There isn’t known to be a studio recording of Aretha Franklin singing “O Holy Night”. There are, however, two live performances which took place 22 years apart.
The first performance reaches back to 1986 and took place on a short-lived late-night talk show called Night Life. Aretha’s connection to Night Life was the show’s music director, Billy Preston. The history between Aretha Franklin and Billy Preston dates back to the 60’s, and their work together, especially in the early 70’s, was monumental. Though Billy was part of Aretha’s band at times, the two never sat together at a piano in front of a camera like this. But for one special moment in 1986, the two did just that, hammering out two holiday classics.
Aretha gets to work while Billy plays out the chords of “O Holy Night”. She stays mainly in her throat voice, dipping into the outrageous depths of her chest voice at times. Combined with Billy’s occasional incorporation of staccato chords, it creates a driving intensity that gives the song more feeling. “Sang Ree” Billy implores as Aretha lets loose. By this point though, Aretha’s voice had begun to change, partially as a result of nearly 30 years of singing, and also because of the Kool cigarettes she loved so much. Her highs don’t quite hit as high or clearly as they had a decade earlier. But for all of her upper range’s temporary deterioration, the intensity of her voice, the indescribable “it” factor that made her the Queen of Soul, still pushes through every time she wants it to.
There is one other recorded performance of Aretha performing “O Holy Night”, and it’s a strange occurrence. That performance occurred in 2008 on The View. It’s not strange that Aretha performed it. What’s strange is that she did so while promoting her first Christmas album This Christmas Aretha, which does not feature a recording of “O Holy Night”. Aretha always did what Aretha wanted, and this is evidence of that. Strangeness aside, there’s a beauty in about this performance in Aretha’s accompaniment and voice. Once again she’s at the piano, but this time she’s accompanying herself. It’s that special sauce that elevates Aretha’s voice to an even more soulful place.
Then there’s her voice. Unlike the 1986 performance where her upper register was worn and limited, here Aretha reaches for those higher notes and lands them, with seemingly little effort. Quitting smoking had a significant impact on her vocal range. And on top of that, she still dives down into those low notes, possibly even better than in 1986.