Aretha Franklin was not among the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Ten men — Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, James Brown, and Chuck Berry among them — made it that inaugural year and not a single woman. Franklin got her due only the next year, in 1987, when she became the first female inductee in a batch of 14 more men.
For Franklin, who died at the age of 76 on Thursday, being the only woman in a club of men was not an unfamiliar experience. The music industry has historically been male-dominated, and that was certainly the case when Franklin began making her mark in popular music in the 1960s. She paved her way not as a backup singer, or as part of a group like The Supremes, but with her own name and, distinctively, her own voice. Oftentimes her covers of her male contemporaries' songs would become more successful than the originals.
But Franklin did not merely "cover" songs — she changed them, making them her own. She rewrote lyrics to be true to her own experiences; she gave the female subjects of her friends' songs a woman's voice. Her choices were quietly radical and never at the expense of great songwriting — in fact, the opposite, in service of it.
Here are five of her most subversive covers.
"Try a Little Tenderness"
The Ray Noble orchestra: 1932
Aretha Franklin: The Tender, the Moving, the Swinging Aretha Franklin, 1962
"Try a Little Tenderness" was first recorded by the Ray Noble orchestra in 1932, and the lyrics urge male listeners to be gentle, kind, and understanding with their partners. "Them young girls they do get wearied/Wearing that same old shaggy dress/But when she gets weary/Try a little tenderness," goes the men's version, while Franklin seizes the lyrics to tell the story from the woman's point of view. "I may get weary, women do get weary," she sings knowingly. In her voice, "try a little tenderness" transforms from being a word of advice from one man to another to a sultry plea to an invisible partner. Franklin's cover is a much more stripped down version of the song, with fewer lyrics, but she says far more with just the inflection and intimacy of her voice. Otis Redding covered the song after Franklin, in 1966, and his is likely the more popular version today — although just a year later, she would cover his "Respect," turning it into a powerful women's anthem.
You will be hard pressed to find a more powerful and subversive cover than Franklin's best-known anthem, "Respect." The song was originally conceived by Otis Redding to be about a hardworking man who comes home to a wife that doesn't appreciate him: "All I'm askin' is for a little respect when I come home," he sings, going on to chide: "I'm about to give you all my money/But all I want you to do is just give it, give it respect." What is a sexist song in the male voice becomes one of empowerment and liberation in Franklin's: "All I'm askin' is for a little respect when you get home (just a little bit)" became a rallying cry for the women's and civil rights movements alike. You have to give a little fist-pump when she turns around Redding's complaint at the end to add "...or you might walk in and find out I'm gone/I got to have a little respect."
The Beatles: Revolver, 1966
Aretha Franklin: This Girl's in Love With You, 1970
Everybody knows the story of Eleanor Rigby, the Beatles character who "was buried along with her name." But rather than sing with the same removed pity that Paul McCartney does, Franklin changes the lyrics in her soul cover to be, "I'm Eleanor Rigby." The decision to step into Eleanor Rigby's shoes in the first verse recontextualizes the rest of the song — the chorus, "All the lonely people/Where do they all come from?," is suddenly in Rigby's voice and sung like a question to the audience, giving depth to her character. "That voice, although singing about a presumably white woman, is now strongly coded as black," adds John Sheinbaum in his essay for Rock Over the Edge: Transformations in Popular Music Culture, "and the voice no longer separates itself from the fictional Rigby but instead purposefully embodies the character." In doing so, Franklin takes one of the most famous pathetic women in popular music and gives her a chance to tell her side.
Ben E. King: Spanish Harlem, 1960
Aretha Franklin: 1971
Franklin only makes the subtlest shift in the lyrics of "Spanish Harlem," although her version is night-and-day from Ben E. King's lulling, romantic original 1960 version. While he crooned "there is a rose in Spanish Harlem/A red rose up in Spanish Harlem," she shifts the words to "there's a rose in black in Spanish Harlem," breaking up the alliteration with her clipped, can't-miss-it emphasis on "black." Rolling Stone described the shift as a modernization "for the civil rights era. In her hands ... you can sense the heat pounding on the Harlem sidewalk."
"Love the One You're With"
Stephen Stills: Stephen Stills, 1970
Aretha Franklin: Aretha Live at Fillmore West, 1971
Stephen Still's hippy-dippy free love infidelity song "Love the One You're With" is pretty much an eye-roll when it's sung in a male voice, but Franklin's cover at San Francisco's Fillmore West a year later adds new dimension to the song. Introducing the cover as an "experiment," Franklin's decision to put the song in her voice in the midst of the sexual revolution and the women's movement smartly flips the cliched trope of a man cheating on his partner to put the agency into the woman's hands. The soul touch — "don't be angry, baby, don't be sad" — is exactly the powerful, complicated emotion that Stills' version is lacking.
Aretha Franklin was never afraid to make her politics known, even if much of her career was spent in a world that wasn't always sure it was ready for her. While she also did some fantastic covers of women's songs (go listen to her version of "Rolling in the Deep," I'll wait), it was her brilliant ear for recontextualization that made her music a crossover force in both the civil rights and the women's movements.
In 1967, after it had become clear he'd been one-upped by Franklin's "Respect," a good-natured Otis Redding told the Monterey Pop Festival: "This next song is a song that a girl took away from me. A good friend of mine, this girl, she just took the song." How lucky we all are that she did.