A few weeks ago, I was playing The Clash’s Combat Rock in the record store (where I work). When the song “Straight to Hell” came on, the clerk I was working with gave me a look and said something along the lines of “I didn’t think you liked MIA” (in reference to MIA’s song “Paper Planes”, which features a sample of “Straight to Hell”). For the record, I don’t like MIA, but I quickly corrected her as to what it was we were listening to. She responded, “Ah, I knew it sounded familiar, but the tempo was different.”
This got me thinking about so many contemporary songs that feature samplings or interpolations of previously recorded material. In today’s musical landscape, the use of another’s material is a bit ubiquitous and, at times, overwhelming. When samples are used with skill, the listener often doesn’t even realize that the song isn’t truly original; so, it’s almost forgivable (to a point) when mistakes like MIA vs. The Clash pop up.
Despite today’s prolific tendencies of borrowing, this is by no means a new phenomenon. Instead of sampling, artists just simply covered songs, especially if they had to fill up space on an album. Many times, though, the cover song became bigger than the original, to the point of overshadowing the original songwriters or performers. Below is just a small sampling.
“Crazy” – Patsy Cline / Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson wrote “Crazy” in 1961. At the time, he was a songwriter named Hugh, working his way up as a journeyman by providing material for artists like Faron Young and Billy Walker to perform. Patsy Cline, however, was one of the biggest names in country music. After years of developing his craft as a songwriter, Nelson’s “Crazy” would be the song that clinched it.
The song, as sung by Cline, is very obviously a ballad. However, Nelson’s original version somewhat defies a simple categorization. “Crazy” is not written like a traditional country song. Nelson borrowed heavily from jazz and classic pop songwriting when composing the tune. The verse and chorus smoothly meld into one another rather than standing rigidly separated like in most country songs. This jazz-like lean is most often recognized when Nelson performs the song live, never performing it the same way twice.
Originally intended for, but declined by, Walker, Nelson managed to get a demo of the song to Cline after meeting her husband, Charlie Dick, at a Music Row watering hole. Nelson’s style of speaking his lyrics rather than singing them did not sit well with Cline, who rejected the song upon initially hearing it. After her producer, Owen Bradley, rearranged the song as the ballad we’ve become familiar with, Cline fell in love with it, recording the vocals in a single take. Though it didn’t have the success of her previous hit, “I Fall To Pieces”, the song did signify Cline’s return to music after surviving a near fatal automobile accident. “Crazy” was released in 1962, peaking at number two on the country charts.
I remember as a child hearing stories about Cline (or someone in her camp) stealing this song from Nelson. I can’t remember if it was just my grandfather spinning a yarn, a Jessica Lange movie filling in my historical blanks, or what, but I found no such evidence indicating those sentiments. In 1993, Nelson said that he felt Cline’s version was his favorite song of his that anybody had recorded. Maybe at the time he got a little less than what he thought he should once the song became a hit. Regardless of any of the fine print, the success of Cline’s version not only cemented Nelson’s reputation as a songwriter, but it also opened the door to his own recording career. Based on the success of “Crazy”, Liberty records signed Nelson to his own recording contract.
“Head On” – Pixies / The Jesus and Mary Chain
Admittedly, this one might be stretching it somewhat, as most people might not even realize that an alternate version of this song exists. “Head On” originally appears on the Jesus and Mary Chain’s 1989 album, Automatic. Engineered by future shoegaze mastermind Alan Moulder, the song features the signature feedback sound that JAMC were known for, and it ups the tempo into a fabulous pop song. The ambiguity of its lyrics can give the impression that the song could either be a boy-meets-girl ditty or a psychedelic drug experience swirling around your head.
The true ambiguity of the song comes from the Pixies’ cover version. Around 1990, a year or so before the Pixies would release their fourth album, Trompe Le Monde, they had begun covering “Head On” in concert. The original version of the song started to achieve a moderate level of popularity on modern rock radio on its own merits, but with the Pixies covering it, an argument could be made that the song received a Colbert style “bump.” The Pixies version became slightly famous for the video and the production behind the making of the video. The band had agreed to provide a video for the single only if it was recorded live. Using 12 cameras divided among the four band members, the song was played, the video was recorded, and everybody was happy. I don’t know the reason for the band’s (or perhaps Black Francis’s) stubbornness regarding the making of the video. Maybe it stems from a time when the band was covering “Head On” during a show, and Francis looked down into the audience to see Jim and William Reid, the song’s writers, looking back at him. True story.
