C is for Cover songs

A cover song is a version of a recording released subsequent to the original one. Sometimes the most popular version is a cover: Good Lovin’ by the Young Rascals [LISTEN] was initially recorded by someone dubbed Lemme B. Good, then was a minor hit by The Olympics [LISTEN], which I own. I Heard It through the Grapevine was a massive hit for Marvin Gaye [LISTEN], though the original by Gladys Knight and the Pips [LISTEN] (my preferred version, actually) went to #2 on the US charts a year earlier.

What makes a good cover song is that it is not merely a slavish imitation of the original. Otherwise, what’s the point? The version of You Keep Me Hanging On by Vanilla Fudge [LISTEN] had been been criticized as excessive, but it’s sure different than what the original Supremes [LISTEN] put out.

Sometimes a cover is SO good that even the originator will bow to the successor. Otis Redding [LISTEN] acknowledged that Aretha Franklin [LISTEN] had “stole” Respect from him, meaning it was now hers, though he wrote it and sang it first. Likewise, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails realized that Hurt has become a Johnny Cash [LISTEN], not a NIN [LISTEN], song.

For arcane reasons, I listen to Beatles covers in the month of July, in honor of Ringo Starr’s birthday. There are a LOT of them; by the time the Beatles broke up, there were over 2500 versions of Yesterday alone, most of them boring.

I have about three dozen Beatles covers albums. There are classical, Latin, bluegrass, country, soul collections. I have whole albums covered by various artists, some compiled by MOJO magazine, plus whole albums by the Smithereens, Big Daddy and others. My friend Fred Hembeck put together some compilations; worse version among them, Hey Jude by an uninspired, off-key Elvis Presley. I made a few collections myself, from CD that have Beatles-inspired cuts.

Arguably the best Beatles interpreter is Joe Cocker. He came to fame at Woodstock singing A Little Help From My Friends [LISTEN to the studio version]. He’s made a whole song out the Abbey Road-segued She Came Into The Bathroom Window [LISTEN]. But my favorite of his takes is You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away [LISTEN].

I should mention again my favorite music podcast, Coverville, which comes out twice a week. One episode is a cover story of a particular artist, while the other might be a request show, some independent artist hodgepodge, or based on a theme.

32 thoughts on “C is for Cover songs”

  1. Interesting Roger! Come to think of it : even Johann Sebastian covered music of his colleagues, like Handel and Gounod. Or did Gounod covered tunes by Bach? Or did they just copy a tune and revised it or rearranged it? I don’t mind as long as it’s beautiful.
    Thanks for your comment and visit to my cruise liner. Have you done many cruise voyages? Anyway for now: have a great week! We are melting here.
    Wil

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  2. “What makes a good cover song is that it is not merely a slavish imitation of the original. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

    Yes, that’s it exactly. I like covers that ADD something. However, it’s also really common to be blissfully unaware that a song IS a cover. To be honest, that’s one of my complaints about young people—but that’s only because I was once the same. In fact, I still am: Until your post, I never knew that the Young Rascals “Good Lovin'” was a cover.

    Still, even when I know it’s a cover, I can prefer that version. For example, I think that Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” is the definitive version (and not just because most people I know openly mock NIN). Cash’s version adds a unique sensibility, I think.

    While I’m tempted to invoke Arthur’s Law and say we like what we like, even in cover versions, I’d at least hope for some depth, something different.

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  3. Fascinating! I’ve heard lots of those songs – and NOT by their original singer. I never knew the history of the songs/singers as I always just kind of liked what I liked. But Lorne is kind of like you – with his multi-hundred records and CDs. He knows it all, too!

    Leslie
    abcw team

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  4. Boy I guess I have lived under a rock or am just too old.
    A lot of the songs are unfamiliar to me but I do agree that some of the cover songs really are far better than the originals.
    Thanks for the informative post. maybe I’ll come out from under my rock and learn and listen more…(:0)

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  5. Sweet post. While not directly related, I just saw a movie “20 Feet From Fame (or Stardom – can’t remember) about the fate of back-up singers. IF you haven’t seen it, I think you’ll like it…Let me know!

