Aretha Franklin was just always there — one of the pillars of popular music, and her voice part of the bedrock. She had a power and natural style to her singing that no one could touch. It was never about how many octaves she could reach, as some popular singers of more recent decades have tried to make it, although of course she could easily range over several. For Aretha, it was about her passion, her commitment to giving voice to whatever it was she was singing about. She simply was able summon it up from the depths of her being in a way that gave me chills countless times.
And it wasn’t just her singing: she is widely considered by other musicians to have been one of the best piano players in popular music, which is borne out by any video of her performing live while at the piano. Although it’s a bit of a moot point, it has been said that if Aretha hadn’t been a singer, she might very well have become famous anyway for her piano playing.
There are so many amazing performances that Aretha recorded, choosing just one for this in memoriam seemed like a pointless exercise. It helped a little that I’ve featured her here on Reselect twice before: first, in 2011, with “Money Won’t Change You,” and then again in 2012, with the amazing live recording of “Old Landmark” from her 1972 album, Amazing Grace (the best-selling album she ever released). But those were simply spontaneous choices; where to turn for this more important moment? After much soul searching (pun intended — somehow I don’t think Aretha would have been opposed to a moment of levity here), I ended up selecting “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business),” one of her signature songs, recorded for her landmark 1967 album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. It showcases some of her best piano playing, and Jerry Wexler, the co-founder of Atlantic Records (the label on which Aretha released her greatest recordings), considered it one of her most impassioned vocals. Simply put, it’s nearly as remarkable as Aretha herself, and is as good a condensation of her talents as you’ll ever find.