“There She Goes” – Sixpence None the Richer / The La’s
This misconception is more an American mistake, as I find it almost impossible to believe that anyone in the UK would not know that the La’s originally performed “There She Goes”. Originally written by Lee Mavers and performed by his band The La’s, the song was released at least three times before it finally achieved any kind of chart status. In fact, the third version was a remix by Steve Lillywhite, who produced the band’s self-titled debut in 1990. Helped by the song’s inclusion on the album, the band finally had a taste of success, peaking at 13 in the UK and just barely missing out on the US Top 40.
The song’s popularity throughout the 90s is most evident by its inclusion on at least four soundtracks from the era. The soundtrack to So I Married An Axe Murderer features both the La’s version and a Boo Radleys version, which bookend the album. Despite appearing in Hollywood heavy-hitters like The Parent Trap remake, Mavers found his biggest success when Austin, Texas, band Sixpence None the Richer included a version on their self-titled third album. The Sixpence version broke the US Top 40 and the Top 10 on most AOR charts. To this day, this is the version you will most likely hear on US AOR/Adult Contemporary radio stations. The Sixpence version also achieved a boost in popularity after appearing on yet another soundtrack, one for the film Snow Day. I find it darkly ironic that so many family oriented films have chosen to use a song that at one point in its history was accused of being an ode to heroin.
“I Want Candy” – Bow Wow Wow / The Strangeloves
The Strangeloves were a “band” comprised of 3/4 of the songwriting team behind “I Want Candy”. The song was written by Bert Berns, Richard Goettehrer, Jerry Goldstein, and Bob Feldman, all of whom (sans Berns) were the Strangeloves. Assuming the personalities of three Australian ex-sheep-herding brothers named Giles, Miles, and Niles Strange, The Strangeloves recorded their hit in 1965. Oddly enough, though, all writing, recording, and performing credits are under the band members’ real names. The alter egos were just for publicity.
The song achieved a second bit of recognition when, later in the same year, Brian Poole and his band the Tremoloes hit the UK Top 25 with their cover. However, the song’s biggest boost in popularity came not from the mod scene or the swingin’ hipsters of the 60s but rather from new wavers of the early 80s and a cover version by a new British band, Bow Wow Wow.
Bow Wow Wow was a project assembled by Malcolm McLaren, the guiding force behind the Sex Pistols. Never one to shy away from exploiting the sexuality of a teenager, McLaren discovered his singer, a mohawked Annabella Lwin, in a launderette at the tender age of 14. With dollar signs in his eyes, he absconded with the Ants from Adam and the Ants to round out Bow Wow Wow’s lineup, leaving Adam all alone. The band had a series of minor hits in the UK, but “I Want Candy” was pretty much their only success State-side. Appearing ubiquitously on “One Hit Wonder” lists and “Best of the 80s” types of countdowns, “I Want Candy”, with one of the most recognizable intros since the hand claps on “Car Wash”, may have provided Bow Wow Wow with a bit more immortality than it did the song’s creators, but I would place bets that Annabella is back doing her delicates at the launderette.
“After Midnight”/“Cocaine” – Eric Clapton / J.J. Cale
Clapton has recorded at least three J.J. Cale songs throughout his career: “Cocaine”, “After Midnight”, and “Travelin’ Light” are the most important three. The first two are so closely associated with Clapton that, unless you read the liner notes, you may never have even thought that they weren’t his songs. “After Midnight” was on Clapton’s solo debut in 1970 and immediately became a hot single for the guitarist.
An upbeat, slightly funky number, “After Midnight” features Clapton leaving the experimentation of Blind Faith and the heaviness of Cream behind for a smoother, simpler approach. Cale first recorded a demo of “After Midnight” four years earlier in 1966, which features Cale’s signature laid-back feel. When listening to Cale’s playing, it’s easily as relaxed as any of Clapton’s work. And when listening to Clapton, especially during this period, the influence of Cale is greatly felt.
When Clapton recorded his version in 1970, Cale, apparently, was totally unaware. Dirt poor, scraping by, and barely able to feed himself, Cale was nonetheless pleased to begin receiving royalty checks. In fact, Clapton’s success with Cale’s song led Cale back to the studio to record his own music once again. Cale’s own re-recording of “After Midnight” even managed to chart on Billboard at #42. Clapton would re-re-record the song for a Michelob beer commercial in the late 80s.
Ten years after penning “After Midnight”, Cale wrote “Cocaine” for his 1976 release, Troubadour. The style and arrangement on Cale’s and Clapton’s versions are pretty much the same, with the only major difference being that Clapton’s is a bit cleaner, Cale’s a bit rawer. The famous guitar riff opening the song (and carrying it throughout) is a bit grittier on Cale’s version. His songwriting allows for the music and lyrics to live on their own terms and provide the listener with a chance to absorb both. The message is rather clear in its anti-drug position; however, Cale is careful not to beat the message over the listener’s head. Clapton said once “…from a distance…it just sounds like a song about cocaine. But actually, it is quite cleverly anti-cocaine.”
