Mar 252020

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10. Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles cover)

On the same Fillmore live album as “Love the One You’re With,” Aretha played “Eleanor Rigby.” Her upbeat groove is reminiscent of James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and is more fitting for “Lady Madonna” (a song that she performed in the 1990s as the theme song for sitcom Grace Under Fire). It’s hard to feel lonely when she belts out those notes, especially if you love the one you are with. – Barton Price

9. The Thrill Is Gone (Roy Hawkins cover)

B.B. King’s biggest hit, “The Thrill Is Gone” is itself a cover of Roy Hawkins’ 1951 R&B charter. Aretha had known King for a long time – “My daddy is B’s preacher and B is daddy’s bluesman” – but that didn’t stop her from putting her own extraordinary stamp on the song. Her piano playing is especially electrifying here, and the song reflects both the passing of Martin Luther King and Aretha’s recent divorce with her “free at last” callback. It’s not a remake as much as a re-envisioning, an absolute reclamation of the song into the story she wants to tell. – Patrick Robbins

8. How I Got Over (Clara Ward cover)

If this version of the legendary Clara Ward gospel standard doesn’t make you feel the spirit in some form, it’s possible you have no pulse. With the divine assistance of gospel great James Cleveland, Aretha transforms Ward’s lean, rumbling praise of thanks into a floor-shaking, roof-raising anthem. And while it’s amazing to experience the song in audio form, the ideal way to appreciate the glory of this performance is to view the footage within the incredible Amazing Grace documentary. The interplay between Aretha and the Southern California Community Choir is absolutely galvanizing. You don’t so much listen to “How I Got Over” as feel it. – Hope Silverman

7. Bridge over Troubled Water (Simon and Garfunkel cover)

Paul Simon has been quoted as saying that “maybe it’s the best cover of any of my songs that anyone ever did.” But not surprisingly, he was more partial to the original, stating, “Aretha’s version is tremendous, the best I ever heard except Artie’s.” The original was influenced by gospel music, specifically the Swan Silvertones’ recording of “Mary Don’t You Weep,” and the arrangement was a cross between gospel and the Wall of Sound. But when Aretha Franklin did the song, its roots were exposed to the world. Sure, the studio version is good, but if you want your mind blown, check out any of the versions Aretha did during her three night stand at the Fillmore West in 1971. I’m slightly partial to the opening night, but the other two are also pretty amazing. – Jordan Becker

6. Let It Be (The Beatles cover)

Aretha’s “Let It Be” is no reimagined or reworked version of a Beatles classic, but rather a faithful rendition of a song about faith. You could argue that it isn’t a cover at all: the Queen of Soul was the first to officially release it (in January 1970, two months prior to the Beatles releasing it as a single), after having received an acetate demo to guide her from superfan Paul McCartney. There’s no doubt, however, that Franklin fully realized the potential of the Lennon-McCartney composition as a gospel song, with the inspired backing of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Her tender reinterpretation, on her This Girl’s In Love With You album, now stands as a timeless acclamation of finding solace in Christian devotion. And her spiritually uplifting vocal is perfectly matched by a divine King Curtis sax solo. – Adam Mason

5. Mockingbird (Inez and Charlie Foxx cover)

Sister and brother duo Inez and Charlie Foxx scored their one big hit with this novelty duet in 1963. The next year Aretha made it the opening track on Runnin’ Out of Fools. She was no fool to team with Ray Johnson on harmony vocal role (and on piano, at least for the Shindig gig you see here). Youthful Aretha is all smiles, slipping in sassy moves and happy shouts. She’s radiant. No surprise that Mr. Johnson is looking pretty pleased too. There’s no hamming it up, just having fun. They don’t re-invent the song; it’s just not that kind of material. They sing it straight, and let their effortless timing and charisma carry the rest. – Tom MacDonald

4. Border Song (Holy Moses) (Elton John cover)

If you were disappointed that “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (#26) was not an Elton John cover, worry no more: Aretha has covered Elton. In fact, last year we named it the best Elton John cover ever. She recorded it for Young, Gifted, and Black, and her version became a moderate hit. Years later, the pair performed it onstage together. By way of introduction, Elton told the crowd, “When someone like Aretha Franklin records your song…there are no words to describe how excited I felt.” – Ray Padgett

3. Gentle on My Mind (Glen Campbell cover)

When it came time to pick tracks for Aretha’s sixth album for Atlantic, she forcefully insisted that “Gentle On My Mind,” a Glen Campbell hit from 1967, be one of them. Producer Jerry Wexler was horrified. He didn’t think the song suited her, later complaining that “her taste could be very mainstream.” Of course Aretha ultimately got her way, and once it was done, Wexler was forced to concede that it was so good, it absolutely had to be released as a single. While Campbell’s version is a sweet countrypolitan shuffle to soundtrack a beautiful breeze while you’re riding down the highway, Aretha’s is a strutting, celebratory storm. There is joy coming from every corner of her performance and the words she chooses to accentuate within the lyrics are bizarre and brilliant; “ink stains”, “clinging”, “binds”, “cursing.” And seriously, is there anything more smile-inducing than hearing Aretha tell you how cool it is that she can just leave her sleeping bag behind your couch? – Hope Silverman

2. Old Landmark (W. Herbert Brewster cover)

In 1971, Aretha Franklin visited that den of sin known as the Fillmore West to record a live album. One year later, she went back to church, literally, to record Amazing Grace, an album of gospel tunes. Backed by the Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, Franklin delivers powerhouse renditions of gospel standards. Her version of the “The Old Landmark” could probably wake the dead (or perhaps deceased members of the Dead). The fiery piano, hand clapping and rapid tambourine, combined with Aretha’s gut-wrenching vocals, make you want to move until the holy ghost enters your body. – Curtis Zimmermann

1. Respect (Otis Redding cover)

“Respect” feels like a boring choice for number one. It’s so obvious. But sometimes these things are obvious for a reason. “Respect” is Aretha’s most famous cover by a mile, and, in this case, the listening public got it right. If you think it’s played out, old hat, overdone on oldies radio, listen to it again. No matter how many times you’ve heard it, and it’s probably thousands, Aretha’s voice bursts through the speakers. Credit too to Aretha’s sisters Carolyn and Erma – backing singers who almost steal the spotlight. All the most famous parts, the three Franklins added themselves, including the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” “Obviously, Otis wrote the song form a man’s point of view, but when Erma and Aretha and I worked it over, we had to rearrange the perspective,” Carolyn later said. “We saw it as something earthier, a woman having no problem discussing her needs.” Give them their propers. – Ray Padgett

Check out more installments in our monthly ‘Best Covers Ever’ series, including Smokey Robinson, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, and Pink Floyd.

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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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