I woke up to the sound of a neighbor blasting "Say a Little Prayer for You" and figured Aretha had died. A lot of neighbors are going to blast their favorite Aretha songs today, and many of those songs will be covers, like that one. “Say a Little Prayer,” one of Aretha's most recognizable songs, was written by Burt Bacharach and originally recorded by Dionne Warwick. But most of the talk today will be about her most famous cover. You know the one.
Otis Redding wrote and originally recorded “Respect.” His version is a good song, but even he knew it wasn’t his anymore once Aretha unleashed (note: I meant to say released, but the typo is not incorrect) her version in 1967. No disrespect to Redding—his career speaks for itself, and if you’ve never listened to the legendary Monterey Pop Festival set that last clip is from, you should do yourself a favor and fix that. But nobody could sing the hell out of someone else’s song like Aretha and her sisters. And the Franklin sisters (Aretha, Carolyn, and Erma), along with producer Jerry Wexler, remade “Respect” in the truest sense. Aretha’s version had new lyrics, a new arrangement, new focus, and new power. It didn’t launch her career, but it propelled it to new heights. And it gave voice to two of the major cultural movements of the time as Black Americans and American women fought for a greater measure of justice, autonomy, and yes, respect.
I don’t think I have a favorite Aretha song. There are too many great ones, and which one speaks to me the most changes with my mood. But the song on my heart this morning—after “Say a Little Prayer” faded out—was another of her covers. This one was written by Paul Simon and recorded by Simon and Garfunkel (with Art Garfunkel singing) on what would be their last album together. Simon told Dick Cavett in 1970 that he’d been inspired to write “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by The Swan Silvertones version of “Mary Don’t You Weep,” and the song’s title actually takes its name from a line near the end of its inspiration: “I'll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in me.”
Given its origins, it’s not surprising that Aretha’s version, which leans much more heavily into the gospel sound, is so powerful. There’s a short list of songs that moved me to tears the first time I heard them, and this was one of them. I needed it that day, though I can’t, for the life of me, remember why. Today, it’s a reminder that for those of us who knew Aretha through her music and the effect it had on us, she lives on.