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10 Arresting Aretha Franklin Live Performances

Aretha Franklin is a Black American icon. Her music and voice have shaped the course of history. A brilliant songwriter and musician, truly there was no one like her.

Aretha may have died today, but her legacy and cultural inspiration live on through her incredible body of work that spans over five decades of music and love. She is the Queen of Soul, and in honor and in celebration of her life, here are 10 of her best live performances.

“Jump” on Soul Train

The Queen of Soul was a frequent performer on Soul Train. That makes absolute sense — what other way could it be? But this performance of “Jump” is so great because she looks radiant. The ensemble was beautiful, her breasts were living their best life, and she was giving the audience everything they want. Most importantly, you can see the sheer joy in her face.

 

“Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” on The Cliff Richard Show

Aretha will go down in history as one of the best songwriters of all time. She could pen a “men are trash” anthem unlike no other. Her voice captures the pain and rage anyone who has ever had to deal with a man knows all too well.

 

“Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody” on the Steve Allen Show

Honeyyyyy, the way she just sat at that piano and sang. This is a deep cut but inarguably one of her most passionate and incredible vocals. At the young age of 22, she went on the Steve Allen Show in 1964 and put on a show for these people just two months after the Civil Rights Act had been signed. Judy Garland wishes. WERQ.

 

“Spirit In The Dark” at Fillmore West

I love nothing more than a queen who takes her time and some of yours. It would not be a good Aretha list if it didn’t feature moments from her 1971 performance at the Fillmore West. Aretha felt the spirit in the dark, but she brought us to the light. Then as if that wasn’t enough, she was like, “Here’s Ray Charles!”

 

“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors

Inarguably one of her most popular songs, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” penned by the great Carole King, is an American classic. Every song benefits from Aretha’s voice. She can do anything, even make Barack Obama cry. Also, we failed to create as many opportunities for Aretha to drop coats on the floor as we should have. A diva.

 

“I Say a Little Prayer” on This Is Tom Jones

We should all say a big prayer that one day we might possess even an ounce of the talent Aretha possessed. There are so many things to talk about in this performance. First, the outfit! Honey, Gaga is shaking. Aretha was always the mother of more is more, whether it be vocally or in style. Get into that headpiece and necklace combo! The thing about her talent is she could be wearing all that and it didn’t even distract you one bit from that vocal performance.

 

“I Dreamed A Dream” at Bill Clinton’s Inauguration

Honey, Aretha is an inauguration staple. This performance at the Bill Clinton inauguration is on the very best of all time. This classic musical masterpiece is something you would think might not be suited for Aretha’s voice — well, you thought wrong. Maybe if Fantine sang this arrangement she might have lived (spoiler). And ya know what? As if the vocal and coat drop wasn’t enough, she gave us a full choir she barely put to use.

 

“America” at Barack Obama’s Inauguration

Aretha was hand selected by President Obama to perform at his first inauguration. This moment is so special. If you aren’t moved by the fact that the queen and biggest influencer in music to this day sang for the welcoming of America’s first Black president, you have no soul. That’s okay because Aretha has enough for all of us.

 

“Nessun Dorma” at the 1998 Grammys

When you got it, you got it. Miss Franklin stepped in  at the last second to cover for her good friend Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammys. She sang the hell out of this song. This performance should play in the Smithsonian on loop as a moment of American greatness. What’s most amazing about this is you know Aretha might have only heard this song for the first time a week before and ended up singing it at the Grammys. THE RANGE. GET INTO IT.

 

“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” on Vh1 Divas Live

A song so nice it made the list twice. This is performance is so incredibly special. You could teach this performance in classes. I want to write my dissertation on it. Clearly some people there are really just there for decoration, but others really stepped out of line and Aretha was there to put them right back in it! She let absolutely no one sing completely solo. She’s like “Y’all may be very pretty ornaments, but I am the tree! Without me, none of you would have anywhere to go!” She was so patient. A benevolent queen. I also love that she introduces and thanks her background singers, but not a single one of the women on stage with her. LEADERSHIP doing what no one else will do.

To address Aretha’s talent is standard, but we have to also pay homage to how she truly embodied the spirit of what it means to be a diva. She was not only the Queen of Soul she was also a Queen of Shade. Aretha did shady like no one else could, because no one else could. From basically calling Wendy Williams broke to her face to when she said “beautiful gowns” when asked about Taylor Swift’s talent, no one could shade you like Aretha. 

To be honest, if you had the privilege of being mildly insulted by her you have lived a more blessed life than the rest of us. She is a queer icon who will be incredibly missed. Take a look at some good ole fashioned Aretha moments below and smile though your heart is aching.

Rest in Power, Queen.

Header image by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images


Phillip Henry

Phillip Henry is a writer, comedian, advocate, and performer in New York City. His writing can be seen in various publications including Teen Vogue and Mic. He hosts a weekly LGBTQ comedy variety show The Tea Party in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan.