Aretha Takes On ‘Let It Be’

Originally posted June 17, 2008

One of the joys of my junior year in high school – 1969-70 – was my first radio. An RCA model, it was boxy and clunky, and it came to me via my grandparents’ kitchen, where a newer, sleeker model had supplanted it. I’d guess the radio was maybe ten years old when I got it, and its only drawback was a slight balky response to the tuning knob. I was patient enough to deal with that, carefully tuning into WJON down the street in the early evening and then, after nine o’clock, finding the distant signal of WLS in Chicago.

From the first time I turned it on, sometime during the autumn of 1969, that radio became my guide to the world of Top 40, a world I’d just begun to explore. That exploration was spurred, as I’ve noted here earlier, by my new position as a manager for the St. Cloud Tech High football team; I had no wish to appear clueless when the talk turned to music, one of the two major topics of locker room conversation. (The other major topic, of course, was girls, a topic about which we were all equally clueless.)

As the months went on, I became pretty conversant with current music, and I found myself liking a great deal of what I heard. What started as a defensive measure had turned into one of life’s pleasures. Looking at the Billboard Top Fifteen from the first day of spring in 1970 is – to use a simile that I’ve employed before – like greeting a gathering of old friends:

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon & Garfunkel

“The Rapper” by the Jaggerz

“Give Me Just A Little More Time” by the Chairmen of the Board

“Instant Karma” by John Ono Lennon

“Rainy Night In Georgia” by Brook Benton

“Let It Be” by the Beatles

“He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” by the Hollies

“Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” by Edison Lighthouse

“Evil Ways” by Santana

“Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” by the Delfonics

“Travelin’ Band/Who’ll Stop The Rain” by Creedence Clearwater Revival

“Ma Belle Amie” by the Tee Set

“Spirit In The Sky” by Norman Greenbaum

“ABC” by the Jackson 5

“House of the Rising Sun” by Frijid Pink

That week marked the first appearance of “Let It Be” on the chart, as it entered the Top 40 at No. 6. Blocked for the next couple of weeks by the Simon & Garfunkel powerhouse, “Let It Be” eventually was No. 1 for two weeks and in the Top 40 for thirteen weeks. A beautiful piece of gospel-tinged rock, the song was a sad signpost, coming out amid rumors that the Beatles were breaking up. The fact was, of course, that by the time the single was released, the group had long since fractured, as many books and articles have since chronicled. And while “Let It Be” was not the Beatles’ last single – or even their last No. 1 hit – it is to me the group’s last great record.

(A couple of notes: I much prefer the single release of “Let It Be,” produced by George Martin, to the album version produced by Phil Spector [an oddity for me, as I generally love Spector’s work]. As to “Let It Be” being the Beatles’ last great record, I’ve never had much regard for “The Long And Winding Road.” My first comment on “Road” back in 1970 – while it was on its way to No. 1 – was: “From anyone else, it would be a great song and a great record, but compared to everything else the Beatles have done, it’s almost mediocre.”

(As to how I could comment on the Beatles and their entire oeuvre when I’d only been listening attentively to pop and rock for a few months, well, the Beatles during the Sixties were one of a few groups and artists who were part of the environment and thus utterly inescapable; even those who spurned rock and pop – as I had – knew their hit songs.)

“Let It Be” has turned out to be one of the sturdier bits of the Beatles’ work, still sounding fresh when it pops up on the oldies station. And many musicians have covered the song: All-Music Guide lists 365 CDs on which the song appears. About forty of those listings are credited to the Beatles or Paul McCartney, leaving 325 listings of covers. Just a few names from that list: Billy Preston, the Mike Curb Congregation, the Nylons, Clarence Carter, and the Bwia Sunjet Steel Orchestra, which included the song on its album, Steel Band Music of the Caribbean. My own collection has covers of “Let It Be” from Bill Withers, Claudia Lennear, the Cate Brothers, Joe Cocker, Ike & Tina Turner, Richie Havens, Ray Charles and a Japanese group called Shang Shang Typhoon.

The cover version I like best, however, was recorded before the Beatles’ single was released. In the notes to the CD release of Aretha Franklin’s 1970 album, This Girl’s In Love With You, David Nathan writes, “A spring ’69 rumor floating around Atlantic’s London office had it that John Lennon and Paul McCartney had written a song specifically for Aretha but that, on first hearing, she didn’t take to it.” The song, of course, was “Let It Be,” and Aretha got around to recording it in October 1969, putting it on the B side of “Don’t Play That Song,” which came out during the summer of 1970.

It could easily have been the A side, as it’s a very good version. Recorded in New York, “Let It Be” has Aretha on piano, being backed by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section: Roger Hawkins on drums, David Hood on bass, Barry Beckett on organ and Jimmy Johnson, Eddie Hinton and Jerry Weaver on guitar. The CD notes don’t list anyone else for that session – the last session for the album – so I don’t know who the backup singers were, but I’d guess that the saxophone solo came from King Curtis.

Aretha Franklin – “Let It Be” [1969]

From This Girl’s In Love With You [1970]

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