Mar 252020

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20. A Song for You (Leon Russell cover)

When Aretha Franklin recorded Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” in 1974, she become one of the earlier adopters of this 1970 gem. Aretha and band start in with a free and ruminating piano intro, in contrast to the crisp, cascading notes of Russell’s original. It’s that offhand feel, that intimacy, that is this version’s special stamp. When Aretha starts to sing, she highlights a smiling, winking phrase or two in the heartfelt lyrics (on “I’ve made some baaaaad rhymes,” she falls flat to underscore the message). But soon she soars to glorious heights: this song is about singing a song, so there’s no holding back. She has Motown’s best session players on board, and her great collaborator Tom Dowd in the producer’s chair. Everyone on this recording is a master, but they orbit one shining star at its center. Listen to the instruments responding to the vocals. This version of “A Song for You” is a song for the ages. – Tom MacDonald

19. Jumpin’ Jack Flash (The Rolling Stones cover)

One of the few things Aretha Franklin’s version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” has in common with the Rolling Stones original is Keith Richards. At a loose end due to a temporary rift with Mick Jagger, Keith put together a band – featuring Ron Wood, Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell, Blues Brothers drummer Steve Jordan, and bassist Randy Jackson (yes, that Randy Jackson) – to produce this track for the 1986 Whoopi Goldberg film of the same name. Even with all these heavy hitters, this is the Aretha show all the way. Riding a wave of keyboards, dueling guitars, backing vocals, and booming drums, she transforms the song from a menacing hard rocker into an all-out gospel rave-up. The glossy ’80s production might be a bit much if you’re not into that sort of thing – but I am, and I love this track. – Tim Edgeworth

18. Money Won’t Change You (James Brown cover)

No surprise that Aretha would shine on a James Brown tribute album, but on 2001’s Doing the James Brown, she stands tall even in the esteemed company of Otis Redding and The Daktaris. Her cover of “Money Won’t Change You” was first released on 1968’s Lady Soul, her third record on Atlantic. It carries strong “Respect” vibes thanks largely to the sassy backing vocals of Cissy Houston and sister Carolyn Franklyn. – Ray Padgett

17. Good Times (Sam Cooke cover)

This song rolls along just like the chorus recommends – the walking bass and shuffling piano leave a lot of room for Franklin to do her thing. The lead guitar stabs little riffs in between her phrasing throughout the whole song. This fun vocal-guitar interplay features, but ultimately upstages, Franklin’s voice. That’s pretty hard to do, and worth checking out! – Mike Misch

16. Rolling in the Deep (Live on Letterman) (Adele cover)

I suspect many had given up Aretha as a spent force, or at least a historical footnote (if of no small importance), when this appeared. Let’s not forget she was 72 when this came out, on the worryingly off-putting entitled Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics. But add up the simple (yeah, right) notion of stripping the song both back and up, sneaking in a few tropes from her classic years, and the doozy of the backing vocalists sneaking in some “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and consider the job done. Aretha was on record as highly respective of Adele, the appreciation mutual. For a truly jaw-dropping take, skip the studio version and head straight for this astonishing live phenomenon. As I said above, Aretha was 72. I’m watching it now. I’m weeping. – Seuras Og

15. Love the One You’re With (Stephen Stills cover)

Aretha’s live rendition of “Love the One You’re With” followed one year after Stephen Stills’s debut solo single. But it tapped into the funky, soulful ethos of Billy Preston, the song’s inspiration. – Barton Price

14. Soulville (Dinah Washington cover)

As we’ve noted, Aretha’s first label, Columbia, didn’t make the most of her talents. That holds true on 1964’s Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington, a pleasant but not overly memorable lite-jazz album. But the final track leaps up above rest, and the song’s title is almost too on-the-nose: “Soulville.” After sounding constrained on many earlier tracks, Aretha’s voice and attitude finally bursts forth. Much of her Columbia material looks back. “Soulville” points the way forward. – Ray Padgett

13. Satisfaction (The Rolling Stones cover)

Gone is the distinctive guitar riff, but in its place Franklin is surrounded by funky bass lines, punchy horns and drums that insist you move to the rhythm. Aretha’s ad-libs and small changes of phrasing are beautiful throughout, but the highlight is the rising pre-chorus. The way the climbing “I tried, tried, tried” leads you into the jubilant chorus is incredibly… satisfying. – Mike Misch

12. The Fool on the Hill (The Beatles cover)

The one recording we have of Aretha doing the Beatles’ “The Fool on the Hill” is an outtake. And you can hear why it was taken out. Set its flaws aside for a second, the missed words and off-pitch notes. Another take, with better microphone placement, and they might have nailed it. However, the album it was demoed for, This Girl’s In Love With You, already featured not one but two Lennon—McCartney selections: “Elenor Rigby,” and “Let It Be.” (Aretha’s cover of the latter was released ahead of the Beatles’ original!) So why attempt a third? Maybe they had Sérgio Mendes’ cover in mind more than the Fab Four original; the Latin flavor of this demo suggests as much. Upshot: good call to let it be and drop it from the album. But good call by Rhino Records to include it on their compilation of Aretha rarities and outtakes. We are lucky to have this peek at what might have been. – Tom MacDonald

11. You Are My Sunshine (Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell cover)

The original version of this song dates back to 1939 and starts out (and ends with) a good, old-fashioned yodel. The song continues as a comforting ditty that could serve as a lullaby. Franklin’s version truly transforms this song, changing the melody, tempo, and style. She starts with a prolonged, soulful interlude with abrupt changes in volume, from almost whispering to unleashing a powerhouse of sound. Then, after being subtly led by the piano’s mimic of a drum roll, the song transitions to a swing that we are compelled to dance to. Keeping the listener alert with trumpet declarations throughout, Franklin’s version is certainly no lullaby. – Sara Stoudt

The list finishes on Page 5.

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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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