It wasn’t all that long ago when there were two distinct categories: the singers and the songwriters.
In the 1940s and ’50s (and before), songwriters tended to work in cramped rooms with little more than a piano, coming up with timeless melodies and memorable words. Often, songwriters worked as duos, with one handling the music and the other coming up with the lyrics. Then the singers (famous and not-so-famous) were called in, and they would turn these songs into big hits on the radio and the nightclub circuit, and in films and on stage.
In those days, a song would be written, and if it was good enough, there might be dozens (or even 100 or more) recorded versions of the song by different artists. That’s, in fact, how they became “standards” — it was standard for a new singer to record established songs to see how well they could do with the good stuff before letting them try something new. This procedure seemed to work very well for decades. Even in the early 1960s in the final phase of “Tin Pan Alley,” when songwriting teams like Lieber-Stoller and Goffin-King were supplying material for many of the girl groups and R&B acts of that period, there was a firm line drawn between songwriters and artists.
In the earliest days of rock ‘n roll, much of it was written and performed by black musicians who usually couldn’t get mainstream exposure on the all-white radio stations of that era… that is, unless, some white artists recorded the songs in a sanitized version for their white audiences. Perhaps the most notorious example is when the king of bland ’50s pop music, Pat Boone, recorded a “cover version” of the Fats Domino song “Ain’t That a Shame” in 1955, and again with the Little Richard tune “Tutti Frutti” in 1957. The use of the verb “to cover” a song sounded vaguely distasteful, as if they were trying to hide the original recording so their version would get more exposure as a fabulous new song. The frantic R&B energy and soul of the originals were replaced by Wonder-Bread versions in Boone’s hands…and sadly, they did better on the charts than Domino’s and Richard’s recordings.
Then Bob Dylan and The Beatles showed up and changed everything. These upstarts from Hibbing, Minnesota and Liverpool, England had the audacity to write and sing their own songs. What?! Whoever heard of such a thing? Suddenly, within a few years, new artists were expected to (or demanded the right to) record their own original compositions, with widely varying results. Some bands had nobody in their midst who could write a decent song, and they disappeared. Others had the songwriting chops (Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, among many others), and went on to great success with their own material.
But what was to become of the old way? Would people still be willing to listen to someone do a “cover” of someone else’s song instead of an original? Well, of course they would. The public seemed always ready to listen to a new version of a great song. And yet, for a while, in the late ’60s and well into the ’70s, a hefty chunk of the record-buying public expected originals, not covers. I’m not sure why, but I remember being unreasonably averse to hearing someone else do their interpretation of one of my favorites. I was possessive about them and wanted them left alone. For example, who did Joe Cocker think he was, with his radical take on The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends”? Or Richie Havens with “Here Comes the Sun”? One day in 1971, my dad brought home the latest Johnny Mathis album, and I gagged as I heard him take stabs at some of my favorite Top 40 hits of the day — “You’ve Got a Friend,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” “If,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” My thinking at the time was, “What a jerk, capitalizing on these hits. Why doesn’t he create his own hit by finding a wonderful new song and, in the process, helping out an up-and-coming songwriter instead?”
With covers, it usually depended on which version you heard first. I wasn’t a Dylan fan in his early days, so I was unfamiliar with his original recordings of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and was therefore happy to embrace the well-known covers by Peter Paul & Mary and The Byrds instead. Although I enjoyed Marvin Gaye, I somehow missed his 1965 recording of “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You” and instead became aware of the song through James Taylor’s 1975 hit rendition.
Another key point about covers: If an artist is doing his new version of a song that’s already a hit, it seemed lazy, or “riding someone’s coattails.” On the other hand, if the artist is recording his version of an unknown song, well, that’s more like helping an unnoticed talent get some richly deserved attention. Judy Collins was so taken with up-and-coming songwriter Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” that she recorded it for her next single, and it went Top Ten, bringing accolades Joni’s way and kickstarting her career. The same thing happened with Laura Nyro, Randy Newman and Leonard Cohen, all gifted songwriters whose performing careers were going nowhere until others began recording their tunes.
Then there are the artists who choose to radically rework an existing song, using an arrangement that makes it almost unrecognizable when compared to the original. For instance, if you were to play Dylan’s guitar-and-harmonica recording of “All Along the Watchtower” and follow it with Jimi Hendrix’s incendiary psychedelic rendition, many listeners might not realize it was even the same composition. The same goes for Yes, who once chose to take Simon and Garfunkel’s delicate masterpiece “America” and transform it into a 10-minute slab of dense progressive rock.
