I’ve written a few times about “covers” — new recordings of songs already made famous by someone else.
I used to hate the whole concept. My thinking was, why record a song that’s already identified with another artist? Why not attempt a hit with something never tried before?
Here’s why: People LOVE them. In the ’40s and ’50s, most singers covered the big hits of the times. In 1955, there were three versions of “Unchained Melody” in the Top Ten simultaneously. The Beatles and The Stones got their start doing renditions of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly tunes.
In every decade since, the pop charts have been full of popular cover versions of hit songs: “The Letter” (The Box Tops in 1967, Joe Cocker in 1971), “Sea of Love” (Phil Phillips in 1959, The Honeydrippers in 1984), “Proud Mary” (Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969, Ike and Tina Turner in 1971), “Killing Me Softly With His Song” (Roberta Flack in 1973, The Fugees in 1996).
Today I’m exploring 20 cover versions of hit songs you may not have heard before. I’ve selected renditions that usually differ significantly from the hit versions but still have a great deal of appeal on their own merits. Please follow along with the Spotify playlist found at the end of the column. No doubt my readers can name other great unknown cover versions worthy of our attention, and I’d love to hear about them! Please scroll to the very bottom and look for the “comment” box…
And here we go:
“Imagine,” a hit single by John Lennon in 1971, and covered by Keb’ Mo’ in 2004
In 2004, using slide guitar, acoustic guitar and harmonium, blues stylist Keb’ Mo’ put together a superb cover of John Lennon’s anthem “Imagine” for his wonderful “Peace: Back By Popular Demand” collection of anti-war songs. Lennon’s original, which had been a #3 hit in the US in 1971, went on to become a larger-than-life signature song following Lennon’s murder in 1980. Of the many covers of this simple song, I’m partial to this one for its down-home instrumentation.
“For Your Love,” a hit single by The Yardbirds in 1965, and covered by Fleetwood Mac in 1973
Eric Clapton joined The Yardbirds because of the group members’ mutual love for the blues, so when their manager persuaded them to record the pop song “For Your Love,” Clapton bailed, despite the fact that it became the group’s first Top Ten single. Almost ten years later, a struggling Fleetwood Mac (prior to Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joining) did a fine cover version of “For Your Love,” featuring the late great Bob Welch on vocals and guitar. It appears on the third of Welch’s four albums with the band, 1973’s “Mystery to Me.”
“Classical Gas,” a hit single by Mason Williams in 1968, and covered by Tommy Emmanuel in 2005
Mason Williams had gifts as both a songwriter and a comedy writer — he was head writer for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and also worked at “Saturday Night Live.” He came up with the wondrous instrumental tour-de-force “Classical Gas” in 1968, and against all odds, it became a pop hit that year, peaking at #2. It has been covered by more than two dozen other artists through the years, and the one that really floors me is this live recording by virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel from a 2005 live album recorded in Australia, complete with orchestra. Wow!
“Good Golly Miss Molly,” a hit single by Little Richard in 1958, and covered by Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969
Little Richard’s flamboyant appearance and performances were complemented by a repertoire laced with lyrics that offered sexually suggestive double-entendres. (“Tutti Frutti, oh Rudy” was originally “Tutti frutti, good booty”…). “Good Golly Miss Molly,” written in 1956 by John Marascalco and Robert Blackwell, was spiced up by Little Richard to include “she sure likes to ball” (which somehow slipped past the censors). It became a #4 hit in 1958. In 1969, Creedence Clearwater Revival recorded a ferocious rock version on its breakthrough LP “Bayou Country” which, for me, is arguably better than the original. John Fogerty’s vocal growl is perfect here.
“On Broadway,” a hit single by The Drifters in 1963, and covered by Eric Carmen in 1975
Brill Building songwriting duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil wrote this fabulous tune as a shuffle in 1963 for the girl group The Cookies. Then they offered it to The Drifters, who changed it to a bluesier tempo and made it a huge #9 hit. Fifteen years later, jazz guitarist/singer George Benson’s version (used to dramatic effect in the opening moments of the 1979 film “All That Jazz”) went to #7 on the pop charts. In between those two versions, former Raspberries leader Eric Carmen included a potent rendition on his solo debut LP in 1975, and I’ve always enjoyed his treatment.
