September 13 – The King Of Cover Songs

Readers might remember that earlier this summer, we ran a Turntable Talk feature on “cover songs”, with various regulars here weighing in on what makes a good cover song , or when they were utterly redundant. Well, that caught the attention of one of our readers, Randy who is so interested in the concept that he has a site of his own devoted to cover songs – Mostly Music Covers. He wrote in with some thoughts, and as today is the 57th anniversary of the release of one of the most “covered” pop songs of all-time – “Yesterday” by The Beatles – we thought we’d share his thoughts on the subject with you. Randy writes:

If artists didn’t cover songs, then very often you would never have heard the song. I could give you hundreds of examples but here are just a couple easy ones, “Time Is On My Side” by the Rolling Stones and “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” by The Hollies. On the other hand, we have songs that are covered right out of the gate: ever hear of a tune called “Yesterday”? Released in the U.S. on September 13, 1965, it was recorded over 70 times in 1966 alone and it has maintained its status as the most covered pop song of all time with thousands of versions. So, who were these bandwagon jumping wannabe’s that couldn’t come up with their own iconic ballad? If we put aside the 13 covers from 1965 and focus on 1966, we have names such as Sarah Vaughn, The Supremes, Brenda Lee, Johnny Mathis, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, John Denver, Andy Williams, Patti LaBelle, Perry Como, Count Basie and an up and comer named Freda Payne. These are the instantly recognizable names from just one year alone. There are more icons of the music world such as Tom Jones, Joan Baez, Tammy Wynette, Smokey Robinson and Gladys Knight just up to 1968 and the first of 14 covers in 1969 was by Frank Sinatra. Not your typical “follow the leader” kind of people.

As has been discussed by many of us to great extent, is the motivation behind the recording of a cover song. First, we need to understand a bit of the evolution of the term itself. I think we can all agree on the basic definition: the rerecording of an original song. In the early days of recording, a popular song was produced by a record label primarily to literally smother the original and any competing versions. After all, it was all about sales. The label hoped that their performer would outsell the other guy. For the buying public if you had a favorite Orchestra/Big Band then the chances are you could get their version of the popular songs of the day. Despite it being profitable for most labels, in the early days few people could afford a phonograph and buy records, so it was radio or the jukebox at the local jazz club. Regionality played a big part as well, records were not manufactured just anywhere nor were there sophisticated distribution methods. Much easier to make the same song with a different artist on the West Coast than ship the original. Regardless, these cover versions would most often be almost identical to the original, whether instrumental or with vocals, the music, arrangement the whole thing was a copy. Ok – maybe your vocalist was female, and the others were male, but the premise was to mimic. This was the way of the cover song for many years.

I shan’t bore you with the whole life cycle of the cover song and indeed every song has its story. Some are like the cicada and only come out every 17 years or so, some are of the more perennial variety. Let’s get back to “Yesterday” as we can surmise many motivations. First, if I am a record label, competing or otherwise I want a piece of the sales action on a massively popular song. If I am a recording artist, I want to keep both my label and my fans happy and loyal to me. Sometimes my contract made me do it. Oh, sure many covers were done as a tribute, some were heartfelt and full of emotion. Some had a different take on the song but most I have to say stick close to the original. This was a pivotal point in cover song history as there was no other song that captured the attention and the vast number of covers like “Yesterday” and there has not been another song to rival it since. This is of course excluding Christmas songs, and a few select ‘standards’ such as the showtune “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess or the ditty known as “Greensleeves” circa 1580.

Seasonal songs are a bit easier to explain, and no we don’t need another rendition of “Silent Night”, but new ones will appear on your favorite artists Christmas album and orchestras and choirs issue recordings annually. As to the non-traditional or ‘pop’ song, why do we have anywhere from a dozen to hundreds and even thousands of versions? I am all for an artist putting their own ‘spin’ on a song, often we see this when the song switches genre such as Johnny Cash and “Hurt” or Disturbed with “The Sound of Silence”. One of the greatest songs ever, and not just my opinion is a cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” by Aretha Franklin who, as we all know turned the song on its head to create a new work of art. But a different voice to a song is sometimes all it takes. An amazing and beautiful song is sometimes just that, and we enjoy hearing it again and again by the same or different performers.

