Last night’s VMAs surprised many by omitting any sort of musical tribute to Aretha Franklin. You’d think if anyone could pull that together with a few days notice, MTV could – but honestly, I get it. There have been fewer memorial covers of Aretha Franklin than we saw for Tom Petty, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and many others. Even Chris Cornell earned more in-concert tributes, and Aretha’s career of hits goes back decades further than his.
Why is that? Certainly Aretha is no less beloved than these others; eloquent and moving tributes in other forms continue to pour in hourly. My guess: Aretha is first and foremost known as a singer, maybe the greatest ever (Rolling Stone said she was). Though certainly no songwriting slouch (pretty much every part you’d sing along to in “Respect,” she added herself), Aretha may simply be too daunting vocally for many musicians to attempt.
Luckily, not all musicians. Here are the best posthumous Aretha Franklin covers we’ve seen so far. Hopefully more are coming!
Alicia Keys – (You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin cover)
This seems the right place to start, since many would put Alicia Keys in the small category of vocalists able to even stand in the same room as Aretha. So Keys’ “Natural Woman” cover, performed on Nicki Minaj’s radio show of all places, features some grade-A belting. She’s covered it before – and hopefully will again, as the technology recording this clip can’t keep pace with her volume.
Ariana Grande – (You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin cover)
Keys got compared to Aretha 20 years ago; Ariana Grande gets compared to her now (in terms of vocal ability, at least). Grande reportedly felt reluctant to perform this last-minute tribute with the Roots. Understandable, certainly, but her voice proves up to the challenge.
Larkin Poe – (You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin cover)
If Alicia and Ariana’s “Natural Woman” covers steered a little too close to aping Aretha’s own for you, Larkin Poe’s steel-guitar duet finds a nice middle ground between soul and delta blues. And if you like that, they’ve done many, many other such covers.
Chris Stapleton – Do Right Woman, Do Right Man (Aretha Franklin cover)
Miranda Lambert did a nice version of this song we just did a feature on too, but in the country “Do Right”s race, I gotta give it to Chris Stapleton. Lambert can approximate Aretha’s voice, and does so quite well. Stapleton can’t, and that makes his version more unusual. His gravely croon brings out a grit and heart in one of Aretha’s best songs. Bonus points for a fiery guitar solo to cap it off.
Guitaro 5000 – Chain of Fools (Aretha Franklin cover)
Keeping up with YouTube cover-artists would be a full-time job – and an unpleasant one, as teens belting into iPhones wears thin quickly. So color me pleasantly surprised to stumble upon a man who goes by Guitaro 5000, blending a smooth voice with some seriously funky acoustic guitar slapping.
Eli Paperboy Reed – Aretha, Sing One for Me (George Jackson cover)
Eli Paperboy Reed collects rare soul and gospel 45s, so count on him to dig deeper than “Natural Woman” or “Respect.” Way deeper, in fact. Rather than cover an Aretha song at all – he didn’t feel he could do her talent justice on short notice, he said – he paid tribute to an Aretha tribute: George Jackson’s 1972 R&B hit “Aretha, Sing One for Me.”
Brandi Carlile – Do Right Woman, Do Right Man (Aretha Franklin cover)
Carlile got more attention for a live duet on this song with My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, but I prefer her solo version the day before. The blend of her and James’ voice came out strained – though given how well My Morning Jacket can cover R&B songs, I’d be very interested in them trying again when the band reconvenes. Oh, and Carlile did double duty too that right night, following this song in the set with “Respect.”
TV on the Radio – Think (Aretha Franklin cover)
Not sure why more artists aren’t covering this song (no Blues Brothers fans out there?), but TV on the Radio pick up the slack. Hopefully a full video will emerge, as this Instagram clip certainly whets the appetite for what might be one of the best covers of the bunch.
Gov’t Mule – Chain of Fools (Aretha Franklin cover)
Whenever anyone dies, half the immediate live covers come from jam bands. No surprise, really: They’re used to spontaneity, and always on the road. Gov’t Mule always deliver one of the best, and no exception here, with Warren Haynes’ motley crew joined by singer John Hogg from opening act The Magpie Salute.
Railroad Earth – (You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin cover)
One more jam-band cover, and another “Natural Woman” too. The song dominates the recent covers, even more than her many other hits. One wonders if that would be the case without her stunning 2015 Kennedy Center performance, the last whole-nation-drops-jaws moment in a career full of them.
Patty Griffin – Dr. Feelgood (Aretha Franklin cover)
A nice solo acoustic number that veers away from the soul-band template many others aim for. Patty can’t belt just fine over only a nylon six-string.
Any favorites we missed? Let us know in the comments!