The late singer drew from a range of inspirations — her life, her loves, her faith — to bring passion to every verse. When she sang it, you believed it.
Behind every great song is a story. Here are five of hers.
This top-10 hit, a key part of Franklin’s repertoire, was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin.
So what does it mean to be a “natural woman?” Scholars have debated this question, but nobody seems to know exactly. Although the song was written as a thank you of sorts from a grateful woman to her lover, Aretha turned it into a broader statement about the power of a confident woman who is at peace with herself.
The audience rose to its feet. King, watching from the balcony, was overcome with joy. President Obama wiped a tear from his cheek.
With its defiant lyrics and fervent vocals, this No. 1 R&B hit is a cousin of “Respect,” Franklin’s rallying cry for any woman who has felt mistreated. “You better think … about what you’re trying to do to me,” she warns, and woe to the man who stands in her way.
Franklin co-wrote “Think” — one of the only hits she penned herself — with then-husband Ted White, and it’s hard not to see it as a reflection of her stormy marriage at the time. She left White the year the song came out, and they divorced soon after.
“But she pulled through. I knew she’d be a wonderful actress even though she ended up making only two movies in her whole career.”
‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ (1971)
Simon & Garfunkel had a smash hit in early 1970 with this Paul Simon-penned tune, which topped the charts in five countries and won five Grammys. With his soaring tenor, Art Garfunkel sang it beautifully.
But that didn’t intimidate Franklin, who recorded a live version at the Fillmore theater in San Francisco a year later and turned it into a No. 1 song on the R&B charts.
Franklin grew up singing gospel at her father’s church in Detroit, so “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was right in her wheelhouse. She slowed the song down, funked it up a little, added an organ and brought out its inherent gospel roots.
A rare video from one of those Fillmore shows reveals Franklin at the piano, resplendent in white, belting out the song while backed by a small chorus.
‘Amazing Grace’ (1972)
Once Franklin became a star in the late ’60s, it was only a matter of time before she lent her singular voice to this popular hymn.
Recorded live at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in January 1972, “Amazing Grace” found Franklin at the peak of her powers. She took her time with the song, drawing out each word as a gospel chorus swelled behind her and audience members exhorted her on.
The song itself wasn’t a hit — her languid version was almost 11 minutes long — but the resulting live album, also called “Amazing Grace,” became Franklin’s most popular album and the top-selling live gospel album of all time.
Franklin’s brother Cecil believes the song and album were just what black America — maybe all of America — needed at the time.
‘Freeway of Love’ (1985)
The late ’70s and early ’80s were not kind to Franklin. Her music did not fit the disco era, and she took several years off to care for her ailing father before his death in 1984.
But she returned with a vengeance in 1985 with a string of snappy hits, many of them produced by hitmaker Narada Michael Walden, who also produced songs for a young Whitney Houston.
“Freeway of Love,” with its breezy, “let’s cruise around in my convertible Cadillac” vibe, was a summer smash and Aretha’s last No. 1 R&B hit. Its video, which mixed performance footage — yes, that’s Clarence Clemons on sax — with scenes of auto assembly lines, was also a valentine to her hometown of Detroit.