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Essential Aretha Franklin: Deborah Cox, Peabo Bryson, White Lung, more share their favourite songs

Andrea Warner

This Friday, join Drive host Rich Terfry as he explores the incredible career of Aretha Franklin, through stories and songs. Tune in to catch your favourite Aretha hits from the '60s, '70s and beyond. Listen this Friday at 6 p.m. (6:30 NT), on CBC Radio 2 Drive.


On March 25, 1942, Aretha Louise Franklin, the future Queen of Soul, was born. Since her debut album, Songs of Faith, in 1956, she's become one of the best-stelling artists of all time, racking up countless awards, nominations and top-charting albums and singles. She was also the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1987.

Franklin's been cited as a major influence by some of the biggest and best voices of the 20th and 21st centuries, including k.d. lang, Whitney Houston, Beyoncé and Adele. In fact, Franklin has enjoyed almost 40 years as the record holder for the most Billboard 100 hits by a woman. Well, she did until earlier this week when Nicki Minaj topped Franklin's 73 hits with three new singles, reaching new heights with 76 Billboard 100 spots.

Ahead of her 75th birthday, CBC Music invited a host of artists such as Deborah Cox, White Lung's Mish Way, Tami Neilson, Hannah Georgas, Humble the Poet, Chantal Kreviazuk and more to tell us about their favourite Aretha Franklin songs, and a few, like longtime friend Peabo Bryson, even share personal stories about the iconic singer, songwriter and pianist.

From unforgettable classics like "Respect" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" to deep cuts like "Ain't No Way" and "Daydreaming," 19 musicians tell us about their essential Aretha Franklin songs.

‘Maybe I’m A Fool’

"I have this gorgeous album on vinyl. Aretha could sing the crap out of an instruction manual, but holy smokes her vocals on this album are off the charts, even for her. On this tune she goes from smooth and sultry to explosive belt, zero to 60, in the very next phrase. Everything on this track is killer: the slinky sax, the drums (so much feel), the understated piano, and that unabashed rasp when she really lets it rip — Aretha is the undisputed queen." — Sarah Slean


"It's really hard to sing. If you try to cover it, it goes up so high. She's one of the greatest singers of all time and the song showcases her range." — Coleman Hell


"Not only does it have a great message and a great energy, it’s like the pill and the apple sauce. There’s a substance to it. It’s extremely catchy and memorable and the fact that you probably could sing the first half of that song to anybody on the planet and they’ll finish it for you. It’s just that dope of a track." — Humble the Poet

‘Say a Little Prayer’

"I've always loved Aretha Franklin's 'Say a Little Prayer.' This version is such a great example of how music is so intuitive. Apparently Aretha was just singing this song at soundcheck for fun one night and it became obvious to everyone there that she had to record it for her new record. The song was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David about a woman concerned about her husband in the Vietnam War. I can really feel an urgency in her version, I can feel the pain and worry so deeply ingrained in her life. How she makes it so beautiful is what really touches me." — Rykka

‘Amazing Grace’

"Her version of 'Amazing Grace' — I just listened to that and I just weep. One of my favourite memories is singing at her birthday party, her 70th. That was an amazing, amazing moment. I was workshopping The Josephine Baker Story, and she was at the Hard Rock Live the next night after her party, and she literally told the whole stadium that I was in the audience and that I was gonna be performing as Josephine Baker in an upcoming musical. It just blew my mind, I'm like, 'I'm here for you, the queen of soul,' and she took the moment out of her set to acknowledge me in the audience and talk about me in the show and it just showed me, again, that support. She pays attention to not just what’s going on in her world, but she's paying attention to, what other artists are doing and when she sees something that really touches her or is significant, she makes note of it. She requested that I sing songs from the jazz album, and she wanted to hear some of my own R&B hits. She wanted a mixture of things and it was just amazing." — Deborah Cox

‘I Never Loved a Man [The Way I Love You]’

