With a new series, Genius: Aretha gets ready to air on National Geographic in 2020, we thought we’d take a look at how effortlessly Franklin could express the emotions of almost any song, such was her powerful vocal.
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.
Let’s start with one of those “I thought that was her song” choices…
‘Respect’ by Otis Redding, 1967
Aretha Franklin will always be attached to this song. 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 which reminds her of her lying lover.
As heart-wrenching a subject this may be, it is quickly overlooked as Aretha delivers a furious and pounding performance.
‘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.
Finding the gospel notes in this song allows Aretha to take control of the melody with her vocal and really display it as something original and singular.
‘Let It Be’ – The Beatles, 1970
As with ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ Aretha moves a song which is otherwise rooted in a sultry-pop beginning into something that is lifting and euphoric.
Franklin builds on the core spirituality and zen-ness of the song and expands it to fill the room and your ears. It’s mesmerising.
‘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 i 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.
‘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 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 Ron Wood on guitar and Franklin herself on piano and voice.
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.
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 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.
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.
‘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 the Queen of Soul to step in for her dear friend at the very last minute.