One of the most telling moments in Aretha Franklin's career came when she wasn't even around. At Atlantic Records, where Franklin had recently signed after an unsatisfying tenure at Columbia Records, a producer played a tape of Franklin's "Respect" for Otis Redding, the man who had co-written the song with Jerry Butler. Redding's original version had been a modest hit. Since Redding was no slouch as a performer, one would naturally figure that he made the song everything it could be.
Redding heard Franklin's forceful, Gospel-tinged take on "Respect..." Glumly he turned to the producer and said "she took my song." In one of those rare occasions the cover eclipsed the original. She made "Respect" her own and it is forever identified with her.
Like a lot of black performers who rose to prominence in the '60s, Franklin's roots go back to church. Born and raised in Detroit, Franklin and her two sisters, sang in their father's church with Aretha making her first Gospel recordings at the age of 14. Later she was signed to Columbia by the legendary John Hammond, the man who earlier discovered Bob Dylan and later brought Bruce Springsteen to the public's attention.
Given pop material and lackluster production to work with, the Columbia years could best be described as hit and miss. The hits included "Lee Cross" and "Soulville" when she sang unfettered.
In the mid-60s Franklin moved to Atlantic where producer Jerry Wexler "put her back in church." Atlantic sent her to Alabama to record with the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section. These sessions produced her first Atlantic single "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)." Later the Rhythm Section traveled to New York to record with Franklin. The combination proved highly successful with Franklin nailing ten Top 10 hits in eighteen months, including "Think," "Chain Of Fools" and "Respect." The success earned Franklin the title of Lady Soul.
Franklin continued successfully in the '70s with a trio of notable covers, "Spanish Harlem," "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" and Stevie Wonder's "Until You Come Back To Me." She also produced an exquisite Gospel album, "Amazing Grace." The '80s were a little less kind with forgettable pop hits "Who's Zooming Who," "Jump On It," and "Freeway Of Love." But these are merely a footnotes in a brilliant career.
Like many performers with a sustained career, Aretha worked in several genres including, Gospel, Soul, Rock and pop. But it's her Rock infused Soul that carries the day. Her "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) and "Spirit In The Dark" are stand out albums. But since Aretha's career traces back to the '60s, when singles ruled, a "greatest hits" package is also a good way to go. Be careful, there are "greatest hits" packages from her Columbia years. Pass. Following her success at Atlantic she was one of the few performers who were recognizable by her first name only. "Aretha's Greatest Hits" hits all the high points and is spectacular.