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A timeline of Aretha Franklin's hits

Aretha Franklin sings in the studio during during her early career at Columbia Records.
Aretha Franklin sings in the studio during during her early career at Columbia Records.Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images, via NPR

by Lou Papineau

February 12, 2018

Aretha Franklin is the Undisputed Queen of Soul (as her Twitter bio rightly declares). And the Current's listeners agree: they selected her as one of the honorees in our celebration of Black History Month. We've traced her musical journey with notes and quotes about the songs and albums that forged her magnificent legacy.

"I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)" — Aretha was born in 1942 and started singing at age 10 at the church in Detroit which was run by her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin; her first album, Songs of Faith, was released in 1956. Inspired by Sam Cooke, Franklin turned to secular music in her teens and launched her storied career when she was signed to Columbia Records in 1960 by John Hammond, who said, "She was the best natural singer I'd heard since Billie Holiday." But she muddled through a series of pop and jazz tracks and standards that didn't play to the strengths of her extraordinary voice and artistry; only one of the nine singles from her nine Columbia albums cracked the Billboard Top 40. When she moved to Atlantic in 1967, her musical expression and artistry blossomed: her first five releases were Top Ten hits. "I Never Loved A Man" was the title track of her debut for the label and the very first song she recorded with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section at Fame Studios in Alabama. Producer Jerry Wexler, who wooed Aretha to the label, was bowled over by the first session and the song's groove: "Ooh, it was good. It was real good." It sold a million copies, reached No. 9 on the pop chart and topped the R&B chart.

"Respect" — Aretha's inspired take on Otis Redding's "Respect" was a rallying cry and a revelation. In David Ritz's Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, Jerry Wexler related: "If you listen to Otis' original and then Aretha's cover, the first thing you notice is that her groove is more dramatic. That stop-and-stutter syncopation was something she invented . . . I knew she'd been intrigued with the song for a couple of years and had tried it out onstage. She had already come up with this new beat. But the creation of the background vocals and ingenious wordplay was done on the spot in the studio. The backgrounds were more than wonderful aural augmentations. They gave the song a strong sexual flavor. The call for respect went from a request to a demand. And then, given the civil rights and feminist fervor that was building in the '60s, respect — especially as Aretha articulated it with such force — took on a new meaning. 'Respect' started off as a soul song and wound up as a kind of national anthem. It virtually defined American culture at that moment in history." When Wexler played the song for Redding, "He broke out into this wide smile and said, 'The girl has taken that song from me. Ain't no longer my song. From now on, it belongs to her.' And then he asked me [to] play it again, and then a third time. The smile never left his face." "Respect" was the first of Aretha's two No. 1 hits, spending two weeks atop the Hot 100 in 1967.

"(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" — The track was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King (Wexler got a credit for inspiring the title). In Respect, Ritz wrote, "King and Goffin placed the natural woman in a romantic context. It is a man who is 'the key to her peace of mind.' Aretha, however, took it to church. She told interviewers that she heard the song as a prayer. She was praising and singing to the Lord. When her soul was in the lost and found, it wasn't a man who claimed it, it was God." It was her fourth Top 10 hit of '67 (No. 8) and appears on her landmark 1968 album, Lady Soul.

"Until You Come Back To Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)" — Aretha's run of Top 10s — including "Baby I Love You" (No. 4) and "Chain of Fools" (2) in '67; "(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone" (5), "Think" (7), "The House That Jack Built (6) and "I Say A Little Prayer" (10) in '68; "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (6), "Spanish Harlem" (2), and "Rock Steady" (9) in '71; and "Day Dreaming" (5) in '72 — came to an end in 1974 with her 14th entry, which had been co-written and recorded by Stevie Wonder in 1967. The track peaked at No. 3 and was her last hit produced by Jerry Wexler.

Amazing Grace — Aretha returned to her gospel roots in 1972 on this two-disc set recorded in Los Angeles with James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir. It was the best-selling album of her career. In David Ritz's Respect, Marvin Gaye enthused, "Ask true Aretha fans to name her best album and the answer is the same — Amazing Grace. No one loves 'Respect' and 'Natural Woman' and 'Chain of Fools' more than me...But no matter how marvelous that material, none of it reaches the level of Amazing Grace...It's her greatest work. It's the Aretha album I cherish the most."

"Freeway Of Love" — In 1980, Aretha signed with Arista Records; similar to her stint with Columbia, only one of the five singles from her first four albums for her new label made the Top 40. But her 1985 LP, Who's Zoomin' Who?, yielded two smashes: the title track (No. 7) and "Freeway of Love" (No. 3). "It was a monster hit with all the right elements," Aretha's brother Cecil told David Ritz in Respect. "[Producer and co-writer] Narada [Michael Walden] had the smarts not only to plug into the mythology of motor-crazy Detroit, but he tapped into the Springsteen vibe by using Clarence Clemons on tenor sax. Clarence tore up the track. In the MTV age, the song was also video-friendly. Fact is, it was Aretha's first real video hit. She got her hair shorn in a super-hip extra-edgy mod cut and was ready to roll. It crossed over, became a pop hit, became Ree's first number-one dance hit, and got her another Grammy [for Best Female R&B Performance]."

"I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)" — The second No. 1 song of Aretha's storied career (which was also her last and 17th Top 10 entry) was this 1987 duet with George Michael, from the album Aretha. (Her Arista debut and this sixth release for the label shared her eponymous branding: "It's my name and I'll use it for as many titles as I want," she said.) Producer Narada Michael Walden told Fred Bronson in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, "The lead vocals were cut in Detroit. Aretha knocked her stuff out in a matter of hours and we went on and did some of her ad-libs just for the heck of it, and she was done. The next day George flew in bright and early on the Concorde from England. He was very excited about singing with Aretha. It was a lifelong ambition of his. I [can] understand him being a little nervous. He [sang] his heart out . . . The next day Aretha and George came together for the big heavyweight championship fight; it was really a memorable moment. And fortunately a lot of that magic is in that record; they worked side by side kicking each other and just pushing it and made it happen."

Franklin did two other notable collabs in this period: with Eurythmics on "Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves" (released in 1985 on Zoomin' and the duo's Be Yourself Tonight) and "Jumpin' Jack Flash," produced by Keith Richards for the soundtrack of the 1986 Whoopi Goldberg film of the same name. "Give Keith credit," Jerry Wexler told David Ritz in Respect, "[Richards] made sure Aretha not only sang but played piano. Keith understood what I had learned years before — when Aretha is anchored at the keyboard, it's a stronger and more organic overall performance. She becomes her own rhythm section and all power flows from her."

Aretha on black pride: After the release of her 1972 album Young, Gifted and Black, Franklin said, "I believe that the black revolution certainly forced me and the majority of black people to begin taking a second look at ourselves. It wasn't that we were all that ashamed of ourselves, we merely started appreciating our natural selves . . . sort of, you know, falling in love with ourselves just as we are. We found that we had far more to be proud of. So I suppose the revolution influenced me a great deal, but I must say that mine was a very personal evolution — an evolution of the me in myself."