The Aretha Franklin playlist: From I Say A Little Prayer to Freeway of Love, celebrating her vocal prowess

Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri

August 16, 2018 22:55:13 IST

It is an impossible task to shortlist Aretha Franklin’s songs to a kind of 'greatest hits' list. Because music is subjective not just in terms of lyrical content, but timeliness. It’s not about when the song released but when you heard it. What was going on in your life when you first heard it? How much had you evolved when you revisited it years later? A song’s story in your life is never about just one incident. So long as we live and so long as we love, we will discover and rediscover why some songs, more than others, are relevant to us.

Most Aretha Franklin fans have an Aretha story in their lives. And as much as she may have championed many a feminist cause with her all-powerful voice, she’s won legions of fans among the menfolk too. The sheer earnestness of her singing, the universality of her lyrics, the attitude she espoused, coupled with her jaw-dropping genius of vocals, made her a constant companion in the journey of life.

Here are songs which may have achieved widespread acclaim, but lingered coyly or decisively, depending on where in life I stood. For a change, it was Aretha Franklin who provided the backing vocals… this time to the soundtrack of my life.

Chain of Fools

'Chain of Fools' peaked at number two on the Billboard charts in 1968 but that’s not what makes it essential to Aretha listening. Nor is it the Grammy that Aretha won for it in the Best Female R&B Vocal Performance category.

'Chain of Fools' that is set entirely in the C minor chord has an irresistible Motown sound with lingering tremolo guitar licks that compel you to groove. It’s been part of my relationship ready reckoner list for years and has been particularly handy through some unpleasant fights, especially if, like me, you never have a great comeback in a fight but when you mentally recreate it, you’re the king or queen of zingers!

It makes it interesting because Aretha is basically singing about being in a toxic relationship and being emotionally chained to a dreadful man who even her father has warned her about. It’s a situation that isn’t unfamiliar to most people, though conventionally none of us are grooving about being with a partner who is pretty much an unmentionable synonym to a rear orifice. Then again, that’s why we love Aretha so much.

I Say A Little Prayer

My absolute personal favourite of this powerhouse singer, 'I Say A Little Prayer', has been my life’s anthem. And it’s always, very ironically, been about me. Given that Aretha Franklin was singing about saying a little prayer for her man, it hasn’t once occurred to me that this could be a song one can sing for a significant other.

Most people consider this an Aretha original, but this was actually Dionne Warwick’s 1968 ballad. She sings about a woman who is waiting for her man, who is serving in Vietnam. Although a hit in its time, Aretha’s version was released a year later on her certified gold record Aretha Now, and remains the benchmark of the song.

I recall listening to the song as a kid and loving the chorus, scatting through the verse and just jumbling “together, forever…” aloud! It was the go-to song to perform at college vocals contests because really, when you’re competing, you bring out the aces! Diana Ross’ cover for My Best Friend’s Wedding gave the song a new lease of life though the “original” Aretha Franklin version was most preferred with a hairbrush in hand for a mic!

It was my song, and I said a little prayer to myself every time I sang it. A perfect pickmeupper. Years later, it was one of three favourite night-time songs for my little one, her exhausted lips still mouthing “forever…” One of my lasting memories through the rose-tinted prism of nostalgia and Cabernet Sauvignon, was singing this with my partner-in-crime, also known as my father-in-law. We sang, we fumbled, we laughed, we cried tears of joy and wine. Oh, it was everything Aretha would’ve wanted it to be.

Also read on Firstpost: Aretha Franklin passes away aged 76: For over six decades, she reigned as the Queen of Soul

(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman

You’ve got to slow-dance to this. I have. A thousand times. A pillow makes for a willing partner as long as the music is right. The thing about romance is it is often best experienced personally, without the looming necessity of expressing it. If you love someone, by all means sing to them. Even with questionable talent. But the joy of singing to yourself is unmatched. It makes that feeling of being in love so much about the two of you, and so much more about you being you. And that has been a riding sentiment in a lot of Aretha Franklin songs. On the surface, they’re tributes to various lovers. Few layers in, it essentially is about what we are or what we become when we’re in a relationship.

So as much as 'A Natural Woman' is addressed to someone who makes you feel effortlessly good, try singing this in front of a mirror. I do, and boy, it’s everything Aretha stood for.

Think

'Think', for me, is The Blues Brothers. I actually watched the 2000 sequel first, where Aretha reprises her role as Mrs Murphy. As is the case with a lot of movies and songs, a sequel leads us to its predecessor, thus starting a journey of discovery that brings immeasurable joy.

When Aretha released the song in 1968, it reached the number seven spot. Over a decade later, the song appeared in The Blues Brothers. She wrote this song with her husband Ted White, singing about freedom and respect for women. Calling her fans to sing along to “Freeeedom!”, singing 'Think' along with Aretha was like a hair spa: rejuvenating, pampering, and a suspension from the grime of life and its vagaries.

Rolling in the Deep (Adele cover)

By the time she paid tribute to Adele and a host of other vocal demigods, Aretha’s voice was nowhere close to its glorious past. But she made it an Aretha song, as she has done with so many songs over the years. Interpolating 'Rolling in the Deep' with Marvin Gaye’s 'Ain’t No Mountain High Enough', she gives it an Aretha treatment that sets it apart from Adele’s monumental success.

It isn’t readily picked to be among her best songs but there’s something so immensely gratifying and inspiring about someone of her stature paying tribute to a reigning vocal empress. What an honour. Her voice is raspy, at no stage betraying the message of the song. Of course, the song is a sound engineer’s nightmare with a surprisingly ghastly vocal tuning job.

But that isn’t enough to make one not get on their feet and dance. Combining a love ballad with a motivating number, this is a musically weak song that makes you want to dance. We’re all guilty of that.

Freeway of Love

If you’ve survived the tinny, synth sounds of the 1980s, you have surely ridden the 'Freeway of Love'. One of 1985’s biggest hits in America, 'Freeway of Love' was a club staple that earned Aretha her 12th Grammy Award.

It’s upbeat, creating a distinct 80s sonic experience, and not exactly a lyrical masterpiece. But the 80s espoused a highly synthetic/synthesizer-rich attitude in their songs and Aretha rides it like the champion that she was. Of course, as children we have no control over the soundtrack of our lives, but 'Freeway of Love' is one song I recall playing ad nauseum at kiddie birthday parties.

Why? Well, melody trumped lyrics most of the time. It played when we ran to find our spots during Musical Chairs. To this day, I can’t listen to the song without imagining those pauses where we’re supposed to rush to the chair, lest we get out.

Jumpin' Jack Flash

Yes, this is a Rolling Stones’ classic. And it has been established over and over again that Queen Aretha picked the songs that pleased her and just made them her own. While this version hasn’t quite achieved cult status among cursory listeners of Aretha’s works, it is one of the most delicious tributes she has paid to a legendary artist.

The opening bass riff in Aretha Franklin’s version sets the tone for what one can come to expect of this song. She gives it that gospel-y treatment that she has personified, takes it from its typical Rolling Stones’ energy and makes it a slightly slower-yet-upbeat Aretha number. Given that Mick Jagger wasn’t exactly known for his vocal prowess, enter Aretha who seems to say: “Roll over Jagger, let Aretha take over”. This song is entirely about her voice and a masterclass in how Keith Richards reins it in to let Aretha flourish. It makes for a great addition to a drive playlist irrespective of which version you choose, but it’s Aretha’s you’re going to be singing to. I would.

Updated Date: Aug 16, 2018 23:10 PM