Aretha Franklin was once named the greatest singer ever by Rolling Stone magazine. Why then, at her funeral on Friday and the tribute concert in Detroit the night before, were other people singing songs she made famous?
With the exception of “Think” (which she co-wrote with then-husband Ted White), almost all of her hits were penned by other people. So, in performing them, those other singers were merely covering a song that Aretha had performed — and in some cases, her version wasn’t the original either. She wasn’t the first to do “Bridge Over Troubled Water” — Paul Simon wrote and recorded it with Art Garfunkel. Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote “Say A Little Prayer” specifically for Dionne Warwick, who made it a big hit in 1966, two years before Aretha released her version. Otis Redding wrote Aretha’s biggest hit, “Respect.” And even though Aretha recorded the definitive version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” the songwriting credit belongs to Carole King.
None of this is to diminish Aretha’s greatness as a singer, or to diss Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle, Ariana Grande and the others who performed those tunes over the last few days, but if you want to honor Aretha you should just roll a bunch of clips of her performing those classics. How better to showcase how she earned the title The Queen Of Soul?
I felt the same way when there were televised tributes to Tony Bennett for his 90th birthday and the then-dead Frank Sinatra on his 100th. In both cases some very good singers did songs those crooners made famous, but it have been more impactful to see, for example, footage of Sinatra doing “One For My Baby” in his heyday rather than a lame copy by Seth MacFarlane.
When Robin Williams died, no one did a tribute show with other comedians doing his bits. When Harry Anderson died, no one organized an event in which other magicians did his tricks and patter. When Keith Jackson died, no sportscasters imitated his famous calls. In each case, we were happy to watch video clips of all of them at the height of their careers, thus reminding us of their greatness.
That’s the kind of honor Aretha Franklin deserves. After all, if she’s the greatest singer of all time, what more do you need than one of her own performances, like this one from “The Blues Brothers” movie in 1980?
Updated 9/1/18 at 11:07pm…Great minds think alike: my friend Mark Evanier has some thoughts on this subject, too.