Aretha Franklin's Best Duets: From George Michael to Mariah Carey
In 1986, the Michigan Legislature rightfully classified Aretha Franklin’s voice as “a precious natural resource.” While she was celebrated as the Queen of Soul, the late icon and Detroit native, who died Thursday (Aug. 16) at the age of 76, was well aware the title held no boundaries.
Her vocals were gloriously rooted in gospel, but they also floated effortlessly throughout various genres -- rock, contemporary R&B, hip-hop, jazz, dance-pop and more. The singer frequently experimented with different sounds and collaborated with other artists to help her execute them. And when Miss Aretha calls, you wouldn’t dare think twice about picking up!
Aside from her grand solo discography, Franklin’s artistry also shone brightly through these duets. From Frank Sinatra to Mariah Carey and even Hugh Jackman, many singers have had the honor to share the same stage or recording studio with her. Below, we at Billboard have gathered some of Franklin’s best duets over the decades.
“Takes Two To Tango” - Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles (The Midnight Special, 1975)
Even though Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles were both already legends at this point, the two singers’ performance on Burt Sugarman’s The Midnight Special was like watching two buddies having an impromptu jam session at home. Their breezy cover of Al Hoffman and Dick Manning’s “Takes Two To Tango” (originally released in 1952) displayed their effortless talents.
“Ooo Baby Baby” - Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson (1979)
During their appearance on Soul Train, Franklin sat with Smokey Robinson by the piano for a romantic rendition of Robinson’s 1965 classic, “Ooo Baby Baby.” As she begins to play the keys and coo the “ooh la la la la” opening line, Franklin jokes: “We should’ve been a group!”
"Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves" with Eurythmics (Who's Zoomin' Who? and Be Yourself Tonight, 1985)
Franklin could easily blow the roof off a church, but she also knew how to get down to the groove. The singer joined the Eurythmics for this pop-rock fusion, which embedded feminist power with every stomping drum beat. The duet is one of her many Top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 18.
“I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” with George Michael (Aretha, 1986)
Only pure magic can stem from a collaboration between Aretha Franklin and George Michael. The two stars showed off their indelible talent on “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).” The uptempo track included their love for pop, R&B and soul, and has even more of a deeper message of hope following both singers’ deaths. The song won a Grammy for best R&B performance by a duo or group, took the No. 1 slot on the Billboard Hot 100 and remained there for two straight weeks.
“Gimme Your Love” - Aretha Franklin and James Brown (Through the Storm, 1989)
The Queen and Godfather of Soul got together for this funky ‘80s jam, which combines Franklin’s powerhouse vocals with James Brown’s undeniable swagger. Despite Brown being in jail at the time of its release, the song managed to reach No. 48 on the Billboard R&B Chart.
"It Isn't, It Wasn't, It Ain't Never Gonna Be" with Whitney Houston (Through the Storm, 1989)
When you have soulful superstars like Franklin and Whitney Houston on the same track, one may expect a heartbroken, emotional ballad. But the two divas (who were going through an upbeat dance phase at the time) decided to take different, edgier route for "It Isn't, It Wasn't, It Ain't Never Gonna Be.” It’s fun to hear the ladies completely let loose.
"Doctor's Orders" with Luther Vandross (What You See Is What You Sweat, 1991)
Aretha can pull off many genres, but who would’ve guessed that she’d ever do a New Jack Swing-inspired song? The artist got together with Luther Vandross for “Doctor’s Orders,” an uptempo hip-shaker that is overflowing with love.
"Ever Changing Times" with Michael McDonald (What You See Is What You Sweat, 1991)
Franklin perfectly executed the tones of soft rock with “Ever Changing Times,” a dreamy ballad that features the comforting voice of Michael McDonald. It is one of Franklin’s most stunning tunes in her expansive discography.
"What Now My Love" with Frank Sinatra (Duets, 1993)
Despite the fact that Franklin and Frank Sinatra weren’t in the studio together to record “What Now My Love,” their immediately distinct voices meld beautifully over the brassy, big-band production.
“This Old Heart of Mine” - Aretha Franklin and Rod Stewart (Aretha Franklin: Duets concert film, 1993)
Aretha dubbed this 1966 Isley Brothers classic “one of my all-time favorites” during her 1993 concert, and she decided to call upon Rod Stewart (who previously covered the song) for the heartwarming performance.
"(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" with Bonnie Raitt and Gloria Estefan (1994)
Having three women with such commanding voices perform together can be quite overwhelming. But Bonnie Raitt and Gloria Estefan executed a spine-tingling rendition of Aretha’s own "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” without overshadowing one another. Aretha’s little “Sing the song girl!” ad libs throughout the performance was her stamp of approval.
"Chain of Fools" with Mariah Carey (1998’s VH1 Divas Live)
VH1 made pop culture history during their inaugural Divas Live special, when Mariah Carey appeared onstage with Aretha to perform one of her signature hits: “Chain of Fools.” It’s not every day that you’re able to witness two of the biggest divas in history bring down the house together, which made this an absolute treat.
Mary J. Blige - “Don’t Waste Your Time” feat. Aretha Franklin (Mary, 1999)
When Mary J. Blige was seeking advice for trying to leave a toxic relationship, Auntie Aretha gave it to her straight: “Don’t Waste Your Time.” This Grammy-nominated highlight from Blige’s self-titled 1999 album served as motivation for women who needed that extra push to better their love lives.
“Somewhere” with Hugh Jackman (2005 Tony Awards)
At the 2005 Tony Awards, actor Hugh Jackman showed off his vocal prowess with a riveting cover of West Side Story’s “Somewhere.” But once Aretha sauntered onto the stage to join him, it was hard to take your focus off her -- thanks to that glittering dress and those lush vocals.
“Put You Up On Game" feat. Fantasia (Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets with the Queen, 2007)
Aretha must've known a thing or two about no-good men, because for “Put You Up on Game" she expertly schooled Fantasia (and many other ladies listening) on how to avoid them. The R&B tune had a light-hearted “let me teach these young'ns” theme, which showed Aretha had the passion to pass on life lessons to her fellow songstresses.