With the release of last month’s Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, Clive Davis praised Aretha’s new album as
“. . .purely and simply sensational. She’s on fire and vocally in absolutely peak form. What a thrill to see this peerless artist still showing the way, still sending shivers up your spine, still demonstrating that all contemporary music needs right now is the voice. What a voice.”
Aretha Franklin’s catalog attests to the singer’s status as one of the greatest singers in music (Trust me, I’ve had many an argument over who deserves the crown!). Franklin’s latest release, however, isn’t one of those contributing records. It’s clear the Diva has lost much of the power that made her one of the biggest acts in modern music. To make matters (and our ear drums) worse, Franklin’s latest of many cover albums strives for relevancy by incorporating some of the “contemporary diva classics” with four-on-the-floor beats and tacky R&B mixes. Aretha’s rendition of Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep,” in particular, has been trending for the past couple weeks online which encouraged Arista to push it as the album’s lead single. I’m convinced the attention the track has garnered is nothing more than media sensationalism, seeing as the track sounds like a South Park parody.
Let’s face it, though: The Queen still sings better now at 72 than most of today’s newcomers (Lana Del Ray, anyone?). Still, there’s no denying that time has finally gotten hold of Aretha’s singing chops, with auto-tune pervading every track on her latest CD. After listening to the album, I decided to hunt out the Queen’s most impressive, yet overlooked, covers from her prime. Below are six Aretha covers I feel capture the flawless vocal technique Aretha was once known for and that this generation has, unfortunately, forgotten with this latest release.
6.) “At Last” (Let Me In Your Life Outtake),
from Rare and Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of The Queen of Soul.
Do yourself a favor. Skip the weak, half-hearted karaoke version on 2014’s “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics,” and indulge in the ’74 studio outtake of the Blues classic. In all honesty, I doubt anyone will ever sing a better rendition than Etta James’s bittersweet version. The Matriarch of R&B layers a seemingly optimistic declaration of finding true love with the unnerving sense that this long-awaited love could very well be gone as soon as it came. The listener can hear the undertones of pain and heartbreak that have finally led James to this sigh of relief in finding love. In short, the complexity of emotion that James offers in her performance has solidified the most unlikely blues lyrics into a hallmark of the genre.
Still, Aretha Franklin is the Queen 0f Soul, not the Bitch of Blues. As such, Franklin’s studio take is a warm, vocally flawless track more superficially appropriate for weddings. While not a single teardrop is shed in Franklin’s version, the track is an awesome testament to the Diva’s superior vocal technique. Many songstresses have taken a stab at the 1941 Mack Gordon/Harry Warren classic: Cyndi Lauper, Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera, even Beyonce during her portrayal as James in Cadillac Records. Though impressive, none seem to truly revolutionize the song by steering it away from underwhelming imitations of James’s passionate, yet pensive performance besides Franklin’s, which opts for an assured mood that makes the Diva’s take truly her own.
5.) “Track of My Tears,” 1969
from Soul ’69
A Grammy Hall of Fame inductee and honoree of Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs” list, this Miracles track (no pun intended) is also among the most covered songs of all time. Congress even chose the hit for preservation in the National Recording Registry in 2008 as an artifact of soul music! What more of a reason does the Soul Queen need to add her own flair to one of her Majesty’s biggest competitors?
That said, Franklin’s version is as much a true-to-form soul single as it is a battle cry. The brash and brassy chorus shows how, contrary to the lyrics, a hurting Franklin tends not to be seen but rather heard. Fresh into the commercial success of her Atlantic years, Aretha’s “Tracks” includes all the attitude and bold vocals that would transform later hits of this era (also covers, mind you) such as Redding’s “Respect” and Warwick’s “I Say A Little Prayer,” into Aretha’s most famous classics.
4.) “Skylark/Skylark (Alternate Version),” 1964
from Laughing on the Outside
Ironically, this jazz standard would be released on one of the first Aretha albums to feature a self-penned tune, “I Wonder (Where You are Tonight).” “Skylark” is often cited by critics as one of the highlights of the album, mainly due to Franklin’s masterful sense of control. Wavering between subtle, sensual whispers and soaring belts, no vocal trick or phrase seems out-of-place. Aretha’s rendition shows a strategic, calculating singer whose every lyric is planned and executed.
