When Aretha Franklin died last summer, I was struck by the realization that, for my money, she was probably the greatest interpretive singer I’ve ever heard. Nobody could cover someone else’s song the way Aretha could. She could steal your song right out from under you and own it so hard you’d be lucky to get it back. And, like many other interpretive singers of yesteryear (i.e. Sinatra, Streisand, Rosemary Clooney, etc.), Aretha made a career of singing other people’s songs: her discography is full of covers, from the traditional Tin Pan Alley and R&B standards that define her early albums for Columbia Records to the legendary pop/rock/soul tracks she cut for Atlantic Records that made her the Queen of Soul. In my view, she never met a song she couldn’t cover, and she had a keen sense of how to make every tune work for her, even those that didn’t seem like a good fit at first glance. But, that was part of Aretha’s genius: she could reveal new layers of meaning in a song while boldly transforming it to suit her needs.
There are countless examples of such brilliance throughout Aretha’s voluminous catalogue, and here are five of my favorites. For me, they exemplify her singular flair for song interpretation so completely that they pass the ultimate listening test: I prefer her versions over the originals.
Aretha owns this song so thoroughly that it’s easy to forget her version is a cover: the original was written and performed by Otis Redding in 1965. Otis’ version is a straightforward plea to his woman: please just give me a little respect when I come home from work. Fair enough. Otis was no slouch, but his “Respect” sounds positively pedestrian compared to Aretha’s, which started as a bit of a lark. According to Dave Marsh‘s essay about “Respect” in The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, Aretha and her sister Carolyn were “merely fiddling” with Otis’ song, “pulling threads of tempo and phrasing together in a way that suggested putting them on tape.” From such humble beginnings came not only one of popular music’s crowning achievements, but a rousing anthem for the civil rights era. Aretha flips the script with the lyrics, turning it into a proclamation to her man: all I want is some respect from you when you come home. To paraphrase Marsh, the song’s genius (especially in Aretha’s case) is that it applies a fundamental tenet of the civil rights movement to everyone’s sex life.
Then, there’s the arrangement, which adds a bridge (using chords borrowed from Sam and Dave’s “When Something is Wrong With My Baby”), a power trio of backup singers (sisters Carolyn and Erma, and session powerhouse Cissy Houston), and the hard southern soul mastery of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Everything Aretha knows – about singing, arranging, applying her gospel background to pop music, creative musical savvy, maximizing studio resources and recording time, you name it – is all here. No wonder “Respect” went No. 1 on the U.S. Top 40.
“I Say a Little Prayer” (1968)
Allegedly, composer Burt Bacharach didn’t like the speedy tempo of Dionne Warwick‘s original 1967 recording (which was still a big hit, regardless: it peaked at No. 4 on the U.S. Top 40). Aretha’s version fixed that, slowing down the tempo just a hair. It’s barely perceptible on its own, but when you listen to both recordings back-to-back, it really stands out. Aretha’s version leads with the piano, and uses it as a rhythmic anchor within the arrangement, much like one would use the bass and drums: linking the piano to the tempo like this immediately lays a warm foundation. By contrast, the easy listening brass-and-strings of Warwick’s original makes her version sound like a trunk song from Promises, Promises.
The real standout of Aretha’s version is the vocal arrangement, and how she splits the duties with her backup singers (none other than The Sweet Inspirations, which were founded and led by Dionne Warwick’s aunt, Cissy Houston). They echo Aretha on key words and phrases throughout the song, emerging like the thoughts that are too emotional for Aretha to give voice to herself (i.e. the chorus, which Cissy & Co. practically carry all on their own). Lyricist Hal David intended this tune to “convey
a woman’s concern for her man who’s serving in the Vietnam War,” but that never really comes across. The lyrics invite many different interpretations, including the one that Aretha’s performance inspires: the joy of loving (or, at least, having loved) someone who is no longer there.
(Did I mention that Aretha’s version went top 10 as a B-side, and nearly charted as high as the A-side it accompanied? Tell me that’s not a master flex.)
