A Natural Woman: Our Powerful Aretha Franklin Memories

Aretha Franklin in 1969
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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

March 8 is International Women's Day - a perfect time to honor one of the most powerful figures in soul music history: Aretha Franklin.

The Queen of Soul was honored today with a beautiful short video from Rhino Records documenting her impact on pop culture, and we're dipping into the SoulMusic.com vaults to share some of our favorite Aretha moments we've covered.

Songs of Black Lives Matter: Aretha Franklin, "Respect"

Franklin's anthemic cover of Otis Redding's 1965 "Respect" became the emblem of the civil rights movement, a fiery force in the feminist movement and an unstoppable No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Civil Rights Movement was burning and Franklin's rapidfire vocal riffs scorched "R-e-s-p-e-c-t" into everyone's minds.

For those who dismiss this album as just covers, it is worthwhile to note Franklin's choice in covering material beyond standard soul. From John Hartford's "Gentle on My Mind" to Bob Lind's "Elusive Butterfly" and Smokey Robinson's cowritten "The Tracks of My Tears," the music legend breathes new life into the dynamic range of this heavy jazz album, which would make any jazz collector proud. 

With saxman King Curtis leading a dream team of musicians that included Billy Preston on organ, Franklin refashioned pop and rock classics in her own image, transforming the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" with stinging funk and Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" with a stirring call-and-response gospel section. 

With "Until You Come Back to Me," Aretha had a song enter every position on Billboard's Top 10, from 1 to 10. She was the first to achieve this, and only four others have done so since: Marvin Gaye, Madonna, Drake and Taylor Swift.

"Look, it’s simple," SoulMusic's own David Nathan writes. "Aretha Franklin has recorded music that has spoken to my heart, soothed my soul, made me smile, made me cry, made me sigh and provided the backdrop for love, joy, passion and happiness from ’65 on."

"I don’t think there’s anybody I have known who possesses an instrument like hers and who has such a thorough background in gospel, the blues and the essential black-music idiom," Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun shared with Rock Hall. "She is blessed with an extraordinary combination of remarkable urban sophistication and deep blues feeling...The result is maybe the greatest singer of our time."

For the nation's first Black president, Aretha represented the best of their country, which inspired him to help shape its present and future. "American history wells up when Aretha sings," he wrote of her work in 2015. "That's why, when she sits down at a piano and sings 'A Natural Woman,' she can move me to tears...because it captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation, transcendence."

On July 4, 2020, The Queen of Soul's solo rendition of "Never Gonna Break My Faith," featuring the Boys Choir of Harlem, ascended to the top spot on Billboard's Gospel Digital Song Sales, cementing Franklin's streak of No. 1 hits in every decade since the 1960s.

Aretha: Life, Love, Laughter and the Groove

"Her music continues to provide inspiration, awe at her remarkable artistry as a reminder of her sweet passion, through-the-storm fortitude and her forever unique ability through a voice like no other, to literally love all the hurt away," David Nathan writes in another remembrance of The Queen of Soul.



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