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20 Great Aretha Franklin Moments

When a truly iconic music figure dies, a eulogy can never tell the full story. Sometimes, you learn more about this person’s impact on the world when you dig through the flotsam — random TV performances, soundtrack appearances, half-forgotten duets. We’ve collected moments like these in the past for recently departed musical legends like David Bowie and Prince. And today, we’re doing it for Aretha Franklin.

Franklin, who passed away today, is one of the great indomitable forces in the history of popular music. She was a gale-force singer, of course, but there are a lot of gale-force singers. Along with the power of her voice, Franklin had technique, durability, flexibility, and the ability to convey the meaning of a song better than the words could’ve ever done. Unlike peers like James Brown, Franklin was hailed, even by the white press, as an all-time great when she first came to prominence in the mid-’60s. And while that level of attention has destroyed plenty of great talents, Franklin was able to evolve and branch out, pushing her incredible voice into different directions and, along the way, marking some genuine historical American moments.

So here’s a quick and incomplete celebration of Franklin, and of the impact she had. The moments collected in this piece aren’t the greatest in Franklin’s career. And it’s by no means a definitive list. It’s a quick skip-around in an astonishing career, a sideways survey. Let’s take a look.

1. THE “NESSUN DORMA” PERFORMANCE

At the famously nuts 1998 Grammys, Luciano Pavarotti was scheduled to sing the Puccini aria “Nessun Dorma.” At the last minute, he told the Grammy producers that he was too sick to sing. And so the Grammy producers got Franklin, who’d just sung at a Pavarotti tribute, to step in and sing it for him.

With no time to rehearse, she sang the motherfuck out of it, giving one of the all-time great Grammys performances and proving that she could sing absolutely anything. When she hits that big finale, she unleashes golden chariots from her throat. And then the song’s over and she’s mispronouncing “buenos noches.”

2. THE BLUES BROTHERS APPEARANCE

For a star of her stature, Franklin never really bothered to launch much of an acting career. The big exception was 1980’s surprise megahit The Blues Brothers, where Franklin, as the owner of a diner and the wife of one of the guys in the Blues Brothers’ band, sings a ridiculously entertaining version of “Think,” with everyone in her diner joining in on the choreographed dance steps. The Blues Brothers is a movie full of cameos from soul and R&B legends, but none of them leaves as much of an impression as Franklin.

3. THE CURTIS MAYFIELD COLLABORATION

Franklin’s most famous producer will always be Jerry Wexler, her Atlantic Records boss and her collaborator on all of those incredible ’60s megahits. But later in her career, Franklin teamed up with a few other greats, like Quincy Jones and Luther Vandross. On the soundtrack album for the 1976 movie Sparkle, Franklin worked with producer and songwriter Curtis Mayfield, who, like her, is one of those eternal geniuses of American soul music. It’s a shame they only made one album together.

4. THE “ELEANOR RIGBY” COVER

For a while, there was a whole cottage industry of soul singers covering Beatles songs, bringing out things that were just not there on the originals. Al Green did “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Marvin Gaye did “Yesterday.” Bill Withers did “Let It Be.” And in 1970, Aretha Franklin did “Eleanor Rigby,” turning it into a piano-driven R&B workout and changing the song’s meaning completely when she sang, “I’m Eleanor Rigby.” Paul McCartney probably did not imagine his heroine sounding like this. It doesn’t matter.

5. THE “HOW WILL I KNOW” VIDEO CAMEO

Aretha Franklin was good friends with Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother. And there’s a fun moment in the absurdly colorful video for “How Will I Know,” Whitney’s gorgeous sonic headrush and 1985 #1 single, where Houston turns to a wall, and we see the image of Franklin, in black-and-white, dancing along and projecting as much personality as you possible can in a two-second cameo. Years later, Franklin sang the slow-motion stunner “It Hurts Like Hell” on the soundtrack to the Whitney Houston vehicle Waiting To Exhale.

6. THE EURYTHMICS COLLAB

Aretha Franklin has landed 77 songs in Billboard Hot 100, but she only has two #1 singles. One is “Respect.” The other is a George Michael collaboration. So it goes. See, in the mid-’80s, there was this whole new explosion of white soul singers from the UK. All of them loved Franklin, obviously, and all of them looked at her as a sort of paragon of authenticity — the type that could be conferred through a duet. Franklin was gracious enough to sing with a few of them. None of them could come anywhere near matching her firepower, of course. But one who at least sounded like she belonged on the same song was Annie Lennox. The Eurythmics’ 1986 single “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” is not without awkwardness, but it’s a sign of how ably she could handle that group’s stiff, sharp synth-funk.

7. THE MARY J. BLIGE COLLAB

With her impassioned, feverish rasp and her theatrically emotional delivery, Mary J. Blige is the closest thing Aretha Franklin has to an heir apparent. They’ve sung together a few times over the years, but my favorite of their collaborations is “Don’t Waste Your Time,” from Blige’s 1999 album Mary. On that song, Franklin plays the counseling elder, offering urgent advice to a woman, Blige, who keeps giving some asshole too many chances. Franklin sings Blige right off the song, and off the top of my head, I can’t remember any other times that’s happened.

