Mar 252020

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40. Nessun Dorma (Live at the 1998 Grammys) (Puccini cover)

In 1998, opera legend Luciano Pavarotti was scheduled to sing the iconic Puccini aria “Nessun Dorma” at the 40th Grammy Awards. But 30 minutes after the show began, a production assistant picked up the phone to hear a thick Italian accent: “I don’t feel well. I can’t come. I sing for you next year.” So, in what the Grammy organization has dubbed “the greatest last-second substitution act in Grammy history,” they got Aretha to sing it instead. There’s a bit of PR spin here, admittedly. She had just sung the song two nights prior at a MusiCares event, after all, and was already backstage for a Blues Brothers tribute. But the fact that the story has grown into legend – “she had to learn to sing opera in Italian on the spot!” – doesn’t take a thing away from what really matters: The performance she delivered that evening. – Ray Padgett

39. I Can’t Turn You Loose (Otis Redding cover)

“I Can’t Turn You Loose” was originally was a B-side song for Otis Redding, but it became more popular than its A-side, “Just One More Day.” Many other artists have covered the tune, including the Blues Brothers (whose version is now part of the entrance music for the Duke college basketball team). In between, Franklin covered the song with a Grammy-nominated performance. Redding’s version pairs his pleading, raspy voice with big brass. In contrast, Franklin’s version is slightly more up-tempo and features a disco groove. The brass still joins the funk guitar while Franklin’s big voice keeps the mood light. – Sara Stoudt

38. You’ll Never Walk Alone (Rodgers and Hammerstein cover)

One of the great things about music is how a song can resonate over many years, in very different circumstances. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is one of these songs. Written by Rogers and Hammerstein for the 1945 Broadway musical Carousel, it was an emotional musical theatre style ballad sung to comfort and support a character whose husband dies. Recorded by, among others, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland shortly thereafter, it comforted many who lost loved ones during World War II, and then became popular with early rock acts. But it was Gerry & the Pacemakers’ 1963 version that broke through, and led to the song becoming identified with the band’s local football club, Liverpool F.C. On January 13 and 14, 1972, Aretha Franklin recorded two incredible sessions at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, with Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir accompanying her. About halfway through the first performance, Franklin and the Choir performed a stately, yet soaring, version of the song that can’t help but inspire. The song’s power continues — recently, hundreds of radio stations across Europe, including the BBC, joined forces to simultaneously play “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in a show of solidarity against coronavirus. – Jordan Becker

37. 96 Tears (? and the Mysterians cover)

Honestly, I hadn’t actually heard this cover as I put forward for it to be included here. What could be more incongruous than Aretha and this prototypically primitive garage band scuzz that probably got put together in a garage? The original certainly sounds so. But I just knew it would be good, even if allowing for bad-good as a reference. But I needn’t have worried, because it’s good-good. The additional instrumentation embellishes the rudiments, making the skeletal organ-stabbing a deliberate stance, rather than the default of any limited player ability. It sweeps along in a joyful cascade. The lyrics are near pointless; it’s the sound that counts, the touch of joy and hope, Aretha’s divine gift, banishing despondency. – Seuras Og

36. Try a Little Tenderness (The Ray Noble Orchestra cover)

Aretha’s years at Columbia Records saw the label knowing they had a huge talent, but not knowing what to do with it. For her third studio album, The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin, they had her record mostly standards. Not yet 21, she took “Try a Little Tenderness” to heart, delivering a performance with soul that transcended the strings on the song. Indeed, Otis Redding was inspired to record his definitive take on the song after hearing Aretha’s version. And we all know how Aretha returned that favor… – Patrick Robbins

35. Young, Gifted, and Black (Nina Simone cover)

This civil rights anthem was originally recorded by Nina Simone and dedicated to her friend Lorraine Hansberry, the first black woman playwright to have a show on Broadway. The original is simple and uplifting with a subtle marching beat. Franklin followed up with her own version a few years later, on her 1972 album of the same name. Billy Preston joins in on organ. (Donny Hathaway, who also has a popular cover of this song, is also all over this album, just not this track.) Franklin’s version of this song is more gospel-like with some soul and funk thrown in for good measure. Franklin lets loose her strong voice to draw out certain phrases, emphasizing the empowering message. – Sara Stoudt

