Aretha Franklin and Clive Davis’ relationship began in 1980, when the Queen of Soul signed with the mogul’s Arista Records. “And 20 years later, I made the right decision,” Franklin tells Billboard of agreeing to that union. She had plenty of hits during that era, most notably her 1987 no. 1 with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” though both eventually left that label for other projects.
This year, though, they’re back with her new RCA album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, which finds her covering some of the greatest female vocalists in history, including Etta James, Adele, Gladys Knight, Sinead O’Connor, Barbra Streisand, Gloria Gaynor, and Destiny’s Child, with production help from Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Outkast‘s Andre 3000. A week ago, her version of “Rolling in the Deep” entered the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart at 47, making her the first woman and only fourth artist ever to place 100 titles on that list.
“We knew from the very beginning that there will be certain cuts that will be left of center, certain cuts that will be entirely different from the original,” Davis says about the project’s genesis. Franklin knew she wanted to cover some songs she bought as a young woman, such as the Supremes‘ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” “I absolutely loved doing it. I had a real ball. I had a good time,” the 72-year-old says with emphasis.
Check out our video interview with Franklin and Davis about Diva Classics, and check out our track-by-track review of the album below.
“At Last”: At first, this Babyface-produced version doesn’t stray much from Etta James’ 1961 classic, beginning with the hit’s signature string intro and featuring some added vocal flourishes from Aretha. Then it gets a more contemporary jazz feel, with modern-sounding percussion and the addition of a saxophone that wails away through the end of the song. It’s the perfect way to ease into a covers album – familiar and exciting at the same time.
“Rolling in the Deep (The Aretha Version)”: This Adele cover hit over 2 million YouTube views within two days of Aretha performing it on Letterman, to the shock of pretty much nobody. The greatest diva of all time taking on the biggest soul single in decades is a no-brainer, and Aretha takes it back to the ’60s by mashing it up with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell‘s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” showing she still has the pipes to belt out the best tracks of any decade.
“Midnight Train to Georgia”: For this Gladys Knight and the Pips single, Franklin starts off singing with a little more reserve, holding back on the vibrato-heavy high notes in favor of some softer crooning. The highlight here comes from her veteran team of backing vocalists: Fonzi Thornton, Tawatha Agee, Brenda White-King, Latrelle Simmons, and Cissy Houston, Whitney‘s mother. They add a gospel feel that, with Babyface’s production, wouldn’t sound out of place on late ’90s TLC or Whitney mid-tempo ballad. There’s not much to be gained by trying to outdo Gladys, but this version gives a little too much spotlight to Franklin’s back-ups.
“I Will Survive (The Aretha Version)”: Chicago house DJ Terry Hunter adds an updated beat to the Gloria Gaynor disco smash, but a big surprise comes up around two-and-a-half minutes – the tempo drops, the bass booms, and Franklin veers into “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child. After the interlude, the 72-year-old kicks back into the dance track with some scatting and spoken-word sass, the diva attitude in full force. It makes even more of an “I’m still here and you better recognize” statement than “Rolling in the Deep.”
“People”: Tackling Barbra Streisand’s signature song is the first real derivation away from soul and R&B on the album but really, how could you leave Babs out of an album called Diva Classics? It’s a refreshing, slightly bluesier version, and a great homage to Streisand that fans of the original will definitely appreciate it.
“No One”: During a lunch meeting, Davis brought up this album to Alicia Keys, who quickly had the idea to have Franklin redo the 2007 chart-topper with Caribbean vibes. It’ll definitely appeal to fans of both singers, though anyone who’s a bit more of a reggae purist will yearn for more traditional instrumentation and sounds instead of the digital production.
“I’m Every Woman/Respect”: Another no-brainer, blending Chaka Khan and Franklin’s career-making singles about female empowerment. At five minutes long, it’s guaranteed to be a hit at weddings or any other party where people who like the classics are on the dance floor.
“Teach Me Tonight”: The traditional pop standard, done by dozens of big-name artists but forever owned by Dinah Washington in 1954, has long been a favorite of Franklin’s, leading her to seemingly treat it with more reverence than the rest of the Diva tracks, maybe because it’s the oldest of them all. Unlike most of the LP, the production is restrained and given a classic feel even with all the modern technological advances it employs. Franklin has way more rasp and vocal strength than Washington, but she doesn’t let it overpower the beauty of the words and arrangement. In that regard, it’s probably the finest balanced song on all of Diva Classics.
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On”: This project wouldn’t be complete if Aretha didn’t take on Diana Ross. Once again, producer Hunter adds a heavy four-on-the-floor beat, but it feels more like a remix of the Supremes’ ’66 single that steals the vibe of Sister Sledge‘s “We Are Family.” Unfortunately, more expansive vocals from the Queen don’t quite compare to Ross and co.’s streamlined, even-keeled harmonies.
“Nothing Compares 2 U”: It shouldn’t be a surprise that Andre 3000 producing a cover of this Prince-written Sinead O’Connor ballad would produce by far the most original sounds of the album, but it’s hard to prepare for what he did here. From the opening drum fill, the up-tempo swinging version erases all visions of O’Conor shedding tears as Franklin sings this heartbreaker. If anything, the big-band arrangement and Franklin scatting like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn flips the sad sentiments into almost a tribute of a love who’s only away on vacation or an extended business trip, not gone forever. It’s so unrecognizable that, if you’re not prepared for it, you’ll find yourself saying, “Wait, is that…? No, it can’t be… Wow, it really is!” It’s a terrific way to close out Diva Classics, and one that makes us hope the Queen takes a stab at even bolder covers in the future.