20 Great Aretha Franklin Covers
Aretha Franklin's gifts as a singer were prodigious; her voice transcended the artificial walls of genre, giving listeners of the past, present and future an aural sense of American culture at any given point in the more than five decades in which she actively plied her craft. Her voice was America's voice, as much as was Elvis Presley's, or Johnny Cash's -- two other towering figures that were her peers for a time.
Like Cash and Presley, Franklin's voice could tell stories that weren't her own, but which she made her own. She was arguably at her best when performing the work of others, whether a standard, a soul tune, a gospel hymn or even an opera aria. Here are some of her best cover performances.
“Respect,” from I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)
Otis Redding wrote the song; Franklin took it and made it her own. If you know only one Aretha Franklin tune (i.e. if the radio reception in your cave is spotty), this is probably it.
“Don't Play That Song (You Lied),” from Spirit in the Dark (1970)
This is prime Franklin, getting her voice around the Ben E. King cut, massaging it a bit, before letting loose at the end.
“Bridge Over Troubled Water,” from Aretha’s Greatest Hits (1970)
There was gospel hidden deep within this Simon and Garfunkel classic; Franklin brought it out and sent it flying back to the heavens.
“The Weight,” from This Girl’s in Love With You (1970)
Duane Allman’s slide guitar gives this cover of the Band’s signature tune an added bit of Southern grease, but it’s Franklin’s voice — a voice barely able to be contained by your speakers — that gives the song its lift and its soul.
“Love the One You’re With,” from Aretha Live at Fillmore West (1971)
Only Franklin could take Stephen Stills’ attempted elevation of casual hippie intercourse and turn it into something you might hear from a pew on Sunday morning.
“Eleanor Rigby,” from This Girl’s in Love With You (1970)
Franklin’s take on Paul McCartney’s most sullen character study does away with the baroque flourishes, speeds up the tempo, adds more background voices and in the process completely reinvents the song, to the point where it’s pretty much unrecognizable. The Beatles' original could move you to tears; this rendition stirs your heart.
“Let It Be,” from This Girl’s in Love With You (1970)
As with “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Franklin wrings from “Let It Be” all the gospel the song had in its core and expands it, fills the room with it, makes it plain that this is holy stuff, and reverence is not only appropriate — it is required.
“Border Song,” from Young, Gifted and Black (1972)
She changes the lyric at the end — from “There's a man standing over there / What's his color, I don’t care” to “What’s his color? Do you care?” And by doing that one little thing, she changes Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s call for peace to a challenge. And that means everything, then and now.
“What a Fool Believes,” from Aretha (1980)
A Yacht Rock classic when Yacht Rock was still a dormant thing — like cicadas that disappear for a decade, only to emerge when you least expect it and ruin your summer. The instrumental track has a little more swing than the Doobie Brothers’ original, but the injection of soul is pure Franklin magic.
“You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from Amazing Grace (1972)
Seven and a half minutes of such intensity, it stirs the heart just as it blows the mind. Metal bands that claim to be intense should be jealous of this kind of intensity. And frightened. And blessed to have heard it.
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” from Aretha (1986)
A Rolling Stones cover with Keith Richards and Ron Wood on guitar and Franklin herself on piano and voice. Listen to what she breathes into the verses, and how hard she bears down on the chorus. You can be certain she taught those boys a thing or two about their own song.
“Rolling in the Deep,” from Aretha Sings the Great Diva Classics (2014)
It’s probably too early to call “Rolling in the Deep” a classic, and the instrumental track is pretty rote, but Franklin uses the song as an opportunity to just go full-on Aretha on it. The way she cracks open the chorus shows just how mannered Adele’s original is. This is a real diva showing the youngsters how it’s done.
“Tracks of My Tears,” from Soul ‘69 (1969)
Franklin could take apart Smokey Robinson’s original and reassemble it, but she restrains herself — the song doesn’t need that. It needs a deft hand, a faithful retelling. She gives the song exactly what it requires, as any great interpreter would.
“I Say a Little Prayer,” from Aretha Now! (1968)
Dionne Warwick has the more familiar version, but Franklin does something completely different with the song. What’s remarkable here is how she lets the Sweet Inspirations shine; almost as if Franklin herself were supporting them.
“A Change Is Gonna Come,” from I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)
Born out of a lifetime’s worth of indignities foisted upon black Americans, rife with equal parts pain and hope, sung originally by a man (Sam Cooke) who straddled the spiritual and secular as few before or after him. Franklin retains all of Cooke’s power and amplifies it by simplifying it. It’s a remarkable achievement.
“Nessun Dorma,” Grammy Awards broadcast (1998)
When tenor Luciano Pavarotti called in sick for his scheduled performance at the music industry extravaganza, the show’s producers called upon Franklin to take his place, and she responded with one of the most spine-tingling renditions of the Puccini aria ever broadcast. She took Italian opera to church.
“My Guy,” from Runnin’ Out of Fools (1964)
Possibly the most mannered performance in this list, this was pre-Atlantic Records Franklin, before she could unleash the full force of her soul in the recording studio. Still, there’s a place for even peppy pop tunes in the Queen’s court, and this is a fine one.
“The Thrill Is Gone,” from Spirit in the Dark (1970)
Had there been any doubt before Spirit in the Dark that Franklin could hold her own inside the blues, this shut down such silly wondering. If this doesn’t move you, check your pulse.
“Amazing Grace,” from Amazing Grace (1972)
So slowly does she roll out this gospel standard, you sit on the edge of whatever seat your sitting on in anticipation of what she’ll do next, how she’ll blow you away with the next syllable, because you know she will. It’s like a storm that’s approaching you, slowly — one you’ll know will knock you backward, send you running toward shelter — and she spends 15 minutes letting it blow in.
“Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” from Aretha Live at Fillmore West (1971)
Diana Ross had the hit, but Franklin used it to close out an amazing live album. Franklin wins.