music does the singer have to elbow her way back into the narrative, as the backing vocals take us to a gospel place, telling her to think about her lament, to make sure she never lets him out of her heart, who needs that heartache? And so the song nicely peters out, we get to 2:28 and an astonishing song is over. Except it’s not! Incredibly she breaks back in and takes us a little bit higher again, in the great gospel tradition, belief and only him, this is her prayer, answer it. Extraordinary, as close to pop music perfection as you can get; songwriting, singing, the arrangement, the passion, the performance. With the possible exception of Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman, this is the apotheosis of Western popular music.



Aretha photo 2

Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)


Aretha Franklin official website

Aretha Franklin wikipedia

Aretha Franklin discography

Aretha Franklin biography (AllMusic)

Glenn Smith lives in Sydney and teaches high school English, plays very bad guitar with his bass playing son and spends far too much time thinking about The Beatles…

TopperPost #1,083


  1. David Lewis
    Nov 9, 2023

    Masterful. I think it was Charles Shaar Murray who said one of Aretha’s problems was that having been told she could sing the phone book, spent too much time singing the phone book when she should get back to songs. But you’re right, when she sings actual songs and doesn’t rely on triple forte belting, it’s something magical.
    I quite liked her I Knew you were Waiting with George Michael, and Annie Lennox rises to the occasion with Sisters are Doing it for Themselves. And I don’t mind her singing about pink Cadillacs in Freeway of Love. But none of them quite fit in this list. Of course we try to avoid the most well known songs on Toppermost but you just can’t with Aretha. Sock it to me too.

  2. Mick Tarrant
    Nov 9, 2023

    Man … that’s a great read, made me want to revisit all 10 tracks. Probably will do so later, distinct possibility of searching out the 45s also. Big thanks for the article Glenn.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Nov 10, 2023

    Thanks for this great piece Glenn. Encouraged me to watch ‘Amazing Grace’ again last night. Was a tad surprised – given her background in church music – that there was no actual gospel song here. Also sent me back to this clip.

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