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.