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No One Covered the Beatles Like Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin and the Beatles.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images and Fred A. Sabine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images.

There are a lot of ways to pay tribute to Aretha Franklin, who died Thursday. You can talk about her majestic voice and her influence on American pop culture. You can talk about her signature song, “Respect,” the one that for many listeners of my generation dulled with overplaying but which, listened to again with fresh ears, is thrilling. You can talk about her political boldness, her masterpiece Young, Gifted, and Black, her late-life divahood, the time she blew everyone away at the Kennedy Center honors.

But as you’re listening to Aretha today, take a some extra time—just a little bit—to play her Beatles covers. They’re remarkable testaments to music’s cultural power in that era—the biggest solo artist of the late 1960s completely reinventing the songs of the biggest group of the late 1960s. It was common in that era for R&B artists to cover Beatles songs, and when they became smashes it was only fair, given how the Beatles made their name in their early years making certain kinds of black music palatable to white teenagers. It was a time of interesting and fertile cross-pollination, in part due to the historical gulf between the pop and R&B markets and charts. Aretha’s Beatles covers reveal surprising facets of familiar songs while also highlighting the way she made every song she sang her own.

Take this demo-like version of “The Fool on the Hill,” released on a 2007 rarities compilation but recorded in 1969 as part of the sessions for her album This Girl’s In Love With You. It’s just Aretha on piano, with added tambourine and a touch of acoustic guitar. But the way she ascends the chorus transforms the song for me from lovely whimsy to earthy comedy.

Her “Eleanor Rigby,” released as a single in 1969, is muscular and searching, and Aretha’s claiming of the first person—“I’m Eleanor RIgby,” she sings; “I pick up the rice in the church where the weddings have been”—gives the song a haunting aspect entirely different from the Beatles’ original.

I love her version of “The Long and Winding Road,” from Young, Gifted, and Black. It’s just as romantic as the Beatles’ version, but its gospel inflections and Aretha’s soaring voice suggest just whose door it is the road leads to.

And then of course there’s one of Aretha’s most famous covers: “Let It Be.” Paul McCartney sent a demo of the song to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records in hopes that Franklin would sing it; her version was released in January 1970, two months before the Beatles would release theirs as a single. It doesn’t soar quite like the Beatles’ version does, but it is filled with tenderness, and its sax solo is a stunner. Shorter than the Beatles’ version, it packs a lot into its three-plus minutes. I could listen to it forever.

Read more in Slate about Aretha Franklin:
• “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin Dies at 76
• How Aretha Franklin Created the Greatest Cover of All Time
• “Rest in Peace, Soul Sister”: Musicians and Admirers Pay Tribute to Aretha Franklin