Aretha Franklin just died of pancreatic cancer at age 76. She had a long and sometimes difficult life. She won 18 Grammys. She is indisputably one of the greatest singers of all time. “American history wells up when Aretha sings,” former U.S. president Barack Obama told David Remnick in a 2016 New Yorker profile of Franklin.
There’s not much more about Franklin that hasn’t already been said. So instead, here are some of her greatest performances of all time.
“Natural Woman” with Carole King, Céline Dion, Shania Twain, Mariah Carey, and Gloria Estefan, VH1 Divas, 1998
For the launch of VH1’s “Divas” series, Franklin shared the stage with King, who wrote “Natural Woman,” along with a handful of other incredible female singers.
“Chain of Fools”, live performance, 1968
Franklin’s musical talent and obvious charisma are on full display in this clip from a TV performance in 1968, when she was just 26. This performance is also resonant politically — “Chain of Fools” may have been written as a song about female empowerment, but it went on to become “an angry rejection of the chain of command” that became an anthem for black U.S. servicemen returning from the Vietnam War, according to music historian Doug Bradley.
“I Say A Little Prayer For You,” The Cliff Richard Show, 1970
“Say A Little Prayer For You” was written for Dionne Warwick, but Franklin’s powerhouse vocals are a perfect match for this energetic love song. Also, check out how much her style has changed since the 1968 performance.
“Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” Live at the Fillmore, 1971
As The New York Times points out, Franklin was incredibly skillful at bringing originality to songs that had been previously recorded by other people. Her version of the Simon & Garfunkel song “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” recorded at a 1971 concert at the Fillmore in San Francisco, retains the soul of the original even as she makes the song her own, with a silky, bluesy new arrangement.
“I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You),” White House, 2014
“You have no idea how exciting it is for me to say these next 11 words,” says Melissa Etheridge by way of introduction. “And now, please welcome the First Lady, the Queen of Soul, Miss Aretha Franklin.” Counting might not be Etheridge’s strong suit, but Franklin’s decades-later performance of the 1967 single is incredible to watch.
“Think,” “The Blues Brothers”, 1980
According to Vanity Fair, Franklin’s career was in a bit of a slump before this movie came out in 1980. Soul was out and disco was in, and she was having some trouble making the transition. Her appearance as a waitress in the “The Blues Brothers” re-invigorated her career, according to the magazine, “largely thanks to an impeccable throwback performance of ‘Think,’ which debuted on her 1968 album Aretha Now.“
“A Different World” theme song, 1988
She dipped back into the film and TV world by singing the theme song on the second season of “The Cosby Show” spinoff “A Different World.”
“Natural Woman,” Kennedy Center, 2015
“There is only one Aretha Franklin,” Chilina Kennedy says as she introduces the Queen of Soul at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors for Carole King. Franklin sits down at the piano, age 73, wearing a fur coat and bringing an incredible energy and stage presence. Watch how hard Carole King freaks out, and don’t miss Michelle Obama beaming as Barack wipes away a tear. (The performance also caught the eye of Elton John, who said he watched the clip four times in a row, and added that “I will definitely, when I’m 75, be having a fur coat like that, and coming in with a clutch bag too. And throwing my coat off. And in a fishtail dress.”
“Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” with Stevie Wonder, 2001
Franklin’s version of the song, written by Stevie Wonder, is by far the most famous. She performed the song along with Stevie Wonder at a live performance in 2001.
Fun fact: when “Until You Came Back To Me” peaked at number three on the Hot 100 chart in 1974, Franklin became the first artist in history to have a hit song peak at each position from one to 10 on the chart.
“I Will Always Love You,” Radio City Music Hall, 2014
Franklin told Rolling Stone that she met Whitney Houston when the younger singer was just nine or 10 — her mother was one of Franklin’s backup singers. “She was one of the great sopranos,” Franklin said. “I especially loved the high note on ‘I Will Always Love You.'” Franklin performed the song, one of Houston’s most famous, after her 2012 death.