It should come as no surprise that Aretha Franklin made the cut of “Artist Alerts” programmed into my Sirius radio. What is surprising, however, is just how much her cover of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” comes up when I’m listening. Someone at the satellite radio service really seems to love her take on the tune, though I’m not a fan. The increased tempo is at odds with the song’s theme of loneliness, and with Aretha casting herself in the title role (“I’m Eleanor Rigby…”), she can’t help but infuse the character with soul (and thus, a sense of purpose).
But there’s a second Beatles cover that, like “Eleanor Rigby,” also appears on Aretha’s 1970 LP This Girl’s In Love With You, one that I do find praise-worthy. While The Beatles’ original recording of “Let It Be” already had gospel underpinnings, only the Queen of Soul, she of the incomparable pipes and amazing interpretive skills born of the altar, could take the song straight to church.
In the liner notes to Aretha Franklin’s 2007 boxset, Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of The Queen of Soul, producer Jerry Wexler recalled how Aretha’s “Let It Be” came to be:
“Paul McCartney had sent me an acetate of ‘Let It Be’ with a note that it was written for Aretha. We recorded it. Afterwards, though, Aretha told us to hold up the release. She liked the melody but wasn’t sure what the lyrics meant. Time passed and the boys from Liverpool were tired of waiting. They put me on legal notice that we no longer had right of first release. They cut it themselves and, of course, enjoyed a huge hit. By 1970 Aretha saw the light and allowed us to include it, along with ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ on This Girl’s In Love With You.
Even with her hesitation, Aretha still beat the Fab Four by a couple of months. Her album came out in January 1970, while The Beatles issued “Let It Be” as a single in March. The aforementioned Aretha rarities collection unearthed a third Lennon/McCartney composition recorded during the same sessions for This Girl’s In Love With You, “The Fool On The Hill.” Even casual students of The Beatles are sure to note that all three tunes Aretha covered were principally the work of Sir Paul.