Aretha Steals Your Song

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.

“Respect” (1967)

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.

De La Soul: Good Enough to Steal

Early last month, Aaron Williams over at Uproxx reminded us that De La Soul’s debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, came out 30 years ago. Oh, man. This was one of the classic albums from my high school years. Even though it was released just three months shy of graduation, it made a seismic impression on both me and my fellow seniors. It seemed like we all had a copy, and it got played at every party we went to until the end of the school year. It was the ubiquitous, smart, feelgood party record from the spring of 1989.

How good is this album? About a month after I first bought it, a friend borrowed it for a party she was going to, then had to sheepishly tell me the next day that someone had swiped it while she wasn’t looking.

That’s how good 3 Feet High and Rising is: it’s good enough to steal. I can’t say that about any other album from my high school years.

But, of course, there’s much more to this record than just that.

For my buddy, Derek, a fellow De La fan from way back, 3 Feet High and Rising appeared at an equally impressionable time – the back end of middle school in his native Baltimore – and made an immediate impact on him. The songs struck him as more intricate and melodic than other hip-hop from that era, built more along the melodies of the samples being used. Case in point: “Say No Go” and “Eye Know,” both of which introduced a new generation of music fans to Hall & Oates and Steely Dan, respectively.

Derek remembers when there used to be many different kinds of hip-hop personas on the scene – some defined by hard beats, flowing rhymes, and overt political themes – and De La Soul (along with their colleagues from the Native Tongues collective) pioneered a new one: it was nerdier, wittier, and funnier – and atypical of their contemporaries. The group summed themselves up perfectly on one of 3 Feet‘s signature tracks, “Buddy,” when they said, “De La Soul, from the soul / Black medallions, no gold.” Derek loved how they made easygoing Afrocentrism an acceptable hip-hop personality.

So did I. For me, 3 Feet remains fun and sunny, an album made in an emblematic emotional major key, and one that also features a more positive, humble, wide-ranging worldview than the prevailing hip-hop from that era. The record’s smooth beats and its sense of rhythm and syncopation are more akin to jazz, but its still just as funky and danceable as one expects hip-hop to be. (The Dean himself, Robert Christgau, said it best in his review of the album: “…they’re new wave to Public Enemy’s punk.”)

3 Feet High and Rising‘s effect on hip-hop was significant and immediate: The Village Voice‘s annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll crowned it the best album of 1989. By the mid-1990s, De La Soul’s influence could be heard in the music of Arrested Development, Digable Planets, Us3, Jurassic 5, The Pharcyde, and about five million other hip-hop groups. (For a more in-depth and objective take, check out Jeff Chang’s appraisal at Pitchfork.) And, in 2010, the Library of Congress added 3 Feet to their National Recording Registry of recordings deemed socially, culturally, or artistically important.

For me and Derek, it’s easily one of the top 10 greatest hip-hop albums of all-time. Hands down, no question.

I would almost say that it’s still worth stealing, but the stone cold truth is that 3 Feet High and Rising is even better than that: it’s worth shelling out your hard-earned ducats to pay full list price for. I can’t say that about most other albums from my high school years.

Introducing Perfect Album Sides

The concept of the perfect album side is not a new one. I was first introduced to it by the radio station of my youth: 102.7 WNEW-FM, billed as “the place were rock lives.” Mondays through Fridays at midnight, they would play a different album side by listener request (this was back in the days when albums had actual sides). It was such a fun, cool way to learn about rock music in a way that allowed for a deeper dive into a given artist’s work, one that covered more than just their well-known hits (although there were still plenty of those to go around). This was how I got introduced to a slew of back catalogue surprises, weird curiosities, and some new favorites, sometimes all within the same week.

The midnight Perfect Album Side was one of my favorite features on WNEW, so I’m reviving it here as Strictly Back Catalogue‘s leadoff recurring column.

First up: side two of The Police’s classic 1983 album, Synchronicity. In my view, this is a great example of a perfect album side. It has thematic and tonal consistency, exemplary songwriting, and strong musicianship. There are catchy hooks galore here – all the more impressive since it may also be one of the most dour and idiosyncratic albums to ever go multi-platinum. The Police faced multiple obstacles during recording: Sting’s first marriage had just fallen apart, tensions within the band had reached a breaking point (and, sure enough, they broke up for good after an 8-month world tour), and they chose some puzzling sources of inspiration for the album: Arthur Koestler’s book about parapsychology, The Roots of Coincidence, and Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity. Not your typical pop music jumping-off points.

And yet, The Police managed to create a striking, powerful, hypnotic work out of disparate elements that would have usually bored a lecture hall full of college freshman and ended more than a few friendships, respectively. Synchronicity‘s best qualities are on full display on side two. Check it:

“Every Breath You Take”

Robert Christgau called this one “the single of the summer,” which it was: it spent eight consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the U.S. Top 40 in the middle of Thriller-mania, which was no small feat. In his book The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, Dave Marsh wrote that “Every Breath You Take” announces itself as a classic from the get-go (which could be said about this entire album). It works as both political allegory and a treatise on romantic and sexual obsession. Marsh initially heard the song as the former, even though it was inspired by more personal events: the aforementioned dissolution of Sting’s marriage. (In hindsight, though, Sting has come to agree more with Marsh’s interpretation.) However one hears it, “Every Breath You Take” remains a haunting, enduring work, a standout of The Police’s catalogue and a compositional high point for Sting.

“King of Pain”

Another haunting track that went Top 10 (peak position: No. 3 on the U.S. Top 40). The lyrics make more sense within the context of Sting’s volatile emotional state at the time, but it’s the feeling and the sound of “King of Pain” that carries it: the reverb on Stewart Copeland’s drums, the minor key piano opening coupled with Andy Summers’ janky guitar pluckings, the song’s upbeat final chorus in which Sting joyously declares “I will always be king of pain!” A broody, contemplative miracle from start to finish.

“Wrapped Around Your Finger”

Yet another pensive earworm, but also another Top 10 hit for the band (peak position: No. 8 on the U.S. Top 40). This is the one where Sting works out the power dynamics of the song’s vindictive apprentice finally one-upping his master (he called it a “spiteful song about turning the tables on someone who had been in charge” in a 1985 interview for the now-defunct Musician magazine). Once again, though, the strength is in the atmospherics: Andy Summers’ distant, echoey guitar part moves through the song like a snake, and Sting’s melody is one of the most tenacious he’s ever written.

“Tea in the Sahara”

This is the real sneak preview of what Sting’s soon-to-be solo career would be like: earnest and a little self-important, but sonically and musically ambitious. Despite this song’s literary origins (it’s inspired by a Paul Bowles novel), it feels like a cool breeze that provides respite from the thick melancholy on the rest of the side. It’s airy and has a bit of grand, cinematic sweep, but is also a deeply weird find on a hit album that sold over 8 million copies worldwide. But, then again, that’s how good The Police were: they could get away with a track like this on the biggest album of their career.

“Murder by Numbers”

A true bonus track: it was only originally available on the cassette release, not the vinyl LP. I had the vinyl version growing up, and consequently didn’t hear this track until years later. I never sought it out because, for me, side two of Synchronicity was already perfect as it was. But, this song does add a little kick, and is more of a proper final track. One can hear the band’s jazz chops more obviously, and they sound more relaxed here than at any other point on the album. It’s up to the listener to decide which of the final two songs is the actual closer.