“The Weight” (1969)
Knowing that the films of Ingmar Bergman and Luis Bunuel, as well as the experience of being in a band with Levon Helm, inspired Robbie Robertson to write “The Weight” explains why it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Dave Marsh’s book describes The Band’s 1968 original as “Populated by weirdnesses…The words are bizarre but the meaning that the singers bring to them has an everyday concreteness and that’s the contradiction that the music fights to resolve.” That dichotomy has helped make “The Weight” a terrific enduring classic, and The Band’s signature song.
Aretha’s version takes Marsh’s sentiment and runs with it, beating Robertson and The Band at their own game by proving that it’s really her game instead. She takes the songs Biblical imagery and its random threads of Americana, and activates them with another one of her patented home-cooked southern soul arrangements and a blazing, jubilant vocal performance. Does this song make any more sense in her hands? No way. But, it sounds like it does, and that’s Aretha’s triumph. She turns “The Weight” into a hymn and makes it sound like the gospel. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s backed up by Duane Allman‘s slide guitar (dripping with deep south flavor), King Curtis‘ horns, and a quorum of returning Muscle Shoals sidemen. Everyone is in their element here, and they know exactly what to do with this song.
(Further proof of Aretha’s dominance and mastery: her version of “The Weight” hit No. 19 on the U.S. Top 40; The Band’s original never even cracked the chart. Say thank you, Robbie.)
“Eleanor Rigby” (1969)
Aretha completely reinvents this song by taking it to church. Recorded during the same sessions that produced her cover of “The Weight,” she doesn’t even try to imitate the classical experimentation of The Beatles’ iconic 1966 original. Instead, she brings “Eleanor Rigby” onto her turf, and makes it work on her terms. Aretha’s gospel background is especially prominent here (also fitting, considering the song’s lyrics), influencing both her vocals and the arrangement. Her “Eleanor Rigby” is warm and uptempo, a joyful noise that you can also shake your ass to.
Even more striking is Aretha’s decision to change the song’s point of view from third person to first: “I’m Eleanor Rigby,” she declares at the outset, instantly making this a story that cuts closer to the bone than when Paul McCartney tells it. But then, after cruising through the added-on bridge, Aretha switches back to third person to announce the title character’s death – a bold interpretive choice that almost plays as a formal nullification of the character’s existence – and closes out the song by belting out our heroine’s name over and over again, as if serenading her off into the sweet hereafter. In a word: amazing.
(P.S. Both Aretha’s version and The Beatles’ original went top 20 on the U.S. Top 40: the former hit No. 17, while the latter peaked at No. 11.)
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1986)
By the mid-1980s, Aretha was going through a full-blown professional comeback (after a notable career lull earlier that decade), thanks in part to a new record label (she left Atlantic and signed with Arista) and a newer, fresher sound. By contrast, Keith Richards was in professional flux: his working relationship with Mick Jagger had become so fractious that The Rolling Stones went on indefinite hiatus, and Mick’s subsequent solo album and tour kickstarted rumors that the Stones might actually break up.
It was against this backdrop that Aretha and Keith joined forces for an unlikely collaboration that nobody saw coming: a cover of one of the most famous Stones tracks – sung by Aretha, produced by Keith – in support of a Whoopi Goldberg comedy of the same name. On paper, it’s a head-scratcher of an enterprise, to be sure. But, Aretha quickly dispels any doubts and proves, once again, that she is never to be underestimated. She takes what could have easily been one of the most unnecessary covers of all time, and turns it into a statement of purpose for her mid-career resurgence. Aided by both Keith and fellow Stones bandmate Ron Wood on guitar (as well as the heavyweight sideman trio of Chuck Leavell, Steve Jordan, and Randy Jackson on keyboards, drums, and bass, respectively) Aretha rips through this track like nobody’s business. There’s no denying that her reading of the song’s classic opening line – “I was born in a crossfire hurricane!” – gives it the necessary jolt of authentic life experience that the Stones simply did not have when they first recorded it.
Aretha’s version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” peaked at No. 21 on the U.S. Top 40, and was one of five singles she released in 1986 (which was the highest volume of singles she’d issued within a 12-month span since 1971). In other words: Aretha was back.
Bonus Track: “96 Tears” (1967)
Wait, what? On second thought, it’s better not to ask why Aretha covered this garage rock classic by punk rock precursors ? and the Mysterians. Just take a listen, and marvel at how effortlessly she owns it.