When it came time for Aretha Franklin to put her stamp on "Nothing Compares 2 U," the Queen of Soul reached back – past 1990, when Sinéad O’Connor recorded her landmark cover of the track, and even past 1985, when Prince wrote it for the Family – all the way to the early 1960s.
"I went back to my days in New York, down in the Village where I started," Franklin, 72, tells Rolling Stone backstage at the grand 92Y event hall in Manhattan's Upper East Side. "Back to [jazz clubs] the Village Vanguard and the Village Gate, where my dad brought me. I stayed down there with the jazz greats Horace Silver and Charlie Mingus, Coltrane… It just doesn’t come any better than that."
That swinging era is channeled in Franklin’s emotive cover of "Nothing," in which she scats playfully over the punchy brass bleats and ringing percussion of a bohemian bop troupe. The cut – produced by Andrè 3000 of Outkast – is one of the 10 tracks on Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, the vocal icon’s new album of cover songs. A fitting endeavor for the artist who redefined "Respect" by Otis Redding and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Simon and Garfunkel, the album is set for release on October 21st on RCA Records.
"Andrè called me after [they recorded the track] and said, 'One word: amazing,'" adds Clive Davis, 82, Chief Creative Officer of Sony Music. "I proposed the covers album concept to Aretha. The criteria was: how do you find the song you love, that you want to pay respect to, but do it with creativity, originality, difference?"
The songs that made the grade have Franklin’s distinct gospel-imbued delivery and span generations. Adele's 2010 pop staple "Rolling in the Deep," deftly entwined midway with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough," is the husky first single, and Franklin performed it recently on Letterman (with a backing vocal assist by Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney and Franklin’s longtime collaborator who also appears on the album). Adele, Franklin said, makes the grade as a true diva: "She’s a really good writer with very heavy, deep lyrics," she explains. "She’s got something to say and she says it a little differently than the norm. But Miss Adele is not one to be messed with, listening to those lyrics!"
Diva Classics also includes a languid spin through Alicia Keys' "No One" (paced, at the creator’s suggestion, with reggae-Caribbean inflection) and swinging, piano-heavy versions of "At Last" (made classic by Etta James) and "Midnight Train to Georgia" (first recorded by Cissy Houston, but made famous by Gladys Knight and the Pips).
Franklin said revisiting those songs afforded her a nostalgic look at her youth, where she grew up near Motown Records' studio in Detroit, as well as at her earliest performing days in the South. "I grew up with these songs. I told [Motown Records founder] Berry [Gordy], 'You owe me a lot of money. I bought a lot of those records,'" she recalled, as Davis laughed heartily. "I had a wonderful time singing those songs; I identify with them. Gladys and I worked some of the same clubs coming up, like the Royal Peacock in Atlanta."
Later in the evening, in the 92Y’s main theater, Franklin and Davis sat for a lengthy onstage interview with Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis. Before an elated crowd that clapped more frequently than the average State of the Union address, Franklin and Davis played five previously unheard tracks from the record (along with "Rolling") and divulged secrets of their longtime partnership. ("We’re both Aries – we have a lot of fire," joked Franklin, while Davis called their long lineage together "a thrill, an honor.")
Of the premiered album tracks, "I Will Survive" (originally by Gloria Gaynor) was a runaway crowd favorite – thanks, in part, to Franklin’s savvy mid-song shift into a few bars of "Survivor" by Destiny’s Child – and "I'm Every Woman" (Chaka Khan) drew surprised shrieks for its unannounced mash-up with Franklin’s seminal rendition of "Respect." (This time, the chorus’ sprightly "sock it to me" refrain is elongated into sultry murmurs.) Franklin and Davis danced merrily in their chairs throughout the album interludes, snapping their fingers; Davis repeatedly and gleefully hooted "Turn it up!" to the amenable sound tech.
Franklin, clad in a vibrant yellow pantsuit, cited "savoir faire" as the premier quality of a "real singer," and grinned as she recalled subsidizing her childhood roller-skating and chili dog budget with church singing performances. Davis, who partnered with Franklin after the singer’s late-1960s golden run on Atlantic Records that yielded her hits "Respect" and "Chain of Fools," was a clear and guileless fan throughout; he called her voice "as great as it ever was – still unique and glorious." (He also struck a harmonious sartorial note with Franklin, as his citrus-green tie and pocket square matched Franklin’s attire.)
In one emotionally charged moment, Davis recalled Franklin’s glamorous performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" (from Les Misérables) at the 1993 presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton – a poignant moment in which Franklin spontaneously changed the lead lyric to "I had a dream," in vein of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic speech. "The president and his wife were visibly gasping," Davis recounted mistily.
When discussion turned to Franklin’s legacy, she spoke favorably of singers rising in her stead. "It really is an honor if I can be inspirational to a younger singer or person," she said. "It means I’ve done my job." DeCurtis wound down the exchange by asking Franklin who she’d like to see star in a biopic of her life – Jennifer Hudson and Audra McDonald made the shortlist – and about songs that have brought her to tears. The Queen answered with a regal self-effacement: "I’ve probably cried with a lot of songs – in teenage crushes, adult crushes," she said wryly. A diva’s work is never done.