The album version is complete on its own; if you’re an avid Aretha fan or just appreciate the various ways professional singers can shape a song, be sure to check out the “Alternate Version” included on The Essential: The Columbia Years compilation album. Swapping a lower piano melody for the original’s characteristic high-octave trill, the alternate version takes a tame, moody approach, while highlighting the seemingly infinite interpretations a singer can offer a rehashed standard.
3.) “Somewhere,” 1973
from Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky)
The magic in this cover lies in the minute-long introduction, the moment right before the West Side Story classic shifts into a lackluster jazz affair. The opening showcases a soulful and yearning Aretha showcasing an exquisite sense of articulation and control. I’ve never felt music in such a way as when Aretha sings the lines “It waits for us/ Somewhere” between 0:47-0:56; in some obscure ventricle of the heart, Aretha’s voice in that 9 second snippet alone makes another tear in my heart. I’ve literally listened to that snippet countless times on repeat. Singing just doesn’t get any emotive, any more heartbreaking, any more perfect than that!
Although my favorite version of the Streisand classic has to be Katharine McPhee’s live performance for the TV special, Hitman: David Foster & Friends, Franklin’s version could have easily stolen the spotlight if the intimate beauty of the intro didn’t flounder in a tame arrangement that included, among other misses, a lazy, drawn out sax solo. Many Quincy Jones fans must have been left disappointed with this cut.
2.) “If I Had A Hammer,” 1965
I’ll be honest. The first time I’ve ever heard this song was after buying Franklin’s Yeah!!!! album during iTunes’s $7.99 sale on select Franklin albums last week. Needless to say, the track is flawless. The musicianship, the arrangement –and Franklin’s impassioned live vocals, of course! Since then, I’ve had the song on repeat everywhere I go. When reading up on the song, I learned that the tune was cover of the Pete Seeger-penned Peter, Paul, and Mary hit. I hunted out the original version (The Weevers) of this genius song only to find the song’s fantastic songwriting — as masterfully arranged in Franklin’s version– stripped of its rich rhythms and muddled by garish folk guitars and a thin harmony. Peter, Paul, and Mary offered little improvement.
On the very first listen, the listener is hooked by the Franklin’s quartet assertive piano riff before Franklin roars onto the recording with a power that lasts for the entire performance. While the crowd you hear throughout was actually just an overdub of a murmuring audience, the track was recorded live at Columbia Studios during a session overseen and produced by Clyde Otis. Raw 60’s vocal jazz at its best, Franklin’s “If I Had A Hammer” melds the power of soul with the Lady’s precision as a Jazz singer.
1.) “Let it Be,” 1970
from This Girl’s In Love With You
The Story seems simple for this song: “Let It Be” was the song a King wrote for the Queen. The whole story, however, has a complicated history. Aretha’s version of the Beatles tune was first commercial recording of the song; it was even released before The Beatles by 3 months. While “Let it Be” was initially inspired by a dream visitation from his deceased mother, Mary, writer Paul McCartney envisioned the soulful track for the Queen:
“Paul McCartney had sent me an acetate of ‘Let It Be’ with a note that it was written for Aretha. We recorded it. Afterwards, though, Aretha told us to hold up the release. She liked the melody but wasn’t sure what the lyrics meant. Time passed and the boys from Liverpool were tired of waiting. They put me on legal notice that we no longer had right of first release. They cut it themselves and, of course, enjoyed a huge hit. By 1970 Aretha saw the light and allowed us to include it, along with ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ producer Jerry Wexler on This Girl’s In Love With You.
–liner notes for Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of The Queen of Soul, 2007.
This gospel-infused rendition brought Aretha back to her roots while bringing the God-gifted voice it fostered to the forefront. It all started in the church for Aretha, with her preacher father managing the young Diva during “gospel caravan tours.” In fact, Franklin’s debut album, Songs of Faith, was a collection of hymns featuring Aretha singing and playing piano. With “Let It Be,” Franklin evokes these early years with her spirited plea for inner peace. Although ultimately overshadowed by the success of McCartney’s rendition, Aretha’s take —with it’s background harmonies, organ, and sax solo—seems to be more of a manifestation of McCartney’s vision than even the Beatle’s own version.
The above covers are only a handful of the Queen’s catalog. Check out this site for more Aretha covers from her prime!