Aretha’s cover of “What I Did For Love” from ‘A Chorus Line’ is a touch confounding. With music by Marvin Hamlisch, Aretha covered it on an album where Hamlisch co-wrote and produced the lead single, but he had no hand in this cover. Seems strange. Although perhaps his involvement on that song inspired this cover.
Aretha’s penchant for Broadway stretches back to her 1961 debut album. She covered almost a Broadway song an album during her Columbia years, but largely abandoned them once she jumped to Atlantic, save for a stunning gospel-ized “You’ll Never Walk Alone” on 1972’s Amazing Grace and brilliant “Somewhere” on 1973’s Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky).
“What I Did For Love” was HOT in 1977. A Chorus Line debuted in 1975, and the song stood out as a Broadway record with crossover potential, not to mention a striking moment during the acclaimed show. The song is performed near the conclusion of A Chorus Line. One of the dancers suffers a career-ending injury. The company is asked what they would do if they couldn’t dance anymore, and this song is performed.
A host of other performers took their turn with the song before and around the same time as Aretha, including Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, Grace Jones, and Peggy Lee. Aretha focuses on the “love” and turns to romance and relationships for her interpretation, adding a “you” or two throughout implying that she’s transformed this record from a monologue into a piece of. She gives a rousing performance, culminating in a big finish as Aretha does best. She puts her soul into this one, a record that she has decades of experiences that she can pull from to convey the song’s message. It’s clearly one of the stronger tracks on the record.
Sweet Passion is generally regarded as a bad album through and through, but the reviews (which were not all negative, contrary to popular belief) noted “What I Did For Love” as a standout. Stereo Review Magainze’s review notes that, “every tone in the slow ballad ‘What I Did For Love’ is polished with total concern for both the individual phrase and the progress of the lyric.”
Right On said “she couldn’t have performed it any better than she did,” calling Aretha’s take on the song “gentle, sexy and soothing.” People went a step further, implying that the wails in her “bluesy, shivery version” ended any claim Natalie Cole had laid at the time to Aretha’s Queen Of Soul throne.
“What I Did For Love” has never been remastered or reissued. For now all we have are vinyl rips to get us by.