Aretha Franklin’s “You Are My Sunshine” isn’t your run of the mill cover. Nor is it a run of the mill Aretha cover. Though Aretha strips away every recognizable element of the melody, rhythm, and takes multiple liberties with the lyrics, she draws on another version to make hers flourish. Hers is a descendant of Ray Charles’ hit arrangement from 5 years earlier.
“You Are My Sunshine” is one of those songs that everyone knows, but many probably don’t know exactly where they first heard it or who they first heard singing it because of its ubiquity. Among the many acts that gave the song their own spin before Aretha got her hands on it included Doris Day, Nat “King” Cole, Ray Charles, and Andy Williams.
Country singer and Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis is best-associated with “You Are My Sunshine.” His version is so significant that it is one of 600 recordings residing in the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress. Ray Charles’ 1962 rendition on Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music II was also significant. Though the album is not as successful or well-known as its predecessor, Ray’s version of “You Are My Sunshine” was a number one R&B hit. Marvin Gaye’s live version in 1963 was also influenced by Ray’s, which is more akin to Aretha’s thanks to the makeup of his band.
Aretha’s version is in the vein of| Ray’s arrangement of the song. On his two Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music albums, Ray blended together the sounds of big band and R&B to give country staples a “modern” twist, hence the album titles. These transformations of country songs proved to be a success for Ray and became an indelible part of his legacy. But before he was fusing country into the mix, he was forging the sounds of R&B and soul and excelling at jazz with Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records. Jerry was the producer who signed Aretha to Atlantic and produced her most enduring records, including “You Are My Sunshine” and the rest of Aretha Arrives.
With a backbone that sounds akin to something Ray might have done while he was working with Jerry, Aretha sidesteps the mid-tempo and starts the song slow and earthy. The bluesy, gospel-styled intro is all her. She simmers as she expands on the “skies are grey” line from the chorus, testifying that in each life “some rain has sure got to fall,” and “everybody has sure got to cry sometime,” before declaring that “I’ve had enough rain in my life.”
Aretha and her sisters Erma and Carolyn can be heard prominently reinforcing Aretha during her 2-minute introduction and throughout the rest of the song. Erma in particular unleashes a “tell me what do you believe” right before the introduction ends and “You Are My Sunshine” blooms into high gear. It applies a groove similar to the one she’d use the following year on her Ray Charles cover of “Come Back Baby” on Lady Soul. The backgrounds bear a similarity to Ray’s, but they’re unique enough that it’s apparent that Aretha and her sisters crafted this specific pattern themselves.
The most incredible element of this cover is Aretha’s genius on piano. While it may not be apparent, she’s only playing with her left hand. During a touring accident, she shattered her elbow, rendering her right arm useless for a period of time. Aretha wasn’t going to let that slow her down. Before getting the okay from her doctor, she went back into the studio to record Aretha Arrives. Critic Nat Hentoff was invited to the sessions, and witnessed Aretha lay down “You Are My Sunshine” using only her left hand. He called her performance “undaunted” and went on to say that “the resultant rhythmic drive is a witness to the extent of the spirit within her.”
In 1968 she performed the song on Germany’s television show Rockplast, where both hands are hard at work on the piano during the song’s introduction. It gives you a sense of what the studio version might have sounded like were she not injured during the session.
In 2021, Jennifer Hudson brought Aretha’s version of the song to the CMA Awards, and left the audience in shambles.