"Aretha Franklin reminds me of home. My family has always been big on blues singers, especially female vocalists from that era of music when it didn't completely suck. Aretha's voice is just such a force. She's so graceful, powerful and effortless. 'I Never Loved a Man [The Way I Love You]' is still my favourite Aretha track. Classic." — Mish Barber-Way (White Lung)

‘Call Me’

"[Starts singing 'Do Right Woman'] 'Take me to heart, and I'll always love you.' Oh I love that song. But 'Call Me.' That's another one where hey, you gotta just drop your head and raise your hands and say yeah. You know? It's one of the 10 most plaintive songs ever written and performed by anybody. And you believe her. I mean, who in any relationship wouldn't want someone to miss their presence that much? To mean that much to somebody when you're away from them. As well as when you're with them. Or because of the way you are when you're with them — better still. Just sayin'. To finally find it in your own personal life, it gives the song real substance, for me. Because it took me a long time to find it, I was an old man.

"It's odd that you would ask me something like that, I met Aretha on her birthday.... It's funny, becoming friends with her. She's one of these people that, because she's an Aries like me, we have similar taste in reading — we are voracious readers.... She calls me and says, 'I found this obscure book' ... and she reads me several passages from it, and asks me what I think, and what I got out of it and we discuss it, and then all of a sudden she just says, 'OK, bye.' It's not gonna last longer than four minutes. And then she'll be gone, and you'll be holding the phone. She's just gone.

"I'm one of the few people that actually toured with her. She's very interesting. We did Radio City, and because she doesn't fly, right? We did Radio CIty and she got the hot idea that she wanted to do something from Phantom [of the Opera]. She made me wear the mask [laughs]... She's the real deal. She's authentic. She's the real deal." Peabo Bryson

‘How I Got Over’

"I love hearing her sing gospel music, the music where she learned to be Aretha, the world in which she cut her teeth as a musician, vocalist and, ultimately, a performer. The gospel world was a highly competitive one — much more so than the secular/pop world. Sing-offs were common and whoever 'shouted' the audience (i.e.: worked them into a hooting, hollering, sweating and crying mess!) ruled supreme. I love this album, because you are hearing her in her element, her natural habitat. And she slays it like no other. This album was the highest-selling of her entire career and the highest-selling gospel album of all time. What a queen." Tami Neilson

‘Running Out of Fools’

"It's very hard to choose just one. I am a ballad lover by nature but there is something really special about the feeling of urgency in this tune. It always gets to me. I feel like this is a young Aretha really asserting herself as a woman and not giving a shit what anybody else thinks. Gives me chills!" Begonia (a.k.a. Alexa Dirks)


"The harmonies right off the top take me to another place that's different than almost any other of her tunes. It's so dreamy and the groove is just soooooo tasty. This song also showcases a really soft side of her vocals and personality that we don't get to see as much. I feel like as a listener you're let into something really special with this song. It's like a warm hug on a sunny day, or like laundry just out of the dryer. Comforting and amazing and smells good pressed against your face." Begonia (a.k.a. Alexa Dirks)

'(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman'

"I danced to this song in middle school. Did I dance in a huddle with the girls like it was some sort of anthem to growing up, or awkwardly (penguin-like) slow dance with a boy, or just groove my hips to it with my mom in the kitchen? I don't quite remember. But I do know this: I still get the same urge to dance and belt out the chorus, in hopes that someday I'll feel like Aretha, a natural woman. Even now — especially now — it still seems so poignant." Lou Canon

"The moment Aretha Franklin starts singing 'A Natural Woman,' my entire being is at ease. There's so much emotion and power in her delivery and presence. Whenever I think of her, I think of her strength and how buttery and beautiful her voice is. Aretha has one of the greatest voices ever. I just shake my head in awe and respect whenever I listen to her." Hannah Georgas

