With Aretha Franklin turning 75 on Saturday and Elton John 70, it makes sense to honour them with the song that has unified these two giants of popular music for almost 50 years. The year was 1970 and a little known 23-year old English lad – real name Reginald Kenneth Dwight – had just had his first chart hit anywhere in the world. Peaking at US #92 and sneaking inside the Canadian top 40 at #37, the gospel-sounding Border Song caught the attention of one of the biggest stars on the planet.
Aretha was 28 at the time and at the peak of her powers. An accomplished songwriter herself (songs like Day Dreaming and Rocksteady are Aretha originals), her most remarkable gift beyond that voice was arguably her ability to rework existing material into something far greater. Whether it was Bobby Womack’s I’m In Love, Ben E. King’s Don’t Play That Song (You Lied) or Otis Redding’s Respect (where Aretha added the R-E-S-P-E-C-T section and the “sock it to me” refrain and somehow missed getting a co-writer’s credit), Aretha’s covers were nearly always different and better than the originals.
Which, in the case of Elton John’s Border Song, the level-pegged results are a testament to both Elton and Aretha – not to mention to lyricist Bernie Taupin. Elton and Bernie had crafted a song so fully realised lyrically and melodically that Aretha didn’t really have to rework anything. And while a 70-year old Elton can’t compete vocally with a 75-year old Aretha, the 23-year old Elton had a sensational R&B-influenced tenor that gives Border Song an authenticity even when played side by side against the Queen Of Soul.
I’ve always thought how mind blowing it must have been for those two young English songwriters to have one of their songs covered by Aretha Franklin. They were American-obsessed – something that would come through time and time again in Bernie’s lyrics over the next few years – and here they were, at the start of the careers and getting the most almighty of endorsements.
A rare case where I love equally the original and its most notable cover, here are both the Elton and Aretha versions of Border Song. Happy birthday guys!