Respect: Remembering Aretha Franklin's 10 greatest performances

Billy Johnson Jr.
Senior Editor
Aretha Franklin performs “Nessun Dorma” at the 1998 Grammy Awards. (Photo: Stereogum)

Aretha Franklin, who died at her Detroit home on Thursday at age 76, earned her Queen of Soul title even before “Respect” became a huge hit for her in 1967. Her unmatched talent was just that obvious to everyone who heard the Memphis-born, Detroit-bred preacher’s daughter who enjoyed an incredible career that spanned more than 60 years.

To honor the phenomenal woman that Rolling Stone declared the “Greatest Singer of All Time,” we have compiled a list of her 10 most iconic performances.

10. “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” first inauguration of President Barack Obama (2009)

Forty-fourth President Barack Obama’s first inauguration drew a record 1.8 million people to the National Mall, so it was only fitting that the first woman ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would perform at the celebration. Franklin did not disappoint, incorporating her signature gospel inflections to make the patriotic song her own.

9. “Think,” The Blues Brothers (1980)

Twelve years after reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles chart, Aretha had an opportunity to perform “Think” in this classic musical comedy starring Saturday Night Live favorites Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Franklin, who portrayed a sassy waitress, was joined by Carolyn and Erma, her real-life sisters and background singers.

8. “Natural Woman,” Kennedy Center Honors (2015)

There are so many reasons why Franklin’s homage to songwriter and honoree Carole King ranks among her best onstage moments. First, Franklin made a fabulous entrance, donning one of her trademark mink coats and blowing kisses to the eager crowd. King leapt from her seat in awe, blowing kisses right back to Franklin. And when Franklin sat at the piano and sang those first notes, King’s mouth dropped and Barack Obama was caught on camera wiping away a tear. Franklin truly sang the song as gracefully as she did when she originally recorded it 48 years earlier. When she stood up and dropped her fur on the floor before belting the final chorus, she received a much-deserved standing ovation.

7. “Won’t Be Long,” The Steve Allen Show (1964)

Years before Aretha would become a household name, her destiny was apparent in this early TV appearance. The 22-year-old Franklin, accompanied by a band and seated at her piano, showcased a more rockabilly side of her repertoire and was clearly a star.

6. “Nessun Dorma,” 40th Annual Grammy Awards (1998)

The Queen of Soul wasn’t just a master of the R&B and gospel genres; she was adept in other styles as well. She received a standing ovation at 1998 Grammys when she stepped in at the last minute for legendary Italian operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who had canceled his scheduled performance due to illness. Franklin, who had performed Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma” two days earlier at another Grammy event, joined the orchestra on Grammy night, effortlessly performing the aria to rave reviews.

5. “Spirit in the Dark” with Ray Charles, Fillmore West (1971)

Aretha had a great San Francisco treat in store for her fans this evening. After offering an engaging performance on the piano with her band and background singers and exiting the stage, she returned with an amazing encore guest: the one and only Ray Charles. The “Hit the Road Jack” singer jammed with Franklin and the band for an additional, incredible seven minutes.

4. “Mary Don’t You Weep,” Soul Train (1979)

Franklin unexpectedly brought the church to this popular TV dance show in the disco-era ’70s. The in-studio dancers stood respectfully behind her as she sat down at a grand piano beside host Don Cornelius and delivered a moving acoustic rendition of “Mary Don’t You Weep” from her top-selling gospel album, Amazing Grace.

3. “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” 13th Annual Grammy Awards (1971)

Another testament to Aretha’s undeniable gift was her mesmerizing cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s angelic gospel-tinged “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (which had received the Song of the Year and Record of the Year honors). At the ceremony, Franklin amplified the gospel elements for her version, personalizing it with rich organs, doo-wop female background singers, and her warm, husky rifts. She won her own Grammy for the song, Best Female Vocal Performance, the following year.

(The Recording Academy has scrubbed this moment from YouTube, but below is another stunning TV performance of the song from that same here.)

2. “Respect,” Concertgebouw Amsterdam (1968)

What an incredible introduction of Franklin to the European audience. Her first tour overseas coincided with the success of “Respect,” and for the night’s closing song at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, the diva danced alongside her background singers, feeding off the energy from the lively crowd. An international star was born.

1. “Precious Lord,” Martin Luther King Jr. memorial (1968)

While Aretha’s strong, soulful connection to her songs is one of her most beloved attributes, it would be difficult to find a performance with a more heart-wrenching tug than her rendition of the gospel classic “Precious Lord” at the memorial of Martin Luther King Jr. (Franklin’s family friend Mahalia Jackson sang this song at King’s actual funeral; Franklin later reprised the song at Jackson’s funeral in 1972.) As a prominent voice for the civil rights movement who worked with King when she was 16, Franklin tapped into her experience growing up singing in her father’s Detroit church. King’s widow, Coretta, chillingly watched the performance with a solemn, uninterrupted stare.

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