“Being a singer is a natural gift. It means I’m using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use. I’m happy with that.” — Aretha Franklin
There are few artists as able to hold a room as Aretha Franklin. Lady Soul is worthy of all the praise we can give but there’s something special about the singer. One of the key indicators is how effortlessly Franklin could express the emotions of almost any song, her powerful vocal trumping pretty much any vocalist around. But what set her apart was not her talent but her powerful connection to the expression.
Lady Soul may have been known for her ferocious performance of her own songs but she was prolific in her cover songs. Taking on tracks to make them her own to the point where most people wouldn’t know the original above her version, Aretha was without a doubt one of the best at taking a song and making it her own, no matter the artist.
The supreme list of names below, including Otis Redding, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Adele, is a mark of commendation for the singer. It shows not only the many ways Franklin used her “gift” to command any track in her wake but that almost any artist is happy to have Lady Soul cover their song.
Below we’re dipping into the collection of her most incredible covers and it makes for a truly inspirational list. It showcases Aretha’s powerful talent.
Aretha Franklin’s best covers:
‘Respect’ by Otis Redding, 1967
Let’s start with one of those “I thought that was her song” choices. Aretha Franklin will always be attached to this song and its legacy. Originally an Otis Redding number, the track was flipped on its head when Franklin stood up to take on this song, and so much more with it. Aretha went at this cover like anything else in her life: full throttle and completely committed.
Her powerful vocal and the unwavering pursuit of rhythm left this song not only on top of the charts, not only did it gain her the first of her 18 Grammys but with Aretha’s ferocity, it became an impassioned anthem for the feminist and civil rights movements.
It would go on to not only define Franklin but a generation.
‘Don’t Play That Song’ – Ben E. King, 1970
The content of this track is deep and painful. It resides around the emotion our protagonist feels as she hears a particular song that reminds her of her lying lover. It’s a touching performance that offers a keen insight into Franklin’s own life.
As heart-wrenching a subject this may be, it is quickly overlooked as Aretha delivers a furious and pounding performance. It captures your attention and keeps you entangled forever.
It may not be the most famous cover on this list, but it should remain in your playlists forever.
‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ – Simon & Garfunkel, 1970
Taken from Aretha’s Greatest Hits album, this delicate and touching folk song is given new life by Franklin’s vocal. It transcends from a simple but effective folk song into a powerful performance. Undoubtedly one of the duo’s finest, Franklin takes the song on to a new level.
Finding the gospel notes in this song allows Aretha to take control of the melody with her vocal gymnastics and really display it as something original and singular.
Something entirely unique and utterly Aretha.
‘Let It Be’ – The Beatles, 1970
As with ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ Aretha moves a song that is otherwise rooted in a sultry-pop beginning into something that is lifting and euphoric. The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ will go down in the band’s iconography as one of their lasting memories but given over to the supreme vocalist and Franklin excels.
Franklin builds on the core spirituality and the zen nature of the song and expands it to fill the room and your ears. It’s mesmerising and puts McCartney’s track into touch as she delivers a vocal performance even the Fab Four couldn’t match.
‘Love The One You’re With’ – Stephen Stills, 1971
Taken from the more-than-brilliant live album Aretha Live From the Fillmore, the Stephen Stills’ attempted elevation of casual sex, is morphed in to something truly spiritual.
Again moving the song toward a more Gospel setting allows Aretha to send the song to the heavens with her usual fervour. Stephen Stills’ performance of the track may well keep you hooked until the end but Aretha’s cover is truly inspirational.
‘Eleanor Rigby’ – The Beatles, 1970
Taking on The Beatles may not have been as scary in 1970 as it would be today, but one person sure to be unphased by something so daunting would be Aretha Franklin. She took it on with natural aplomb and delivered a truly brilliant cover.
The Beatles version is an extremely sombre and sullen character display, leaving listeners wiping their eyes. Aretha’s version is fast, pounding and leaves the original in the dust, picking up the listener and throwing them around.
‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ – Hammerstein from Carousel, 1972
Taken from her Amazing Grace album, this stirring and spiritual is always a beautiful song to hear. Whether at a football match or in your local parish, this song alone has the power to create an atmosphere worthy of tearing up the largest of angry men.
When you add Aretha Franklin’s vocal to that equation you get something intense, beautiful and a song designed to fill your heart and soul.
‘Jumping Jack Flash’ – The Rolling Stones, 1986
Quite simply, a Rolling Stones cover to surpass the original. The version has Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood on guitar and Franklin herself on piano and voice. It moves the song, which was written about Richards’ gardener, into a brand new sound.
With enough power across the choruses and enough life given to the verses, Aretha shows not only her range but her ability to leave superstars gawping at her ability.
‘Rolling in the Deep’ – Adele, 2014
Considering at this point Aretha was well into her seventies it seems fitting that the Queen took on one of the newer divas Adele and frankly showed her what it’s all about on her own song. Aretha proved that the vocal is always the key to her success.
Ignore the backing music, it sounds a bit like a bad karaoke version of the song, but one thing that can never be understated is Aretha’s unbelievable power.
‘My Guy’ – Mary Wells, 1964
Definitely the most paired back of these covers, Franklin takes on the Mary Wells song with a certain manner of restraint. This was during her pre-Atlantic Records era and so offers little of her usual power.
Instead what we see is the Queen of Soul doing her best pop impression and it’s better than most you’ll ever see. A toe-tapping joy, Aretha moves the song into a new sphere while still keeping her own style.
‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ – Sam Cooke, 1967
More poignantly than her cover ‘Respect’ which caught the attention of the Civil Rights movement in America, this Sam Cooke cover was a direct push of anger toward the establishment. It was Aretha’s way of making a statement and still keeping true to her intent.
Doing the classic Aretha move of simplifying and upstaging the original Aretha makes the song feel more powerful, more poetic and somehow more beautiful.
‘I Say A Little Prayer’ – Dionne Warwick, 1968
A chance for Aretha to shine on somebody else’s original song was yet again clasped with both hands by Franklin as she covered Dionne Warwick’s ‘I Say A Little Prayer’.
As ever, the focal point of this song (and pretty much any Aretha song) was her unfathomable vocal performance. Composed by Bacharach and David, the choral backing provided by The Sweet Inspirations, Franklin’s voice soars beyond all measure and adds a potently gorgeous gospel sheen to create something entirely singular.
It’s a bouncing and vibrant piece of golden age pop that never gets boring.
‘Nessun Dorma’ – Giacamo Puccini, 1998
When ‘Grammy Living Legend’ honoree Luciano Pavarotti contacted the show producers to release the damning news that he was too ill to sing his ‘Nessun Dorma’, the awards ceremony looked to be in chaotic meltdown. Pavarotti was billed as the headline act, the showstopper.
However, producer Ken Ehrlich remembered seeing Franklin perform the song at a MusiCares dinner nights before in tribute Pavarotti and, in a bold move, asked Lady Soul to step in for her dear friend at the very last minute and deliver a bombastic show.
Of course, Franklin agreed and produced one of the greatest performances in Award Show history.