"It’s amazing. Aretha could sing the phone book. Her voice is so beyond the beyond. I think that there’s a strength and you can really hear if you know anything about American history and civil rights movements, it’s just amazing to me that in 'Natural Woman' she sings with such strength in such a period of adversity, oppression and suppression, patriarchal.... The system was just so rigged against her. And yet when she sings, there’s just this really brave quality to the way that the feelings pour out. And I think again, the music allows for a safe place to say what otherwise necessarily won’t be allowed to be said in music. The song transcends a lot of the issues of the time and it’s a real lightning rod I think for connectivity with other women and people in general regardless of race, gender, religion. It’s just so, so powerful." Chantal Kreviazuk

"Aretha Franklin is a powerhouse, an outerworldly voice channelling the gods. Music flows from her like molten lava from a volcano! Her performance of Carole King’s '(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman' the night Carole received the Kennedy Centre Honours was stellar. President Obama was in tears and Carole King was bowled over when Aretha took to the stage, sat at the grand piano and sang, serenading Carole. Woman to woman honouring each other, what an incredible experience listening as a great song unfolded in a whole new light. The world needs more of that! Happy 75th birthday Aretha Franklin!" Heather Rankin

‘Ain't No Way’

"This is a beautiful soulful ballad written by Aretha's younger sister Carolyn ... Aretha shows off her piano chops and the backing vocals sound like they're coming from the set of an outerspace movie in Hollywood in the 1950s. So ethereal and gorgeous. There's a bit about 'a woman's duty' but even then I think this tune remains timeless. It's a strong and resolute woman's song — about perseverance in love, knowing you're sacrificing parts of yourself for someone but wanting to do it anyway because the reward would be so great. But if the man doesn't give into her love, I get the sense Aretha wouldn't wait around long. Pretty heavy B-side for a pretty heavy soul singer at the height of her popularity. I think she released two albums in 1968." Terra Lightfoot

‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’

"One of my all-time favourites of Aretha Franklin is from her Live at Fillmore West album where she and her incredible band, led by King Curtis, cover Simon and Garfunkle's 'Bridge Over Troubled Water.' It's the perfect storm of ripe young San Franciscan hippies in the '70s eating up every single ounce of delicious soul that oozed from the Hammond organ interplay with Aretha's Rhodes piano on the intro. When her backing singers come in with 'don't trouble the water' and Aretha responds, this slinky guitar seems to almost drip down from the ceiling onto stage next to her. Her take on this singer-songwriter classic not only brings it to church as a chorus of incredible vocals build, but you're almost brought to tears with her conviction that 'she really does have your back through darkness and light' and this feeling transcends time and space to this day. They just don't make live records like this anymore." — Shawn Hall (The Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer)

‘I've Been Loving You Too Long’

"I love soul music and especially the Aretha records on Atlantic from the mid-’60s to early ’70s.Her version of 'I've Been Loving You Too Long' from the Young,Gifted and Black album is a classic. The band, backup singers and of course Aretha's piano playing and spectacular vocals all work together with so much emotion and such a deep groove. This record captures it all so perfectly, I'm blown away every time I hear it. Happy birthday Aretha, and thank you!" — James Bryan (Prozzäk)

‘You’re All I Need to Get By’

"My favourite Aretha deep cut is 'You’re All I Need to Get By' off the live record she made with King Curtis and the Memphis Horns. The whole record is amazing because it was recorded over the course of three days at the Fillmore West and if you get the extended version of the record you can hear how the arrangements progressed as the nights went on, chock-full of cameos from famous folks like Ray Charles and Billy Preston. It’s got the most killing groove and she sings it into the ground."Joey Landreth

‘Do Right Woman Do Right Man'

"The way the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section plays that laid-back waltz-y groove has always gotten me. Not to mention Franklin’s heart-wrenching vocal performance. This tune has always resonated with me when I’m feeling down." — Scott Verbeek (Five Alarm Funk)

"'Do Right Woman, Do Right Man' is my favourite Aretha deep cut. Its message is simple and blatantly feminist: give me the love and respect I deserve or I'm out! She soulfully delivers 'a woman’s only human, you should understand/ she’s not just a plaything, she’s flesh and blood just like her man.' Yes!" Megan Bonnell

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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