Aretha Franklin: Remembering the Gospel, Soul and Pop music Virtuosa

Remembering Aretha Franklin, a story… through cover songs

On the first anniversary of her passing, another homage to one of the greatest voices of all time. I paid tribute to her and some of her most memorable cover songs on August 16 of last year, but there are many more to talk about.

If you know anything about Aretha Franklin then you will know that the Church and Gospel Music was a big part of her life. I myself do enjoy the odd Gospel song, particularly ones I’ve discovered from the likes of the unbelievably talented  Sister Rosetta Tharpe . Also some of the other singers I regularly enjoy such as Elvis or Johnny Cash, mostly because of the vocal intensity and the connections I can draw to popular music. But this particular song from Aretha just blew me away.  Considering this was a live recording of not the greatest technical quality with lots of background distraction, ‘believer’ or not you won’t be able to not feelsomething when you listen.
Precious Lord”, Aretha Franklin was recorded singing this in 1956. The melody is adapted from the 1844 hymn “Maitland, Maitland”, Lyrics written by Rev. Thomas Dorsey. Aretha was just 14 years old when a series of Gospel songs were recorded in the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan. This was not released until the album “Songs of Faith” by Checker Records in 1965, nine years later. A voice like this had to be shared with the world and I find it’s so strange it was not released earlier. 
The first recording of this song known as “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” is from 1937, by the Heavenly Gospel Singers .  And as in the Aretha version just as “Precious Lord” by Mahalia Jackson the “Queen of Gospel” also coincidentally recorded in 1956. Elvis in 1957.
Another meaningful song, this time about the civil rights movement in 1960’s U.S.A. is “People Get Ready” originally by The Impressions (1965),  Written by the amazing Curtis Mayfield .
Aretha recorded this in 1968, adding that stronger touch of gospel once again and contributing her uniqueness to enhance the original.
A lesser know song is “Lean on Me” originally by Vivian Reed (1970) written by Joe Cobb and Van McCoy. Not to be confused with the Bill Withers song of the same name. A very moving song by Vivian Reed, herself a child prodigy who has made a very successful career on Broadway, Television and Movies.
Not to make light of the original version but you can hear the difference for yourself in Aretha’s cover from 1971. You can fairly say that Vivian’s original is soulful, but again in my opinion Aretha creates a fusion of soul and gospel that changes the song. She really did give a lot of thought to the way she sang a song, they don’t turn out like this by chance.
Bridge over Troubled Water” written by Paul Simon, released in 1970 by Simon and Garfunkel.
The cover of this was recorded by Aretha Franklin in 1971 and is nearly unrecognizable from the original song. Aretha, as she did with “Respect” adds her own lyrical and musical touch to an already hugely popular song which won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year and Song of the Year in 1971.  Aretha would go on to sell two million copies of her version and what to me is seemingly impossible – her song would win the Grammy Award the following year for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 1972. Pop and Gospel together in a way only Aretha could deliver.

“Oh Happy Day” was originally released in 1914 by the Trinity Choir and was collectively written and changed over time by Philip Doddridge, Johann Freylinghausen and Edward F. Rimbault. The first recorded ‘cover version’ was from the The Edwin Hawkins Singers which won a Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance in 1970. Edwin Hawkins was a pianist at Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Berkeley, California and he came up with this new arrangement of a commonly sang gospel song in churches across the U.S. This adaptation has been recorded over 75 times since and I ran across this true gem from Aretha Franklin and the amazing Mavis Staples (1987) with a somewhat different arrangement.

There are so many more amazing songs that I have not touched on but for now just a remembrance of the late and great Aretha Franklin. May she rest in peace.

Virtuosa; the female equivalent of the male Virtuoso; meaning with exceptional talent.

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