Often, it’s a cover of a legendary artist like Bob Dylan who has been out-charted on his original songs more than any other performer. Case in point “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix, “Mr. Tambourine Man” by The Byrds, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” by Guns n’ Roses or “Quinn the Eskimo” by Manfred Mann (“Mighty Quinn”) to name just a few. For over 50 years Billboard’s most successful single was Chubby Checkers “The Twist” which was a deliberate note for note cover of Hank Ballard’s original. Or it may be something more obscure such as Tony Bennett’s signature song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. First performed by Claramae Turner in 1954 and for several years live on stage but never put to vinyl, so the first record release was by Ceil Clayton in 1960 and she did not chart. By happenstance it made its way to Bennett, then it was casually released as a “B” side in 1962. DJ’s however (as they often do) had minds of their own and ignored the “A” side and went straight to San Francisco and Bennett had a Gold Record, a Grammy Award for Record of the Year and another for Best Male Solo Performance. Now that’s some motivation to cover a song! Many a Grammy has been won with a cover song.

My major source of reference is Secondhandsongs.com, which is an incredible and reliable database containing over one million cover songs. After obsessing over covers for an long time, I have been writing about them for over four years. I am thrilled to be included in Dave’s post today. Thanks, and happy listening.

12 thoughts on “September 13 – The King Of Cover Songs

  1. thanks so much for your interesting insight, Randy! Turned out very appropriately that it arrived in my inbox mere days before the anniversary of ‘Yesterday’ being released, since as you point out it might be the most covered (non-Christmas) song to date. Your point on regionality was good and reminds me of one more thing I don’t think anyone yet touched on… Canada had strict guidelines for radio requiring them to play a certain amount of Canadian content. So many Canadian artists starting out found it easier to find a known, but not ‘huge’ song and cover it to build their reputation – “Bad Side of The Moon” by April Wine (an Elton John song) and “Long Tall Glasses of Wine” by Shooter (around the same time Leo Sayer was having a hit elsewhere with the original) come to mind. Radio loved playing it because it helped fill their CanCon quota. It’s possible other lands had similar rules in place as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My pleasure. If I’m not mistaken you’re Canadian, so there are probably lots of examples that you know that fit that category, especially in the 70s….Anne Murray seemed to make half her career out of doing covers like ‘Danny’s Song’ (Loggins & Messina) ‘A Love Song’ (Loggins & Messina again!) ‘Daydream Believer’ (Monkees obviously although written by John Stewart I see). those songs wouldn’t get full CanCon credit, but would get 1/2 or 3/4 credit towards meeting the minimum for the station.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes I am a Canuck! You mentioned Bad Side of the Moon, a great Elton John song that has very few covers, for a long while I was only aware of the April Wine version, saw them perform that song back in the day. I have blogged on that and other Canadian cover songs but thinking of CanCon gives me an idea for a future post!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I actually moved to the States a few years back, and now with the passage of time have almost no family left up there. London’s a nice city- was sort of with a gal in the 80s who went to Western U – never quite became a couple but we were reasonably close – so I spent a few weekends there and got to know the city a little. Had vague ideas back in that era of moving there since it seemed nice and a bit cheaper than the toronto area.

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  2. Pingback: September 13 – The King Of Cover Songs — A Sound Day – Mostly Music Covers

  3. Badfinger (Max)

    Great post!
    Sometimes a cover takes a song to a different level like you mentioned with Hendrix All Along The Watch Tower… the one that comes to my mind since I’m a big fan is “Without You” …Nilsson’s cover of The Badfinger song.
    Personally I like covers like that…that take songs that were not hits or maybe minor hits and record them giving them a new life.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. the two you mention are great examples. One that came to mind a few days back that seems to fit that too is ‘Hazy Shade of Winter’ by the Bangles… the S&G original was an alright song, and a minor hit I guess but the Bangles really put a bit more punch into it and made it their own.

      Liked by 2 people

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