Mar 252020

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30. Cold, Cold Heart (Hank Williams cover)

Stifle your WTF, Aretha covering Hank isn’t remotely as odd an idea as it sounds – but it is one hell of a transformation. Country and blues stem from the same sources, if perceived to be from different sides of the track – which, in the beginning they weren’t. It was just music, often from equivalent rural poverties. And, as blues begat soul, this song is a natural for the Muscle Shoals house style, already an amalgam of hues and influences. Only as you listen to the words does it seep in that it is the same song as Hank’s, give or take the howling harmonica that embellishes many later country versions. Aretha, at her soaring prime, effortlessly rises up and envelops the entire airspace, an uplifting ability to empower downlift with hope and a stated intent to conquer. The Queen of Soul and the King of Country: immaculate. – Seuras Og

29. A Change Is Gonna Come (Sam Cooke cover)

It’s easy to draw parallels between the early careers of Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke. Both started out as gospel singers and made the shift to more secular forms of music. Each singer had their own civil rights anthem: for Cooke it was 1964’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and for Franklin it was her 1967 classic “Respect.” On the same album as “Respect,” Franklin also included a cover of “A Change…” Listening to Aretha sing Cooke’s lyrics about hope and change is enough to send chills through the hearts of weary souls and cynics. Amen. – Curtis Zimmermann

28. Wholy Holy (Marvin Gaye cover)

If there is one problem with the utterly perfect Aretha concert film Amazing Grace, it’s that her version of “Wholy Holy” happens approximately 10 minutes into the movie. Which means before you’ve even gotten comfortable or finished your popcorn, you will be likely be crying. To call this a staggering performance is underselling it. It’s a living, breathing prayer. And as beautiful as Marvin Gaye’s delicate, meandering original version is, it seems more akin to a sketch when held up next to Aretha’s fully fleshed-out take. There are actually two recorded versions of “Wholy Holy,” and both are absolutely exquisite. But this particular one has a highlight that should come with a warning, as in “this song may cause involuntary waving of hands in air.” The moment arrives at about 2 1/2 minutes in, when Aretha and the Southern California Community Choir start batting the word “love” back and forth between them. It’s about as beautiful a piece of singing as you are ever gonna hear. – Hope Silverman

27. Everyday People (Sly and the Family Stone cover)

1991 is not exactly prime-Aretha era. And the sound is as dated as the music video, Aretha trying to hang with the New Jack Swing kids. Hell, the first words she speaks are “Yo gang. Let’s kick the ballistics” – a literal quote from current Wesley Snipes and Ice-T action film New Jack City. Flavor Flav is in the music video, because of course he is. It doesn’t bode well. But I’m a sucker for aging artists trying to keep up with the kids (I love ’80s Dylan, after all). So for me, Aretha’s energy and enthusiasm overcomes all the ridiculousness. – Ray Padgett

26. Night Life (Willie Nelson cover)

One of Willie Nelson’s earliest songs, “Night Life” was turned down by his record label for not being either country or commercial enough. By the time Aretha got a hold of it, Ray Price had proven the label wrong on both counts. But Aretha took out the country and gave it what Texas Monthly called “a desolate uptown sound, bluesy yet brave, an affirmation reeking of pain and expensive gin.” There are dozens of covers of “Night Life,” but Willie’s favorite was and remains Aretha’s. – Patrick Robbins

25. The Weight (The Band cover)

What makes The Band’s original version of “The Weight” so popular, I think, is its shambling, rambling feel. It’s like a story being told around a campfire, and it is captivating, even if it isn’t always clear exactly what is going on, and its characters are memorably drawn with quick strokes. Which is why there are numerous websites discussing its meaning. When Aretha Franklin recorded the song on January 9th, 1969, in the New York City studios of Atlantic Records backed by the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, she turned it into a tight, gospel inflected R&B song. Oh, and the slide guitar was contributed by none other than Duane Allman, during a brief stint as a studio musician before he joined up with brother Gregg, Dickey Betts, Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks and Jaimoe Johnson, creating musical history of his own. Some great pictures of Aretha’s “Weight” sessions can be found here. – Jordan Becker

24. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (Burt Bacharach/Hal David cover)

Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote this song, predating the Elton John and Kiki Dee classic of the same name, and Bacharach first recorded it himself. Shortly after, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and Dionne Warwick tackled it. Almost ten years later, Franklin took it on. While the original is laid back with an easy-breezy beach vibe, Franklin’s version is more spunky. The funk guitar riffs and high-hat keep the energy high, but Franklin does lighten up the energy at times with her “la la”s, hinting at the carefree attitude of the original. – Sara Stoudt

23. Son Of A Preacher Man (Dusty Springfield cover)

The Dusty Springfield classic was originally written for Aretha. She turned it down, only to reconsider after hearing what Dusty did to it. Aretha did something else altogether: she took the song to church. She slowed it down, got some call and response from the Sweet Inspirations (as well as both “Allelulia”s and “Sock it to me”s), and most dramatically, took the music out of the bridge, sounding as though she was leading her own congregation – which, in fact, she was. Aretha’s version leaves Dusty eating her dust, to my mind, but the Queen would never be so crass. They only met once, Dusty recounted, and “All Aretha ever said to me – and I died – we were in a lift, and she just put her hand on my arm and went, ‘Girrlll!'” – Patrick Robbins

22. I’ll Never Be Free (Kay Starr and Tennessee Ernie Ford cover)

The first of a few tracks we’ll be including from Aretha’s fantastic Soul ’69 album, “I’ll Never Be Free” is probably not as instantly recognizable as the others. The song was written by Bennie Benjamin and George Weiss and first became a hit in 1950 performed by Kay Starr and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Aretha’s version draws more from Dinah Washington’s version. She hadn’t included it on her Dinah tribute album in ’62, though. Maybe because she was still feinting at being a tasteful jazz singer then. She needed to wait until she could go full soul. – Ray Padgett

21. Tracks of My Tears (Smokey Robinson cover)

Franklin’s voice is clearly on display here, with subtle instrumentation for the first half of the song that really gives space for her to stretch out each word. And when she does, it’s transcendent, surprising nobody. In the second half, the horns kick the song into a higher energy and Franklin is ready to go there, too. It’s an iconic original, and Aretha does an amazing job of making it her own. – Mike Misch

The list continues on Page 4.

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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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