Single Stories: Aretha Franklin, “Spanish Harlem”
48 years ago today, Aretha Franklin peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 with her version of a song originally made famous by Ben E. King.
Written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector with a little help from Mike Stoller (Leiber has gone on record as saying that Stoller wrote the song’s instrumental intro), “Spanish Harlem” was Ben E. King’s first hit after departing the ranks of The Drifters, climbing to #15 on the R&B Singles chat and #10 on the Hot 100. Yes, that means that Franklin actually ended up finding more success with her version than King did, but, hey, these things happen.
Franklin’s take on “Spanish Harlem” was one of the three new recordings included on her 1971 greatest-hits album, along with “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Bridge over Troubled Water,” and it was actually the second single to be released from the album, following “Bridge over Trouble Water.” Aretha changed up the lyrics slightly, shifting the lyric “a red rose up in Spanish Harlem” to “there’s a rose in Black and Spanish Harlem,” thereby giving it an element of social consciousness.
In the wake of her death, Rolling Stone put together a piece about the 50 greatest Aretha Franklin songs, and her version of “Spanish Harlem” made the cut:
“A transfixing example of the way Aretha could refurbish a familiar song, ‘Spanish Harlem’ was a romantic rumba in the hands of Ben E. King, who made it a huge hit in 1961. Opening with a blaxploitation-flick-style riff and a subtle lyrical rewrite, Aretha modernizes it for the civil rights era. In her hands (and those of Dr. John, who played piano on the session), you can sense the heat pounding on the Harlem sidewalk in ways the song’s writers – the unusual combo of Phil Spector and Jerry Leiber – may have intended.”
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