When most people think about the great Aretha Franklin, they don’t realize that in addition to being one of the greatest vocalists of all-time, she is also an accomplished writer, having written or co-written a handful of her greatest songs. From Dr. Feelgood, All The King’s Horses, Call Me, Think, to (Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You Been Gone, Aretha has demonstrated that when inspired, her own writing can rival the best songs she’s recorded by outside writers. In addition to original songs that are well known, Aretha has written many gems that are forgotten or buried on albums that got overlooked. I can think of few musical pleasures as enduring as the sound of Aretha in her prime, accompanying herself on piano.
So here in no particular order is a list of 1o of my favorite Aretha Franklin self-penned songs you’ve probably never heard:
I love the songs’s groove and horn arrangement and, of course, the wacka-wacka wah wah guitar—this was 1973 after all, and everything used the wah pedal—even ballads.
The hit from this album was Stevie Wonder’s oft-covered Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do), but take a listen to the elegant If You Don’t Think, which closes the album. There is something so connected that happened when Aretha accompanied herself on the piano, especially on a song she wrote. These musical moments communicate so much more honestly about who Aretha really was as a person than anything she ever said in an interview (she is a notoriously disconnected and, at times, factually inventive interview subject).
Yes, I could live without the interpolation of I’ve Got The Music In Me (which she did not write), but it’s a small price to pay for the gloriousness of Aretha scatting her way through Mumbles. It’s the singer in full-on Ella Fitzgerald mode and I would be perfectly happy if it lasted the entire album. Make that forever. With Franklin’s improvisatorial ease, it feels like it could have.
4. “One Way Ticket” from the album Spirit in the Dark, 1970
Aretha’s Spirit in the Dark is an acknowledged classic—one of her very best—during a period of many bests. One Way Ticket has a gloriously relaxed groove. When Aretha sings about her One Way Ticket to love you’ll never want to travel round trip!
As far as I know this is the only self-penned duet that Aretha has ever recorded. The fact that it is sung with one of my all-time favorite male singers, Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, and produced by another, Luther Vandross, makes this essential for me. From the Vandross/Clive Davis-designed comeback album Jump To It which finally returned Franklin properly to the top of the charts after several years of floundering.
It has been noted by scholars far more knowledgable than I that Columbia Records had tremendous problems capturing Aretha’s magic in the studio. Personally I think there are some absolutely phenomenal stuff from the Columbia period. Without The One Your Love clearly circumvented some of those obstacles and is one of the artist’s earliest original songs and in many ways is a harbinger of what she was able to accomplish with such seeming lack of effort at Atlantic Records beginning just five years later.
Singers and recording artists of every conceivable style, age, and genre, were seemingly helpless to resist the tsunami of the disco trend in the late-70s. For every disco-tinged success (the Rolling Stones’ Miss You), glorious rock band sell-out (KISS’ I Was Made For Loving You—wait, KISS selling out is redundant), and Clash of the Titans diva throw-down (Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand’s [No More Tears] Enough is Enough), there were easily ten Ethel Merman Disco Albums. It was like the auto tune mania of recent years only less depressing—Shirley Bassey’s version of Copacabana, anyone? While auto tune makes everyone sound the same, everyone’s disco record was awful in its own unique way! Aretha successfully avoided the lure of disco for quite a while, but finally, in the wake of increasingly dismal record sales, la diva panicked and gave the world La Diva, frequently considered her worst record. Of course, that only made me more curious, and oh that classic Aretha-I-will-wear-that-dress-no-matter-what-Franklin album cover! As far as I know it never came out on CD, but this old scratchy vinyl transfer reveals the infectious mid-tempo R&B song Honey I Need Your Love, which actually sounds more like a mid-1970s Natalie Cole record than an Aretha song, which is to say it’s phenomenal.
An unusual up-tempo Aretha original song, here we find the Queen in full-on Arista Records mode from her third eponymous album. He’ll Come Along benefits from first-rate production by my friend Narada Michael Walden and an amazing string arrangement that adds immeasurably to the record. Aretha was in great voice and the track’s joy is quite infectious. Incidentally, the striking album cover art by Andy Warhol was his last work before his death.
This album is among Franklin’s finest. It’s so good in fact, that this beautiful Aretha song almost got lost among the more famous tracks like Rock Steady, Day Dreaming, and Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby). Helping even one person discover First Snow in Kokomo for the first time—or rediscover it—should be considered an act of public service. Enjoy!
I suppose I saved the best for last. When I originally discovered this Aretha original buried on the artist’s first Arista album, the second eponymous album, (the first was a Columbia collection from the early 1960s), I almost drove the car off the road, such was the peculiar nature of my euphoric response. Here Aretha reminisces about an adolescence I suspect she never really had, given the fact of her mother’s death at ten and the birth of her first child just three days after her fourteenth birthday! Irrespective of whether the joy of this song reflects feelings real or imagined, School Days is my all-time favorite Aretha Franklin original song. I realize this is might be a surprising choice to some, but I can’t help it: when I hear School Days my body begins to move in ways it rarely move, and my spirit soars. Say Hallelujah!
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