When a panel of 179 music experts chose “The Greatest Singers of All Time” for Rolling Stone in 2008, Aretha Franklin — who died of pancreatic cancer on August 16 at the age of 76 — took first place, ahead of greats like Ray Charles and Elvis Presley. It was but one of the many honors this musical force of nature earned in the course of her 60-plus-year career.
In 1987, she was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She was nominated for 44 Grammys and won 18 of them, including the 1994 Lifetime Achievement Award. She had 15 gold records. Between 1961 and 1998, 47 of her songs reached No. 50 or higher on the Billboard charts — including nine in the top five. In 2005, President George W. Bush bestowed on her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Born in Memphis in 1942, Franklin was brought up in Detroit, where her father, Rev. C. L. Franklin, was a famed Baptist preacher and church singer known for his “million-dollar voice.” She started singing too and recorded a gospel album, “Songs of Faith,” in her father’s church when she was only 14. Four years later, she signed with Columbia Records and released her first secular single, “Today I Sing the Blues.” It reached No. 10 on the Billboard R&B charts.
Franklin scored two more R&B hits for the label and released, among other records, an album backed by Ray Bryant’s jazz trio and a tribute to bluesy singer Dinah Washington, who’d been the most popular black female singer of the 1950s. It wasn’t until Franklin moved to Atlantic Records in 1966, though, that she became a star.
Over the next dozen years, she gave us such unforgettable classics as “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You),” “Do Right Woman — Do Right Man,” “Respect” (which overshadowed even Otis Redding’s original version), “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Think,” as well as definitive cover versions of such songs as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “The Weight,” “Tracks of My Tears,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Son of a Preacher Man,” “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” and “Spanish Harlem.”
The range of Franklin’s musical interests and abilities was broad. She brought her unmistakable voice to collaborations with everyone from Whitney Houston, James Brown, the Four Tops, and Smokey Robinson to George Michael (with whom she recorded the No. 1 single “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me”), Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Elton John, and the Eurythmics.
Eulogizing Franklin for Rolling Stone, Mary J. Blige — with whom Franklin also recorded — called her “a gift from God,” and proposed that “She is the reason why women want to sing.” Franklin performed “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at President Barack Obama’s 2009 Inauguration, and on the day of her death, the Obamas issued a joint statement that said, in part, “Through her compositions and unmatched musicianship, Aretha helped define the American experience,” adding “the gift of her music remains to inspire us all.”
This is a good time to put on your favorite Aretha Franklin song and pump up the volume — because, as the Obamas also wisely noted, sometimes her music helps us “just forget about everything else and dance.”
24/7 Wall St. reviewed all of Aretha Franklin’s songs that have charted on the Billboard Hot 100 list. We indexed these singles based on the total number of weeks these songs were on the Billboard 100, the highest position these songs reached, as well as the total number of plays by Spotify users.