In September 1978 Aretha Franklin told David Nathan that she’d recently recorded and co-produced a cover of “You Light Up My Life” with her longtime conductor H.B. Barnum in Los Angeles. She had sent it to her label at the time, Atlantic Records, and believed that it would be released as a single. She’d been performing it at live shows in the late 70’s and getting a standing ovation. But it’s taken more than 4 decades for the world to properly hear Aretha Franklin’s recording of “You Light Up My Life.”
Debby Boone’s cover of “You Light Up My Life” stormed the Billboard charts when it was released in 1977. The song was a monster. It set and held the record for most weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for 15 years. It won Best Original Song at the Academy Awards and scored Boone a Grammy Award for Best New Artist as well as Grammy nominations for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. Of course Aretha Franklin decided to put her own unique spin on the ubiquitous record. That’s what Aretha did best: take a song, transform it, and own it.
I first heard Aretha’s 1978 cover of “You Light Up My Life” in 2005, when I was around 15 years old. I was a member of an Aretha Franklin group on MSN’s now-defunct MSN Groups site. Barbara, one of the group’s leading members, shared a batch of rare Aretha audio, as members did from time to time. This batch contained a remix or two, and a rare live cut, and a low quality version of Aretha’s “You Light Up My Life.” It was full of static and sounded like it was ripped from a low-quality cassette, which made it hard to get through more than once, let alone appreciate. I didn’t pay much mind after that, and hoped that one day it might emerge in higher quality.
In 2012, Roger Friedman reported that Aretha had brokered a deal with Universal to release the 5 Atlantic Records LP’s which have never been reissued. “You Light Up My Life” was slated to be a bonus track on one of those releases. I was ecstatic at the prospect of finally hearing this song in high quality, but the reissues never came to fruition.
Finally and unexpectedly in 2018, I found myself in possession of Aretha’s magnanimous version of this massive hit. In the days following Aretha’s passing in August 2018, I was mournfully weaving through the internet and miraculously came upon a CDQ studio version of “You Light Up My Life.” It was buried on an obscure website that allowed users to share audio files. I’m still astonished that I just stumbled on such a high quality version of this unreleased record from 1978. I was flabbergasted by what I was hearing. Vocally, she’s as impassioned as ever. Arrangement-wise, she does only what Aretha can do with a song; turns it inside out and upside down.
Aretha’s version of “You Light Up My Life” opens by transforming the straightforward opening chords into a haunting anticipation. Debby Boone’s version opens with chords played straight-forward. No flourishes, not inversions, just the chords. Aretha breaks then chords up, playing the main chord low, isolating the root note with high octave chords, and adding inverted flourishes in-between the two. Aretha’s voice overflows with emotion, and she hits her stride from the utterance of the song’s first syllable.
Her delivery turns these previously ubiquitous, featherlight words into anvils, proving once again that the singer and the arrangement can make all the difference. Even her subtle changes resonate. The song’s opening line changes from “So many nights” to “So many days.” Though a seemingly minimal change, it expands the time spent longing from exclusively nights, to day and night. It’s deep and profound, this longing. In the second verse when she poses the question “Could it be finally that I’m turning for home?” she exudes such surprise that she stutters. She only manages to get out “could it?” before she goes back to restate the question again. And by the time she’s asked in full she confirms her directional shift with an gospel-charged, affirming “yes I am.”
She delays her delivery of many of the lines, creating a completely unique landscape on which to lay the universally known melody of “You Light Up My Life”. The strings and band take the lead during the chorus, and Aretha follows them. Only an ear like Aretha’s could find the space to turn such a universally known melody into something that sounds completely fresh and new. And only a voice like Aretha’s could add so much intensity to something people had come to despise.
The ferocious intensity Aretha brings to this mundane pop ballad is truly overwhelming. It’s easily one of her strongest recordings of the late 70’s, in a period where her hits and impactful material were few and far between. At the end of the song she simmers on a little “la-da-da-da-da-da-da-aa-ha” run that is as beautiful and light as it is goosebump-inducing. Simply, magnificent. Simply, Aretha.
The song’s 2021 release, included on Rhino’s ARETHA compilation, is slightly longer than the version I’ve been carrying around. There’s an added repeat of the chorus included after the second verse, adding about 41 seconds to the song. It’s a welcomed addition to spend a little more time hearing Aretha invert this monotonous pop song into a soulful declaration.
Listen to Aretha Franklin’s “You Light Up My Life”