For Love Of Covers and Ben E. King
I have always loved covers, both as an excuse to hear a favorite song again and to hear what other artists bring to something I know. A cover can allow us to fall in love with parts of a song that were not as present in the original artists arrangement, while showcasing what makes the person performing it unique. Whether reviving standards or putting a new spin on a typically out-of-genre gem, some artists have a unique ability to breathe life into a song that did not need more life in the first place.
No one has ever been better at this than Aretha Franklin.
If you want to see the ultimate performance, skip to the end. Otherwise follow the evolution of one of my favorite songs, "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)", originally recorded by Ben E. King. Interestingly, or at least of interest to me when I learned this during writing, the song was co-written by Ben E. King's wife and the co-founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegün.
An all-time Favorite - Ruby Johnson
I found Ruby Johnson when I was digging into Stax, one of my all-time favorite records labels. I came for Otis Redding and stayed for the MGs, plus a long line of musicians they backed. Ruby Johnson never had commercial success and stopped singing professionally in 1974, but her sole soul album is one of the best I have ever heard. Written and produced by Isaac Hayes, and backed by Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn, she still steals the show.
Kelly Clarkson and The John Mayer Conundrum
I am including this as an example of how hard it is to do something compelling with a cover, even if you have the talent. Kelly Clarkson sounds great, and the band is as professional as it gets, but somehow the soul is stripped out of the song when compared to other versions. You can't do much when you cut a song short and need to reach a mass-audience, so we can put the blame on Fox (which is always fun anyway).
The Master Of Masters, Aretha Franklin
No-one is better at a cover than Aretha, and like a lot of singers her greatest hits were written by other people. Unlike other artists, she was often not the first person to record them or make them famous. The songs may have been classics if she did do them first, but familiarity with them does not take away from what she brings to the table. If anything it gives her a well-tread canvas to make her masterpiece.
The list of songwriters on Aretha Franklin's greatest hits is impressive, and it is amazing her versions stand out next to their's. Included: Paul Simon, Otis Redding, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, John Lennon, Ahmet Ertegün, Phil Spector, Jerry Wexler, Carole King. She always sounds like herself, but takes a cue from earlier versions.
As my brother once said, "Covering the Beatles is tough. You either need to play it spot on or bring something they didn't".
She always did.