Aretha Franklin’s Most Powerful Early Performances: “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Say a Little Prayer” & More

Sure­ly you’ve heard, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, is grave­ly ill with ter­mi­nal can­cer and has been moved to hos­pice care. The news has brought tear­ful trib­utes from celebri­ties and fans; lengthy ret­ro­spec­tives of her almost six­ty-year career will fol­low. In a life as rich, trou­bled, and glam­orous as hers, with so many intense highs and lows, it’s almost impos­si­ble to know where to begin, though a num­ber of biog­ra­phers have already told her story—or sto­ries. She kept many of the details of her life pri­vate for years, and denied the sen­sa­tion­al details in a recent biog­ra­phy by David Ritz, who col­lab­o­rat­ed with her on an ear­li­er bio, 1999’s Aretha: From These Roots.

Her strug­gles with alco­hol and overeat­ing, preg­nan­cies at 12 and 14 years old, tumul­tuous and abu­sive rela­tion­ships… describ­ing her chal­lenges and her wilder times, claims Ritz in his defense, throws her incred­i­ble tal­ent and suc­cess into even high­er relief. It prob­a­bly won’t hurt sales, either. In any case, there’s no doubt that Aretha is a sur­vivor. She sang anthems of self-reliance like “Respect” and “Think” from deep wells of per­son­al feel­ing and expe­ri­ence. Music, she told Essence mag­a­zine in 1973, “is my way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing that part of me I can get out front and share. It’s what I have to give; my way of say­ing, ‘Let’s find one anoth­er.’”

A musi­cal prodi­gy as a singer and pianist, America’s reign­ing diva “grew up sur­round­ed by gospel greats,” notes, “such as Mahalia Jack­son, Sam Cooke and Clara Ward, as well as civ­il rights icons includ­ing Mar­tin Luther King Jr.,” whom she mourned in song at his funer­al. She’s won 18 Gram­mys, sung at the inau­gu­ra­tion of three pres­i­dents, became the first woman induct­ed into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, had 43 sin­gles in the top 40 charts… this list of accom­plish­ments seems to just scratch the sur­face. What mat­ters in the end, and what will endure, are not the hon­ors, awards, and chart posi­tions, but her incred­i­ble musi­cian­ship and voice. Her gospel roots drove every per­for­mance, giv­ing even the light­est of songs, like Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “I Say a Lit­tle Prayer,” a stir­ring pow­er and con­vic­tion.

As mil­lions around the world offer prayers for Aretha, revis­it some of the finest live moments in her ear­ly career in the clips here— “Respect” in 1967, at the top, the year she won her first Gram­my for best R&B record­ing. See her per­form “Chain of Fools” in 1968—the year she appeared on the cov­er of Time mag­a­zine under the head­line “The Sound of Soul”—and “Say a Lit­tle Prayer” on The Cliff Richard Show in 1970. Just above, catch a stun­ning per­for­mance of one of her most beloved hits, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Nat­ur­al Woman.” And below, see her soul­ful take on Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Trou­bled Water” at the Fill­more West in 1971. Our thoughts are with Aretha and her fam­i­ly. May she con­tin­ue to inspire new gen­er­a­tions for many decades more after she leaves us.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Women of the Blues: Hear a Playlist of Great Blues Singers, from Bessie Smith & Etta James, to Bil­lie Hol­i­day & Janis Joplin

Hear Mar­vin Gaye Sing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” A Capel­la: The Haunt­ing Iso­lat­ed Vocal Track

Reli­gious Songs That Sec­u­lar Peo­ple Can Love: Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Sam Cooke, John­ny Cash & Your Favorites

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Chana Kelman says:

    For our Quin of Soul, Miss Aretha Franklin
    The most respec­ful singer
    She gave all what she had, her music, here care for the peo­ple
    Although she had a quite a trou­bled life, I wish she had, had bet­ter
    Aretha Franklin, I real­ly love you do much
    Through my life I will not for­get you
    With lots of love also for your fam­i­ly

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