Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

20 Essential Aretha Franklin Cover Songs

Aretha Franklin young

Soul music is about feeling, not perfection.  Though I do listen to younger R&B singers, they generally don’t excite me like Aretha Franklin has during her long, lauded career.  Though I love Mary J. Blige, her songs frequently sound like they were spat out by a computer.  I wonder where are the young woman who can take me to church and make me believe the way Aretha could.  While Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe, and Jennifer Hudson all have their strengths, they sure as hell ain’t back-in-the-day Aretha. One problem is that contemporary R&B tracks are frequently written from the beat up and largely programmed, with vocals auto-tuned and digitally manipulated even when the singer has no pitch issues.  The result is that by and large, contemporary R&B has no soul.  If a song lacks a strong melody, compelling lyrics, and the feeling that it was made by human beings, it simply doesn’t matter how good the singer is, because I won’t feel anything.

So I go back to Aretha’s expansive fifty-year-plus catalogue and dig deeper into what is still an awe-inspiring body of work.  Many don’t know that Aretha is a very accomplished songwriter.  A few months ago Stargayzing compiled a list of some of those songs Aretha wrote or co-wrote.  Aretha is also a great interpreter of other songwriter’s material so, as a counterpoint, here are my twenty favorite Aretha cover songs.  This list is particularly timely as Miss Franklin just released  Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, an album of cover songs whose title sums up its concept with typical Clive Davis directness (though by including “Nothing Compares 2 U,” I wonder if she is referencing its singer Sinead O’Connor or its songwriter, Prince—inarguably a bigger diva—or would it be divo?)

For the purposes of organizing this list, I have only included songs Aretha covered that are generally associated with other artists.  Of course, it is fair to say that any song that she did not write is technically a cover songs (i.e., the entire Curtis Mayfield soundtrack to Sparkle, or Narada Michael Walden’s “Freeway of Love,” for example).  But I wanted to focus specifically on the unique ability Aretha has to make other artist’s songs her own.  This is particularly true if (notwithstanding the not-so-bad cover of Adele’s “Rollin’ in the Deep”), you avoid her most recent collection, the aforementioned divas tribute, and her last album, 2003′s So Damn Happy, which made me so damn sad.

If these recordings are new for you, you’re in for a treat. If you’re a bonafide fan of Franklin, it’s always fun to listen again.


Aretha Franklin drawing1. “Moody’s Mood” from Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) (1973)

This song has a fascinating, complex history: written by James Moody in 1949 as an instrumental solo based on Jimmy McHugh’s “I’m in the Mood For Love” (1935).  In 1952, lyricist Eddie Jefferson added lyrics to the Moody instrumental in a style that is known in vocal jazz as “Vocalese”— a style in which new words are laid over existing instrumental improvisations (check out Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, for example).  The 1952 version is most closely associated with King Pleasure, who had a major hit with it in 1954.

Hey Now Hey is one of my favorite Aretha Atlantic albums.  I almost chose her atmospheric, stunning version of “Somewhere,” from West Side Story, but decided to share “Moody’s Mood,” which really shows Franklin’s versatility and playfulness.  From the opening salvo, “Here I go!” to the very last moment, Aretha is in complete control and it is something joyful to behold.


"Aretha" 19802. “What A Fool Believes,” from Aretha (1980)

Written by Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins and popularized by the Doobie Brothers (1979)

This is a great cover song.  The Doobies original version had won the Grammy for both Song and Record of the Year, but in typical Franklin style, Aretha took the song in a completely different direction: to church.  The result stands up well against the Doobies’ original and has stood the test of time.  It’s amazing what a little call and response vocal can do.

Aretha’s “What a Fool Believes” was included on Aretha, her first Clive Davis Arista Records album and her first non-Atlantic Records release.  Though the album did respectably, Davis’ first single off the album was the schmaltzy “United Together.”  “What a Fool Believes” was the second single and failed to make the pop charts, though it did peak at #17 on the R&B chart.  It should have been the first single.


Aretha with microphone3. “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (outtake) from Spirit in the Dark (1970), released on Rare and Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul (2007)

Written by Holland-Dozier-Holland in 1966 and a #1 hit for the Supremes.  

Beyond the original Supremes version, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” has been covered by many artists and actually been a major chart success two additional times: rock group Vanilla Fudge took the song to #6 in 1967 and English singer Kim Wilde (“Kids in America”) took a wonderful Hi-NRG dance version of the song to #2 in the UK and #1 in the states in 1987.

Listening to Aretha’s version of the song, it’s hard to imagine why Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun left the song off 1970′s Spirit in the Dark.  Hearing it now, especially with the studio ad-libs before the take begins, gives the song an immediacy and sense of urgency it has never had before or since.  Truth is, between 1967 and 1974, Aretha didn’t make a false move—there were truly no bad albums, no bad vocals, no filler songs.  It’s just a question of what you personally like best.  With outtakes like this, you realize how high the bar was set during her Atlantic Records period.


[The rest of Stargayzing's choices of Aretha's amazing covers, after the jump.]



Pink with pink background

“I don’t think ‘imitation is the highest form of flattery.’  I think it’s annoying.”

- Pink on Christina Aguilera’s work with Linda Perry


More Pink:

Torch Song Elegy, Vol. 4: Pink is the New Blech, or, Whatever Happened to Phrase. Ing?


More Christina Aguilera:

Torch Song Elegy, Volume 3: Bombshell! An Open Letter to Christina Aguilera Exposing the “Dirrty” Secret She Doesn’t Want You to Know!


More Linda Perry:

Stargayzing Songwriter’s Forum: 20 Questions With…Imani Coppola

"Cash Cab" contestant

The backstory of how my friend of thirty years, Elisa Casas and I became contestants on the Discovery Channel’s Cash Cab, the wildly successful but completely gimmicky game show set in the back of a yellow cab pimped out like a pinball machine on speed is, I think, more interesting that the actual footage. The first thing you need to know is that Elisa and I don’t like gimmicks, especially when they also involve trickery.  The second thing you need to know is that by the time we did the show, it had become so popular that contestants were no longer actual picked-up fares but instead, recruited under false pretenses by the production team.  Here’s the kicker: the show we thought we going to be featured on would have been so much better than Cash Cab—at least for us.

It began one day when Elisa and I were in one of the vintage stores that she owned and I managed. Some guy came in and said he was looking for “real New York types”—whatever that means—to host a segment for a new travel show called When in Rome. He asked us to fill out some stupid questionnaire and we complied; the survey was really just a ruse to observe our personalities, just like how When in Rome was a ruse to get us into that over-caffeinated taxi cab.

"Cash Cab" interior

Said person contacted us a few days later and gave us the good news: the producers of When in Rome wanted Elisa and I to host our very own segment walking through Barneys! This made us very happy, indeed. Barney’s has always been my favorite department store, but even more than that, the chance to host a segment where we just walk through the store and “do us” was a surefire recipe for what is commonly regarded in industry parlance as “good TV.” Elisa and I have great chemistry and are not entirely unfunny when we get in a zone.  Barney’s generally put us squarely in the zone.  Our natural dynamic is what had gotten us on World of Wonder’s Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys and would, I was certain, help us sell Rags to Bitches, the docu-soap which we were in the middle of developing.  It all seemed charmed, except it was a lie.

[The rest of the story and the Cash Cab video, after the jump.]