“You Don’t Know How It Feels,” a hit single by Tom Petty in 1994, and covered by Liz Huett in 2018
The rock world was shaken by the sudden death of Tom Petty in 2017, one of the biggest American rock stars of the past 40 years. I was recently turned on to the work of Liz Huett, a former backup singer for Taylor Swift now establishing her own credentials as an L.A.-based pop artist, who considers Petty one of her important early influences. She wanted to record one of his tracks as a tribute, and selected “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” a #13 hit in 1994. Huett’s version offers some alluring vocal nuances to Petty’s classic.
“All Along the Watchtower,” a hit single by Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1968, and covered by Dave Mason in 1974
Bob Dylan’s spare, brief, original version of “Watchtower” from his “John Wesley Harding” album (1967) was immediately and forever overshadowed the following year by Jimi Hendrix’s incendiary cover version from his “Electric Ladyland” double LP. Many other renditions now exist, but the one I’ve always been very fond of is Dave Mason’s superb cover from his “Dave Mason” LP in 1974. Such excellent guitar work and vocals!
“If I Were a Carpenter,” a hit single by Bobby Darin in 1966, and covered by Robert Plant in 1993
Folk singer Tim Hardin wrote this gentle tune in 1965, and Bobby Darin made it a #8 hit in 1966. Hardin himself performed it at Woodstock in 1969. It’s also been recorded by The Four Tops, Johnny Cash and Bob Seger, among many others; the one that grabs me is this one by ex-Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, who recorded a lush version for his “Fate of Nations” LP in 1993.
“It’s My Party,” a hit single by Lesley Gore in 1963, and covered by Bryan Ferry in 1973
While still the lead singer of the new avant-garde British band Roxy Music, Ferry showed his love for the music of previous decades with his first solo LP, 1973’s “These Foolish Things.” Among an eclectic song list that included “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Piece of My Heart,” “You Won’t See Me” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” you can find his loving tribute to Lesley Gore’s iconic tearjerker from 1963, “It’s My Party.” Ferry’s voice is admittedly an acquired taste, but ultimately, his covers are great fun.
“Eye of the Tiger,” a hit single by Survivor in 1982, and covered by The Rural Alberta Advantage in 2010
Sylvester Stallone was denied the use of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” as the theme song to his “Rocky III” film, so he opted instead for “Eye of the Tiger,” which US rock group Survivor had written for “The Karate Kid” but was rejected. The song held the #1 spot on the pop charts for six weeks and has sold more than eight million copies. (Several Republican presidential campaigns have tried to co-opt the track for use at rallies but were forced to stop by court orders.) A Canadian indie pop-rock band called The Rural Alberta Advantage, still struggling to make it after a dozen years in the business, recorded a much gentler cover version of “Eye of the Tiger” in 2010 that I find very appealing.
“Groovin’,” a hit single by The Rascals in 1967, and covered by Kenny Rankin in 1976
One of the best vibes from the 1967 “Summer of Love” playlist can be found on this serene track by The Rascals, the New York-based group known more for high-energy tunes like “Good Lovin’.” Mid-’70s folk crooner Kenny Rankin, known for his low-key covers of Beatles standards as well as his own originals, did a nice job covering “Groovin'” on the 1976 LP “The Kenny Rankin Album,” which, although a bit over-arranged with strings by Don Costa, still soothes the ears without getting too saccharine.
“I Feel Free,” a hit single by Cream in 1966, and covered by David Bowie in 1993
Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker exploded on the British music scene in 1966 with their “Fresh Cream” LP, highlighted by the vibrant UK single “I Feel Free.” Although it didn’t chart in the US, the record paved the way for future US hits like “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room,” which helped cement Cream’s place in the rock pantheon. More than 25 years later, another British rock titan, David Bowie, couldn’t resist offering his own distinctive take on “I Feel Free” as an intriguing deep track on his overlooked 1993 LP “Black Tie White Noise.”
“Family Affair,” a hit single by Sly and the Family Stone in 1971, and covered by Steve Winwood in 1997
Sly Stone wrote this piece — somewhat darker than the more celebratory material he’d been known for up to that point — in 1971, and he and his band topped the charts for the third and final time. This funky, electric piano-based tune is the first hit to ever feature a “rhythm box” (precursor to the drum machine). It has been covered by at least a dozen R&B artists, and I’m partial to the glitzy rendition by Steve Winwood on his underrated 1997 LP, “Junction Seven.” Winwood’s vocals and full arrangement are arguably superior to Sly’s original.