Eventually, major artists saw fit to release entire albums of covers. David Bowie’s “Pin-Ups” (1973) included a fascinating cross-section of other band’s stuff, some of it famous, some obscure — The Rolling Stones’ hit “Let’s Spend the Night Together” alongside newcomer Bruce Springsteen’s album track, “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City.” Annie Lennox, whose incredible voice can probably interpret a cookbook and still sound amazing, released “Medusa” in 1995, which covered such disparate work as The Clash’s “Train in Vain,” Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” and The Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next to You.” In 2010, guitar virtuoso Carlos Santana teamed up with a dozen different vocalists to re-interpret classic guitar-based tracks like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Little Wing” and “Sunshine Of Your Love.”
And of course, many popular singers still pay homage to the old standards, and the older the better: Art Garfunkel (“I Only Have Eyes for You”), Bette Midler (“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”) and Mama Cass Elliott (“Dream a Little Dream of Me”). In 1984, Linda Ronstadt started the trend of pop artists doing entire albums of old torch songs like “What’s New” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” and everyone from Rod Stewart and Carly Simon to Bryan Ferry and Boz Scaggs have taken a stab at covering the classics.
Now, as the years have passed, we’re seeing yet another “covers” trend: The “tribute” album. Just within the past year or so, there have been impressive multi-disc collections of cover versions of the works of songwriting icons like Paul McCartney and Jackson Browne. Major stars and indie artists alike stand in line to be among the chosen few to record their own covers of songs by celebrated tunesmiths. (This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon: Even 20-plus years ago, a batch of country music artists participated in “Common Threads: The Songs of The Eagles,” a solid collection of new renditions of Eagles songs, recorded chiefly, I think, to demonstrate how much of a country band they really were, despite their shift toward rock after their first two albums.) And that’s fine, I guess. It’s the industry’s way of honoring the truly great talents. Indeed, Amnesty International’s robust, 4-CD set “Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan” is a godsend, because it allowed artists with voices much better than Dylan to cast his songs in a decidedly better light.
And still another “covers” development: MOJO is a wonderful London-based music magazine that often includes a CD with each issue, typically a sampling of what’s new among British releases. On more than one occasion, they have included a “re-imagining” of a classic CD as re-done by a dozen different otherwise unknown artists covering the album tracks. The Beatles’ “Let It Be” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” albums are among those that have been given this sort of “cover” treatment, and they’re worth hearing.
There have been some terrific covers over the years. Even the Beatles weren’t immune to it; indeed, their early repertoire was full of their versions of the great vintage rock songs of the period — “Long Tall Sally,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Twist and Shout,” “Money,” “Please Mister Postman,” “Kansas City,” “Dizzy Miss Lizzie,” “Honey Don’t.” Not often, but sometimes, a newer recording eclipsed the original, or was at least as worthy. Let’s run through some examples: “Take Me to the River” — Al Green in 1972, and The Talking Heads in 1978; “Another Saturday Night” — Sam Cooke in 1963, and Cat Stevens in 1974; “Woodstock” — Joni Mitchell in 1969, and Crosby Stills Nash & Young in 1970; “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” — Marvin Gaye in 1968, and Creedence in 1971; “House of the Rising Sun” — The Animals in 1964, and Frijid Pink in 1970; “Stormy” — Classics IV in 1968, and Santana in 1977; “Landslide” — Fleetwood Mac in 1975, and The Dixie Chicks in 2002; “I’m a Believer” — The Monkees in 1966, and Smash Mouth in 2001; “The Loco-Motion” — Little Eva in 1962, and Grand Funk in 1974; “Light My Fire” — The Doors in 1967, and Jose Feliciano in 1968; “That’ll Be the Day” — Buddy Holly in 1957, and Linda Ronstadt in 1976. Which do you prefer? Which did you hear first?
So covers will almost certainly remain a staple of the music scene, locally and nationally. Where, for instance, would “The Voice” be without covers? Across the country in small towns and big cities alike, many club owners prefer to book acts that do mostly covers because their patrons enjoy hearing familiar songs. Up-and-coming artists these days strategically use sites like YouTube to first post videos covering well-known hits in order to build a following before introducing their own songs. And out on the road, there are a number of “tribute bands” who have had great success performing nothing but covers of one iconic group’s material, with names like Led Zepagain, The Fab Faux, ReGenesis, The Machine (Pink Floyd) and Dark Star Orchestra (The Grateful Dead).
People know what they love, and evidently, they love what they know.
Pop music’s most unusual example of a cover artist may be Carole King. As a young woman, with her then-husband Gerry Goffin, she wrote “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” for The Shirrelles, “Up on the Roof” for the Drifters, “I’m Into Something Good” for Herman’s Hermits, and “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” for Aretha Franklin, among countless others. Then in 1971, the songwriter became the singer, essentially covering her own hit songs on “Tapestry,” the LP that included both “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “Natural Woman.” It was the #1 album of the year.