Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time
By Ray Padgett
The term “cover songs” comes from record labels covering their bets. If a song by some artist was a hit, then when asked if a label had a particular popular song, they could say, “We’ve got it covered,” by having one of their own artists do a version of it. Then, according to some, during segregation, if a black artist recorded a “hot” record, for white listeners to hear it on the radio, labels would bring in a white artist such as Pat Boone to make a replica for airplay.
As rock ‘n’ roll evolved, “cover songs” came to be associated with a newer version of an older song, or a current band paying tribute to their influences. Nobody expects a band to cover “I Want to Hold Your Hand” because it’s readily available and identified with The Beatles. But Siouxsie & the Banshees covered both “Dear Prudence” and “Helter Skelter” by The Beatles. Husker Du covered “Helter Skelter.” Charles Manson’s Family quoted it.
The Beatles themselves, during early recording sessions, relied on covers of other artists’ songs to fill out their albums. The Shirelles, The Isley Brothers and Chuck Berry became mainstays in The Beatles’ stage performances.
In his book Cover Me, Ray Padgett focuses his attention on 17 covers that shaped rock ‘n’ roll. And he should know – after all, he runs a covers website that since 2007 has explored the possibility that cover songs have been at the forefront of every major shift in the direction of popular music.
Subtle hints and secret histories laid bare, Padgett manages to relate the facts and fallacies surrounding repeated myths. Tired of playing “Long Tall Sally” to middle-aged audiences, there is no proof that The King ever heard Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” before he recorded it, yet allegations of racism stem from him “stealing” her song. Booked for a Vegas residency early on, Elvis stumbled across a white showman named Freddie Bell who had taken the Leiber & Stoller for Big Mama and rewritten it as a tongue-in-cheek parody of the rising “hayride” rock ‘n’ roll movement. “You ain’t never caught a rabbit…” was inserted to distinguish it from the gender-specific lyrics of Thornton’s version. And that’s the version Elvis used as his showstopper! Elvis only wanted to use it for live performances, but RCA insisted he record it!
Patti Smith, however, was a poet before trying songwriting, so she’d abut the Van Morrison song “Gloria,” made a Top 40 hit by Shadows of Knight, with her dubious pronouncements. The 13th Floor Elevators (who were a cited influence on Smith) would also cover the song.
The Who began as a “cover” band, doing numerous Eddie Cochran tunes. “Summertime Blues” was long featured as a live cover but never put on vinyl until the Live at Leeds LP (which almost got named after a concert at a different school!) Blue Cheer would later cover the Cochran song and even upped the ampage!
There are so many cover songs… Hell, Pussy Galore covered the entire Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street album. But Padgett sticks to recognizable hits such as Jimi Hendrix making Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” his very own.
As Padgett points out, covering The Beatles was the kiss of death (except in the case of Joe Cocker, who made a name for himself reinterpreting their songs: “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” “Something”), but covering a Bob Dylan song could launch a career, as was the case for The Byrds and The Turtles! As it goes, Hendrix had taken to playing Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” early on in his live show, but what began as an impromptu jam session with Traffic’s Dave Mason on 12-string turned into the centerpiece, “Watchtower,” until Hendrix tired of it.
Some of the more astonishing tales include how Aretha Franklin shook off her Columbia contract persona and created her “Queen of Soul” legend by covering Otis Redding’s “Respect” as the opening track on her first album for Atlantic in 1967 – which almost didn’t happen after a falling out with the Muscle Shoals crew! And the story of competitive hippie shit sprouting out of Creedence Clearwater Revival wanting to respond to The Grateful Dead’s perception of them as a Top 40 act by merging a lengthy instrumental jam with Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
The Cramps covered Johnny Cash. The Litter covered The Zombies! The Sex Pistols brought back The Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner.” Gun Club would cover “Eskimo Blue Day” by Jefferson Airplane. The Coathangers would return the favor and cover The Gun Club’s “Sex Beat”!
But the most mindblowing revelation in Cover Me has to be that Farrah Fawcett was behind the song “Midnight Train to Georgia”!
Songwriter Jim Weatherly called his flag football teammate Lee Majors, and Farrah answered saying she had to take a midnight flight to Houston. When Cissy Houston heard the song of that name that Weatherly subsequently wrote, she said, “My people don’t take airplanes but trains, and my name is already Houston,” so the location became Georgia.
Broken into chapters that tell both sides of cover songs – where the original hit found favor and how another act would later restore it in the public consciousness – Cover Me leads us through the decades as DEVO’s “Satisfaction” won Mick Jagger’s favor with a chicken strut as a deconstructed punk acknowledgement of its roots, not a parody. And Weird Al chirps in, explaining that parody keeps the music intact but alters a song’s words, while a cover song keeps the words but pretty much alters the music!
The Ramones covered The 1910 Fruitgum Company’s “Indian Giver.” Giant Sand reworked “Get Ready” by The Temptations. Santana were better known for “Black Magic Woman” than Fleetwood Mac.
Bill Medley had wanted to revive an old prison break film song. “Unchained Melody” was the flipside to a Phil Spector-produced A-side, but once it started getting airplay, Spector merely added his name to it!
As Padgett puts it, “When you compare Adele’s ‘Make You Feel My Love’ to Hendrix’s ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ forty years before, the full spectrum of what can make a great cover song is laid out for you. Almost everything about the two Dylan covers is different.”
The Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Always On My Mind” (most famously recorded by Willie Nelson) comes to mind. The Fugees doing Roberta Flack. The Donnas’ “Wig Wam Bam” does Sweet justice.
You may think you’ve heard it all before, and yet, the cover song will catch you off guard.