    In the meantime have a great week.

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  6. I like the Beattles’ song Yesterday in the classical music version (I was the odd one in high school – at that time I didn’t know yet, that that is part of creativity, haha – who listened to only classical)!

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    1. I also like k.d. lang’s version of Hallelujah. Somewhere I have a recording of EJ and JL doing Lucy together, along with Whatever Gets You Through the Night and I Saw Her Standing There.

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  7. Well, everyone has their favorites, and not all of us are from the same generation, but…I like Marvin Gaye’s version of I Heard it Through the Grapevine (although I do like Gladys Knight and the Pips) and I definitely prefer The Young Rascals’ version of Good Lovin’ …and I lost track of it somewhere along about there (I should write everything down).
    I didn’t even know what a Beatle was until my brother (two years younger) explained it to me, patiently, because I was going through a folk music phase in ’63 and ’64. I was never either a beatnik or a hippie, just the wrong age or something, but I always loved rock’n’roll for dancing.
    Sigh. Now I have trouble walking some days. Who knew?
    Thanks for a great post, Roger. We can always count on you.
    K
    PS—I do know who EJ and JL are, and I agree about k.d. lang’s Hallelujah.

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  8. Thank you for your regular visits every week Roger and this week was no different!!

    I am not very familiar with the songs as it is ‘Bollywood’ that rules the roost here!! Besides there is a large number of regional languages and their music which is very popular. English music is followed ardently by fewer people mostly in the larger cities, but I remember when Beatles were a craze here.

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  9. It seems like it’s usually the version you hear first. Nine Inch Nails’ version of “Hurt” will always be the definitive version for me, not because Reznor wrote it or because Johnny Cash’s version isn’t good, but because I heard it first. Similarly, a lot of the covers on Van Halen’s “Diver Down” are the definitive version for me, because I heard them first. The only cover I like as much or more than the original when I heard the original first is Jane’s Addiction’s version of “Sympathy for the Devil,” which is tremendous. But I still like the original. Hearing a version first goes a long way toward determining which one you like more, I think.

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    1. Greg- for me, the 1st version is my favorite only about 68% of the time, but thee are a lot of exceptions. With a Little Help from My Friends (EJ), Grapevine (Pips), I Am waiting (Ollabelle), almost any version of Across the Universe besides the Beatles…

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  10. Roger, if I never have to sing “Yesterday” again, it will be too soon. Almost as dismal as “Feelings.” But I love the interpretations of Beatle songs (for the most part) in the movie “Across the Universe,” especially “While My Guitar.”

    Also, Gladys Night singing a medley of “Try to Remember” and “The Way We Were,” well, that put Streisand out of my thoughts completely!

    As for Celine Dion, the less said, the better!! I’ll check out the podcast, thanks! Amy

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  11. One of the great things about Brian Ibbott’s selections for Coverville is that if he has two worthy covers of a song, he’ll generally go for the one that sounds less like the original.

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  12. Rarely do I like a cover of a song as well or better than the original. An exception is Whitney Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU. I like them both equally, but for different reasons.

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  13. Ha, those Joe Cocker versions are the only versions I hear in my head when I think of them, I don’t think I realized they were Beatles songs! Cool C post:)

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  14. There’s also an angle to covers where you have a singer-songwriter type who does writes and records the song, but another artist who makes it famous. Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson doing Emmylou Harris doing Townes Van Zant’s Pancho and Lefty for example. The Highwaymen doing Robert Earl Keen’s The Road Goes on Forever or Jerry Jeff Walker doing Guy Clark’s LA Freeway or the Dixie Chicks doing Patty Griffin’s Fly are all good examples of this. In those cases, I tend to prefer the originals, simply for the intimacy and understanding that the songwriter brings to the work.

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  15. Oh yeah, and thank you for not mentioning Whitney Houston’s ubiquitous cover of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You. Popularity and sales aside, the original far outshines the cover, even if people will always think of it as a Whitney tune.

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