Aretha Franklin Scored a "Drive-By" Hit with "Natural Woman"

Aretha Franklin at the Kennedy Center Honors, 2015
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Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS via Getty Images

Let's set the scene: you're on the streets of New York City. You've come out of lunch with your business partner, who's also your husband. Suddenly, a car whizzes by and slows down so a passenger can yell at you. Even in the city that never sleeps, we wouldn't call that normal.

But that's exactly how one of Aretha Franklin's greatest hits was born.

The couple emerging from a lunch date was Gerry Goffin and Carole King, two well-known songwriters who penned smash hits for The Shirelles ("Will You Love Me Tomorrow"), The Drifters ("Up on the Roof"), Little Eva ("The Loco-Motion") and countless others. The car that pulled up to them was a limousine carrying Jerry Wexler, the Atlantic Records hitmaker who'd recently signed Aretha to his label after a muted tenure at Columbia Records. He spotted the pair, had the driver pull over and beckoned them to his window.

"I'm looking for a really big hit for Aretha," he said. "How about writing a song called 'Natural Woman'?" (Wexler later wrote in his memoirs he was idly thinking of the concept in the opposite direction - possibly a reference to Natural Man, a folk opera by Theodore Browne that told the story of John Henry.)

READ MORE: How Aretha Franklin Made "Respect" Her Own

After the limo pulled away, Goffin and King went back to their office in the Brill Building. That night, they put the song together and sent a demo to Wexler. They heard nothing for some time - and then the producer invited them to the Atlantic offices to play Aretha's epic, devotional, yearning version of the song. In gratitude, Goffin and King gave Wexler a portion of the writing credit.

Aretha Franklin, a Black woman standing at the crossroads of gospel, soul and pop music, had an incredible 1967. Her first three singles - "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You," the earth-shattering "Respect" and "Baby I Love You" - all reached the Top 10 of Billboard's pop charts. Her unapologetic femininity and race made her the natural woman personified, and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" became her fourth Top 10 that year, reaching No. 8.

READ MORE: The Album That Changed Aretha Franklin's Career

But even as she grew and evolved from upstart Queen of Soul to living legend, she could still enthrall a planet with the song's power. In 2015, King was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C. for a lifetime of epic songwriting. At the climax of the tribute to her, Aretha Franklin - older, frailer, yet with none of her fire truly diminished - sat at the piano and grabbed the black-tie crowd by its lapels with her latest take on "A Natural Woman." By the end, after a dramatic flourish that saw the Queen whip off her mink coat in the throes of her passionate performance, King, the honorees box - including President Barack Obama - and the entire audience were in tears and on their feet.

A natural woman, you see, knows no age.

The Genius of Aretha Franklin, featuring "A Natural Woman" and 14 other songs, is now available on CD from Rhino Records. SoulMusic.com readers can get 20% off at Rhino.com with the promo code "ARETHA20."

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