“Wichita Lineman,” a hit single by Glen Campbell in 1968, and covered by James Taylor in 2008
The great songwriter Jimmy Webb came up with this gem on very short notice for a Glen Campbell recording session, and it became, to my mind, Campbell’s finest recorded moment, peaking on the singles chart at #3 in late 1968. Many smooth-voiced vocalists in the country and pop idioms have given the song a try since then, but my favorite cover, hands down, is James Taylor’s fine version, recorded in 2008 for his “Covers” LP, released during his writer’s block period (2002-2012).
“Need You Tonight,” a hit single by INXS in 1987, and covered by Bonnie Raitt in 2016
Australia’s INXS had a run of four Top 20 LPs in the US between 1985-1992, thanks to their seven Top Ten singles, most notably 1987’s #1 smash, “Need You Tonight.” Singer/lyricist Michael Hutchence and composer/keyboarist Andrew Farriss were responsible for the bulk of the band’s MTV-friendly material. You wouldn’t guess that blues/funk artist Bonnie Raitt would be much of an INXS fan, but wow, check out her dynamic cover of “Need You Tonight” from her fun 2016 CD, “Dig in Deep.”
“The Boxer,” a hit single by Simon and Garfunkel in 1969, and covered by Mumford and Sons with Jerry Douglas and Paul Simon in 2012
I would rank “The Boxer” as not only in my top five Simon and Garfunkel songs, but in the top five of Paul Simon’s entire catalog. The stunning melody, the story-song structure, the “lie-la-lie” chorus, the precision harmonies all combine to create a near-perfect track, and it peaked at #3 in the spring of 1969. More than 40 years later, British group Mumford and Sons enlisted the great lap-steel guitar player Jerry Douglas to sit in on their studio recording of “The Boxer,” which appeared as a bonus track on the 2012 chart-topping album “Babel.” Very sweet cover indeed.
“I Can’t Get Next to You,” a hit single by The Temptations in 1969, and covered by Annie Lennox in 1995
Lennox, formerly with the British sensations The Eurythmics, has one of those phenomenal voices that sounds great singing any genre you name. In 1995, she assembled a dozen tracks she had always loved and recorded loving cover versions of them for her “Medusa” album that year. There’s nary a weak cut here, but my favorite is her take on the Motown classic, “I Can’t Get Next to You,” which The Temptations had made into a #1 hit in the fall of 1969. If you play these two versions back to back, it’s hard to decide which one is superior.
“How Deep is Your Love,” a hit single by The Bee Gees in 1977, and covered by The Bird and The Bee in 2007
This huge #1 hit ballad from the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack LP was written by Barry Gibb and keyboard player Blue Weaver, and was intended for The Bee Gees’ next studio LP. But when film producer Robert Stigwood asked for songs for his upcoming movie about the world of disco, the group gladly contributed this one and four others, and the rest is multi-platinum history. An LA-based duo called The Bird and The Bee did a thoroughly engaging cover version of the song on a 2007 EP entitled “Please Clap Your Hands” that’s worthy of your attention.
“Call Me the Breeze,” an FM favorite by Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1974, and covered by Eric Clapton in 2014
J J Cale wrote and recorded the original as a slow shuffle on his 1972 debut “Naturally,” and while he never made much of a dent in the charts as a performing artist, he has been widely praised as a songwriter. Lynyrd Skynyrd were big Cale fans, and recorded a seriously rockin’ rendition of “Call Me the Breeze” on their 1974 LP, “Second Helping.” There was no bigger Cale devotee than Eric Clapton, who had hits with Cale’s songs “After Midnight” and “Cocaine.” Upon Cale’s death in 2013, Clapton released a tribute album of Cale-penned tracks featuring collaborations with numerous artists, and he titled the collection “The Breeze: An Appreciation of J J Cale.”
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” an FM classic by The Beatles in 1968, and covered by Carlos Santana with India.arie and Yo-Yo Ma in 2010
Many cover versions exist of George Harrison’s masterpiece from The Beatles “White Album,” but the one I’m currently crazy about is the collaboration recorded by Carlos Santana with help from singer India.arie and cellist Yo-Yo Ma for Santana’s 2010 concept LP, “Guitar Heaven,” on which he offers versions of 10 classic guitar tracks using 10 different vocalists. The whole album is worth checking out, but this track in particular is extraordinary.