Editor’s note: This week we’re celebrating the birthdays of phenomenal performers who not only share late-March birthdays but who also have voices that have defined their generations. On Monday we honored the Queen of Funk, Chaka Khan. Today it’s the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Then, on Thursday, it’s the boss, Diana Ross, and on Friday, the irrepressible Mariah Carey. Read our essay on the divas here.
Aretha Franklin is famous for her big voice and even bigger personality. In fact, even though she has won 18 Grammy Awards and sold millions of albums around the world, her live performances are where she earned her reputation as a diva.
She has shared the stage with some phenomenal singers—Whitney Houston, Roberta Flack, Gloria Estefan, Sarah Vaughan, Patti LaBelle and Chaka Khan, to name a few—yet none managed to eclipse her enormous talent. So to celebrate her 73rd birthday, here are 10 moments that helped define Franklin as the undisputed Queen of Soul.
1. With Peggy Lee, Roberta Flack and Sarah Vaughan
In 1973 the top acts in jazz and soul joined forces to pay tribute to one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, Duke Ellington. Among those performers was Franklin, who was tasked with singing alongside some of the greatest singers of that time—Vaughan, Lee and Flack.
In true Franklin fashion, she easily held her own and almost stole the spotlight from the great Vaughan during a medley of songs including “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ but the Blues,” “Rocks in My Bed” and “I Got it Bad (and That Ain’t Good).” Not bad for the youngest singer in the group.
2. With Whitney Houston, CeCe Winans, Chaka Khan, Brandy and Mary J. Blige
Like many great soul singers of her generation, Franklin enjoys a good sing-off. So when she was invited to join Houston and Winans for a performance of “Count on Me” at the 1997 Grammy Awards, she turned the show into a battle of the wailers.
Every one of the singers on the stage was influenced by Franklin, and she had to remind each of them.
Franklin entered from stage right, armed with a microphone and a range to match her big personality. Indeed, by the end of the song, not only was Franklin the most heard among the ladies but she also sang the last note.
3. With Mariah Carey
Carey has been a fan of Franklin’s work since she was a young girl and even covered “Don’t Play That Song for Me (You Lied)” during her debut showcase in 1990. So imagine how nervous she must have felt to be singing alongside one of her idols during the first VH1 Divas Live show in 1998.
Franklin surprised the audience by bringing out Carey for a rendition of “Chain of Fools.” However, instead of being a clash of the titans, as one would have expected from two of the best singers in the industry, Carey simply allowed Franklin to dominate.
“All hail the Queen of Soul,” Carey stated as she happily let Franklin sing the majority of the song. Naturally, the latter enjoyed the praise and continued to riff and run unchallenged.
4. With Gloria Estefan
Estefan is another singer who buckled under the weight of Franklin’s presence. She teamed with Franklin in 1993 for a rendition of her song “Coming Out of the Dark,” but the Queen of Soul quickly made the tune her own by the end of the first chorus.
5. With Patti LaBelle, Seal and Mary J. Blige
Rumors of a feud between Franklin and LaBelle had swirled for years, supposedly because of Franklin’s icy reception of her peer. The fact that they’d never recorded a duet together only intensified the speculation.
Well, in a very rare moment at the 1996 Essence Music Awards, Franklin and LaBelle sang a rousing rendition of “Respect.” It was hardly a bonding moment between the two women, however, as Franklin sang the lead and made everyone else on the stage sing the chorus as a group.
6. With Tom Jones
While still cementing her position as the standout soul singer of her generation, Franklin sang duets with an array of artists. Among those acts was Jones, who invited her to appear on his hit television show, This Is Tom Jones, in 1970.
Jones was pushed to his limit as he tried to keep up with Franklin during performances of “It’s Not Unusual,” “See Saw” and “Spirit in the Dark.” Meanwhile, Franklin belted and whipped out high notes as if they were natural reflexes, without much effort at all.
7. With Andy Williams
Another person bowled over by the young Franklin was Williams. In 1969 he was the host of The Andy Williams Show, in addition to being an accomplished actor, singer and music producer.
Both Williams and Franklin recorded versions of “Gentle on My Mind,” and he invited her to his variety show to sing the tune with him. As usual, Franklin quickly took the lead during their performance, while Williams bopped in the background with the other backup singers.
8. With Mavis Staples
As an accomplished soul and gospel singer in her own right, Staples is certainly not easy to outsing. Well, for anyone except Franklin, who took a moment to testify with her friend on a cover of “Oh Happy Day” in 1988.
Literally rolling in the deep end of their vocal ranges, Franklin and Staples traded lines on the song as they sang with full choir accompaniment. Yet Franklin was most audible as she growled and wailed in her soprano—the part of her range where Staples’ heavier voice could not follow.
9. With Whitney Houston, Cissy Houston, Natalie Cole and Gladys Knight
Many singers have been compared to Franklin throughout the years, and at the Clive Davis pre-Grammy Awards party in 1994, several of them covered her version of “Respect” as a group. Whitney and Cissy Houston, Cole and Knight each took turns showing off their interpretations of the song, much to the delight of the crowd.
Franklin, however, would not allow anybody to sing her anthem better than she did. While still relaxing in the audience, she reached for a microphone and reminded everyone in the building that she was still the queen.
By the way, Franklin was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award that year.
10. With Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, Carole King and Shania Twain
If there was ever a perfect example of Franklin’s ability to steal the show, it occurred during the finale of the VH1 Divas Live show in 1998. Partnered with Carey, Dion, Estefan, King and Twain, Franklin wowed viewers with “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman).”
Carey seemed too intimidated to challenge Franklin. Dion tried, but her vocal displays seemed hollow compared with Franklin’s natural grit. Meanwhile, the remaining divas could barely be heard in the mix.
In one last, triumphant moment, the collective ended the show in testimony and Franklin taught the younger generation of singers a lesson in gospel music. All except Dion, though, who just refused to stop trying—and failing—to outdo Franklin.
Trent Jones is an editorial fellow at The Root. He also produces a daily video commentary called #Trents2Cents. Follow him on Twitter.