34. Groovin’ (The Young Rascals cover)

What could be more white college fratboy than the Young Rascals? But this cover works. Aretha, being Aretha, grooves it to the max, as the trademark clipped backing vocals remind you who’s in charge. Gimme a song, any song, and she’ll nail it. No wonder the Young Rascals pretty much gave up the ghost after her version. (OK, they didn’t, but I bet they thought about it.) Yes, the original was pretty damn cool, but given the choice, which would you rather – a couple of Natty Lights with the boys or an afternoon grooving with Aretha? No contest. The arrangement is pretty similar, the sass coming out in the vocals, front and backing. – Seuras Og

33. Until You Come Back to Me (Stevie Wonder cover)

At this point, we all know how this works. Aretha likes your song, she records it, then it becomes property of Aretha forever. Even if your name happens to be Stevie Wonder. Stevie had originally recorded “Until You Come Back…” in 1967, but his version wasn’t officially released until 1977 as part of a compilation. And, as sweet as Stevie’s version ultimately turned out to be, Aretha’s version steamrolled it to dust. In Lady Ree’s version, the vocal is warm, easy, and a little understated…until it isn’t. Things start off coquettish, playful and almost proud until we arrive at the bridge, where Aretha proceeds to blow everything to pieces. At that moment, she flips that standard Aretha switch, turns up the vocal volume, smashes open her heart, and lets fly. Love is in peril, she is bereft, and things just ain’t cute anymore. – Hope Silverman

32. I Say a Little Prayer (Dionne Warwick cover)

Dionne Warwick got her start singing demos of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s songs. She did it so well, the label president told Bacharach, “Forget the song, get the girl!” She became the primary interpreter of their songs, and once said, with justifiable pride, “When you want a Bacharach/David song recorded, you’ve got to come to the source.” Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer” went higher on the pop charts than Aretha’s cover, but the Queen of Soul went higher on the R&B charts. Appropriate, as hers is the more uplifting of the two, with the backing vocalists taking the chorus and leaving her free to turn loose in short bursts of feeling. Also, not a flugelhorn in sight. – Patrick Robbins

31. You Can’t Always Get What You Want (The Rolling Stones cover)

Aretha could kill a Rolling Stones cover. This is the first one on our list, but it will not be the last. More than even other ’60s rock icons (she never covered Dylan, for instance), the Stones seemed to be right in her wheelhouse. Perhaps the band’s relative rawness proved appealing, unleashing a similar grit and power in a different context. And she covered the Stones throughout her career. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” for instance, came out in 1981. Not exactly her peak, and fair warning: She goes full ’80s on this. But it’s still Aretha and, incredibly dated production aside, it works. – Ray Padgett

The list continues on Page 3.

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  6 Responses to “Aretha Franklin’s Best Cover Songs Ever”

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  1. Aretha’s sister is named Erma, not Emma. She had a fair career as a recording artist on her own. She’s best know for the original version of “Piece of My Heart”, later popularized by Janis Joplin. It was actually Erma’s excellent cover of “Son of a Preacher Man” that convinced Aretha she could do something with it.

  2. Such a loss to the music world. Just recently I played some of her classic songs. Respect, natural woman, rock steady, freeway of love, and my favorite precious memories. To our queen of soul job well done.

  3. My Favorite is ” You Keep me Hang in On ” by the Supremes!!! Aretha makes it Totally her OWN and sings it better than the original which is how I feel about most of her covers!

  4. What can one say about Aretha Franklin, that hasn’t been said already. She’s the Queen of Soul for many reasons to all people. For me, I call her the Queen because when I hear her voice, it moves my soul in ways that I feel connected to God. No other singer has this effect on me but Ms. Aretha Franklin. And one ever will. I can’t thank God enough for having blessed us all with such an Angel like Aretha Franklin. Rest in my Queen. Until you come back to me, that’s all I’m going to do.

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