Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” is something of a ubiquitous song. Most people at least know it by name, and it’s become synonymous with Christmas, with everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Carpenters covering it on holiday albums. Aretha Franklin recorded “Ave Maria” twice.
The first recording took place on a hot July day in 1987 in Detroit at the New Bethel Baptist Church ion Detroit, Aretha’s father’s church. That recording was part of a 3-day event marking Aretha’s return to gospel music, released in 1987 as One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. Her reading is long, drawn out, and stripped back (save for a few moments of reinforcement by the choir). It’s just Aretha and the piano here, for nearly 7 minutes. This is a testimonial. But it’s also a bit strange, with an echo placed on her voice at moments, and overlays evident.
In 2008, Aretha returned to “Ave Maria”, and included a new version on her Christmas LP, This Christmas Aretha. If it’s possible, she’s more vocally powerful than she was in 1987 (like with the two “O Holy Night performances I just covered, the effects of her cigarette smoking on her 1987 voice can be credited with affecting the One Lord performance). And while the patchwork on her vocals also overlaps, there’s something beautiful that the strings add to this, also piano-driven, interpretation. She even includes a key change, which Most notably, she doubles her vocal and essentially duets with herself in a few key spots. One Aretha is one thing, but two? Ma’am. You already knew she was great, now she’s just showing off.