8. THE LAURYN HILL COLLAB

In 1998, when she was conquering the world, Lauryn Hill did not collaborate with too many other people. But she made an exception for Aretha Franklin. Hill wrote and produced “A Rose Is Still A Rose,” the title track from Franklin’s 1998 album. She also sang the Edie Brickell interpolation. The end result is a fine example of squelchy, self-assured late-’90s hip-hop soul. It’s also the last top-40 hit that Franklin scored during her lifetime. And the way Franklin handles that breezy, stuttery beat is a thing of beauty.

9. THE SMOKY ROBINSON DUET

Once upon a time, Berry Gordy tried to recruit Aretha Franklin, a Detroit resident, to Motown, but Franklin’s father didn’t think Gordy’s young label had enough reach. So it wasn’t until years later that Franklin and Motown treasure Smokey Robinson sat down at a piano together. On a 1979 episode of Soul Train, Franklin and Robinson, who’d lived in the same building once, sang the Miracles’ “Ooo Baby Baby” together, and it was lovely.

10. THE SOUL TRAIN LINE TO “ROCK STEADY”

Speaking of Soul Train! In the great 1993 Spike Lee period piece Crooklyn, there’s a scene where the family turns on the TV and watches the show’s dancers taking on Franklin’s funky, hard-strutting 1972 single “Rock Steady.” That full clip, it turns out, is a magical piece of television.

Franklin also performed the song on the show once, and that’s great, too.

11. THE ADEVA “RESPECT” COVER

There are a lot of covers of Aretha Franklin songs, but there aren’t a lot of good ones. As a singer, Franklin was such a force that no right-thinking singer would really want to take on something she’d already done. Indeed, she regularly made a practice of snatching other singers’ songs and making them hers. “Respect,” after all, was an Otis Redding song, though nobody thinks of it as that now. And my favorite Franklin cover takes on her version of “Respect,” not Redding’s. In 1989, the New Jersey singer Adeva turned “Respect” into smooth, streamlined, undulating house music, and she had a UK hit with it. It makes me wish there were more house covers of Franklin songs.

12. THE “GAS FACE” SAMPLE

There may not have been a lot of great Franklin covers, but there were plenty of great Franklin samples. The first one I always think of is Prince Paul repurposing the rolling piano line from “Think” for white rap purists Third Base (and for a pre-mask MF DOOM, back when he was still Zev Love X). In the process, Third Base got themselves a Gilbert Gottfried video appearance, and they also almost got themselves killed by MC Hammer’s goons.

13. THE “SCHOOL SPIRIT” SAMPLE

Another one! For my favorite deep cut from The College Dropout, Kanye West gave the helium-soul treatment to Frankin’s 1970 song “Spirit In The Dark,” and to its opening piano chord. It still sounds glorious. “Spirit In The Dark” is a great song, but now it sounds like a screwed-and-chopped “School Spirit.”

14. THE A DIFFERENT WORLD THEME

The collegiate Cosby Show spinoff A Different World ran for six seasons in the late ’80s and early ’90s. For the three seasons in the middle — the best seasons — Franklin was responsible for the theme music. If you’re the right age, watching the intro is like stepping into a time machine.

15. THE SIMPSONS SERENADE

Speaking of late-’80s/early-’90s prime-time comedy! Here’s the shockingly sweet bit from The Simpsons where Aunt Selma sings Franklin’s immortal love song “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” to Jub-Jub, her pet iguana.

16. THE SNEAKERS DANCE MONTAGE

An Aretha Franklin soundtrack moment I’ve always loved is a quick scene from the ridiculously entertaining 1992 techno-heist comedy Sneakers. It’s the crew-coming-together scene where Mary McDonnell, David Straithairn, Sidney Poitier, River Phoenix, and Franklin’s Blues Brothers co-star Dan Ayroyd dance to “Chain Of Fools.”

17. THE LATRICE ROYALE LIP-SYNC

I have been assured by my Stereogum co-workers, many of whom are big fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race, that Latrice Royale and Kenya Michaels’ lip-sync to “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” is a big moment in the show’s history. I believe it. It’s pretty great.

18. THE WRESTLEMANIA III PERFORMANCE

In 1987, nearly 100,000 people crammed into Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome for Wrestlemania III, maybe the most important pro wrestling event in history. Hulk Hogan bodyslammed Andre The Giant and retained the WWF Championship. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat defeated Randy “Macho Man” Savage in one of the greatest matches of all time. And the show opened with Aretha Franklin lending it a moment of gravitas, singing “America The Beautiful” and accompanying herself on piano in her hometown. (It’s not on YouTube, but if you have the WWE Network, you can watch it here.) Franklin also sang at Wrestlemania 23, but that’s less exciting.

19. THE ELEGY FOR KING

In 1968, a few months before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave Aretha Franklin an award. And at a memorial for King, she sang an absolutely wrenching version of “Precious Lord, Lead Me Home.”

Franklin sang the same song at the 1972 funeral of the gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, one of the women who’d helped raise her after Franklin’s mother left her father. That performance might be even more devastating.

20. THE OBAMA INAUGURATION

Aretha Franklin sang at the inaugurations of three presidents: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. At Obama’s inauguration, referring back to a statement that King made in his “I Have A Dream” speech, Franklin sang “My Country, ‘Tis Of Thee.” It was a towering moment in history, and we all made fun of her hat. We didn’t deserve her.