Aretha’s Version Is Always Better

Every single time.

Image: brett jordan

Your average ’60s and ’70s pop artist’s biggest woe wasn’t streaming services or festival lineups or Twitter feuds with Katy Perry. Those are child’s play to the beast musicians of the groovy age faced: Aretha’s Version. With barely a bat of her sultry lashes, Aretha Franklin’s superior covers took down song after original song. It’s an ageless truth: Aretha’s version is better every time.

Respect,” perhaps her best-known song, is, indeed, a cover. None other than blues legend Otis Redding penned the original in 1965. So, let’s get this straight: Aretha hears a song by Otis Redding, thinks “I could do that better,” slaps a “sock-it-to-me” chorus and female empowerment on it, and makes it her claim to fame. Otis gives a wry nod in a later live performance to the girl who stole his song. But like, bro, can you even be mad?

Piano ballad “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” belonged originally to Franklin, and hers was the first iteration I heard. However, I stumbled upon Willie Nelson’s version on a record of his, and while it’s certainly what they call the “ol’ college try” (which, to be fair, is kind of his charming thing), it’s nowhere near the melancholy artfulness of Aretha’s. In typical ho-hum bandana man fashion, Willie leaves the heartfelt charm of the song in Franklin’s court. As it should be, young fella.

Before we continue, I need to disclose something. There’s a single exception to the rule. It’s Aretha’s 1981 cover of Rolling Stones mega-hit “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” I know, I know; sounds like a recipe for success. Well, it’s not. It’s inexplicably terrible.

Anyway, did you know Aretha Franklin covers “Eleanor Rigby”? As in, the best Beatles song (as a lifelong Beatles fan, I will not debate this)? Okay okay okay but she changes the words to make it first person. She takes the most famous band in the world’s best song and makes it about herself. Does it work? Why would you ask that question? It’s like, of course she’s the voice of the everywoman suffering at the hands of institutionalized religion, and why didn’t the fucking Beatles think of that.

Let’s not gloss over her version of Beatles hit “Let It Be,” perhaps the lowest of the covers hoops for our girl Aretha to dunk on. This gospel-influenced piano ballad practically begs for the Queen of Soul’s holy touch. Or maybe it was just looking for a chance to ditch John because he’s the literal worst.

How about she throw some churchy organ riffs on the Simon and Garfunkel classic “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and not kick into the original verses until like, three minutes in? Because apparently that’s all it takes to upstage Paul and Art. (And can we just discuss the way she brazenly flips gender in all her covers — “Sail on, silver boy” — RUIN ME.)

She’s so good that she takes Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell’s hella dreamy duet “You’re All I Need To Get By” and somehow makes it MORE romantic as a duet with…her own harmonies. Franklin’s singing other people’s love songs to herself. I don’t know why anybody else even tried.

When The Band was strumming away on “The Weight,” crooning their meager, earnest petitions to Annie, I wonder if they knew that Aretha was fixing to pull into Nazareth with a vengeance. A year after The Band’s recording, in the Year of our Lord 1969, Franklin commandeered the song and gave it a life it hadn’t known it was missing. Yet another classic claimed by the Queen of Covers a mere year after release, because she’s ruthless.

Finally, last but absolutely not least: “Son of a Preacher Man.” Yes, I love Dusty Springfield. Yes, her vibe on this song is sultry AF. But like. Have you HEARD Aretha’s Version? She pretty much seals the deal from the start, but you know it’s game over when that “hallelujah” hits post-chorus. And how else would we want Billy Ray to make us feel? Being good isn’t always easy. Except when you’re Aretha. Then it’s pretty damn easy.