“Here’s how it worked,” Aretha Franklin’s brother Cecil once explained: “Aretha heard a song once and played it back immediately, note for note. If it was an instrumental, she duplicated it perfectly. If it was a vocal, she duplicated it just as perfectly … Her ear was infallible.”
Franklin was a master not merely at re-creating others’ work, but reinventing it. Many of her cover songs — from her stunning version of the jazz standard “Skylark” to the great awakening that was her version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” — revealed her competitive edge. “When Aretha records a tune, she kills copyright,” saxophonist King Curtis once said, because no one else would come up with a better approach. “That girl pissed all over that song,” Etta James pungently observed, referring to Franklin’s “Skylark.” In 1970, Franklin performed a bombastic version of “Son of a Preacher Man,” a song she had initially passed on recording, as if to trample Dusty Springfield’s effort. Much later, she reminded America of the meaning of “diva” by recording Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” in 2014 — as, of course, she had done at the 1998 Grammys, when performing “Nessun Dorma” in Luciano Pavarotti’s stead.
Perhaps her most marvelous cover, in the diva vein, is her version of “Eleanor Rigby,” in which she remakes The Beatles’ chamber song into a hard-driving, first-person testimony. “I’m Eleanor Rigby!” she sings — a figure emerged to tell her own tale, not just from the margins but also (given that she dies in The Beatles’ version) from the grave. The ghost story works on two levels: It’s about the haunting title character, and the haunting of white musical innovation by black overachievement. If Franklin covered your song, it was often because she was coming for you.
But not always. She also was a gracious keeper of black musical history, as her version of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” attests. Recorded for Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic Malcolm X (the track plays over the film’s closing credits), it is a cover in the protective sense — a fortification. Franklin felt a deep kinship with Hathaway, the eclectic genius who played organ on her recordings of “Rock Steady” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and died from an apparent suicide in 1979, at age 33. (The photo of them together, above, was taken in 1973.) In her memoir, she states, “Historians should not forget him. And scholars should get it right: Donny Hathaway was one of the great communicators and masters of soul.” Her cover of “Someday” helped to preserve his legacy. But the recording also revived a radical history of black-freedom dreams, in which Franklin played a key role. “She is ready whenever [black people] are to do something of benefit for black people,” Jet magazine announced in 1972 — whether in support of Angela Davis (for whom she offered to post $250,000 in bail), the victims of the Attica prison uprising, Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH or black students at Kent State.
Her “Someday” features Franklin herself on piano and includes a robust gospel choir. If that choir signals a vibrant community, the strain in Franklin’s voice testifies to the losses she had sustained since the 1960s: political leaders like Malcolm X (1965) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1968); musical idols and peers like Dinah Washington (1963), Redding (1967), Sam Cooke (1964), Hathaway and Marvin Gaye (1984); her father, C.L. Franklin (1984); her sister Carolyn (1988); her brother Cecil (1989). By the time she recorded “Someday,” Franklin had few people left to compete with and very little to prove. So she revised her own habit of obliterating other cover versions by literally reviving Hathaway’s work — re-creating his song as a gospel revival meant to inspire the radical work that Lee’s film elevates.
That movie, released in the wake of the Rodney King beating and amid growing fantasies of post-racial multiculturalism, was bound to upset the American mainstream — one audience that Franklin refused to pander to despite her desire for industry domination. How she maintained both her political integrity and commercial appeal for seven decades is a miracle and mystery. But the choir she brings into “Someday” hints that she did it by sustaining, and leaning on, others. The choir gives new meaning to Hathaway’s closing ad-lib, “Take it from me, take it from me…” In Hathaway’s recording, the repeated line is both reassurance and plea: On its surface, it guarantees listeners that freedom is imminent; but it can also sound, after a while, like a request that they “take from him” the burden of working and waiting for it. Franklin takes the weight off of him and distributes the lyric among a chorus of voices. In that way, she crafts a performance that no longer demands respect but offers it up to others in abundance. What a model and a gift.