Produced by Glyn Johns and appearing on Clapton’s 1978 Slowhand, the song was originally a B-side to “Lay Down Sally”, only to be re-released as its own single in 1980. “Cocaine” became one of Clapton’s (and by default, Cale’s) biggest hits, eventually becoming a concert staple and a fixture on contemporary classic rock radio.
“Me and Bobby McGee” – Janis Joplin / Kris Kristofferson
Kristofferson, much like his friend Hugh “Willie” Nelson, began his career in country music as a songwriting journeyman. The first recording of his song “Me and Bobby McGee” was actually by fellow country songwriter Roger Miller in 1969. Kristofferson himself recorded it for his self-titled solo album in 1970. There have been countless cover versions of this song, mostly by country artists; however, none stand out as much as Janis Joplin’s, featured on her final album, Pearl.
Joplin recorded the tune in October 1970, just a few days before her death. As a friend and lover of Joplin’s, Kristofferson had presented the song by singing it to her. She was taught the song by fellow singer Bob Neuwirth and recorded it with her group Full Tilt Boogie in the fall of 1970. Kristofferson was unaware of Joplin’s cover until he heard it a few days after she passed away. He claims that the song was not written for Joplin but that to this day the song is and will be associated with her. Her version of the song became only the second posthumous single in US chart history to hit number one (following Otis Redding’s “Sitting On the Dock of the Bay”).
“Respect” – Aretha Franklin / Otis Redding
Originally written in 1965 by soul legend Otis Redding, “Respect” was composed just as the artist was finishing up his third (and most critically acclaimed) album, Otis Blue. The song’s story is basically of a man pleading for respect from a woman (possibly a gold-digging, over-demanding woman, but I may be reading too much into it). Written as a blues number, Redding’s performance is far funkier than the Franklin version and even comes off a bit more aggressive. Redding’s phrasing often stagnates slightly between verses, delivering the pleading theatrics of the song’s protagonist, whereas Franklin’s impassioned rendering of the song takes the same lyrics and turns them into the strength of a woman announcing her independence and freedom.
Redding managed some chart success, breaking the Top 5 on the Black Singles chart and even crossing over to the pop charts for a second time (following the earlier chart success of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”), peaking at #35. True success for the song was found, however, with Aretha Franklin’s recording in 1967. Atlantic Records producer extraordinaire Jerry Wexler took the song to Franklin after hearing Redding’s version. Smelling a hit record, Wexler tweaked the Redding track ever so slightly. There were no lyrical changes, but the producers added a bridge and included King Curtis on saxophone. The overall production was far smoother at Atlantic Records than it was for the Stax production of Redding’s tune, helping to boost its popularity amongst the white audience.
The genius of this song is in Franklin’s delivery. The meaning the listener derives from listening to her version is a complete 180 from the original. Where Redding’s song was more of a plea from a man to his significant other, Franklin’s version became a rallying cry for women and the feminist movement (and, to a lesser extent, the Civil Rights movement).
Franklin recorded “Respect” on February 14, 1967. Four months later at the Monterrey Pop Festival, Otis Redding, while introducing the song, described it as the song “that little girl done stole from me.” Joking of course, Redding knew the effect that Franklin’s version of his song had. As a result, Redding pretty much gave the song to Franklin (though I am sure he kept the writing credits). It almost begs the question as to just how many in the Monterrey audience knew that Redding had originally penned “Respect”. Six months after his performance at Monterrey, in December 1967, Redding was killed in a plane crash. In the spring of 1968, Franklin claimed two Grammy awards for her recording of “Respect”. It is her recording of “Respect” that also appears on all of the “Greatest Songs” lists and was even inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2002.
“All Along the Watchtower” – Jimi Hendrix / Bob Dylan
To say that Bob Dylan is one of the most prolific songwriters in music history is an understatement’s understatement. Dylan wrote so much material in the 60s that it almost seemed as if any and every artist on CBS’s roster at the time had to cover at least one of his songs. Despite so many covers, more often than not, the listener was well aware that a Byrds or Baez song on the radio was originally penned by Dylan. Of all of Dylan’s songs (there are approximately 17,345,298, give or take eight), “All Along the Watchtower” stands out from the others not so much because of who wrote it but rather who performed it.
The original recording first appeared on Dylan’s 1968 comeback album, John Wesley Harding. After taking time off to recover from a horrific motorcycle accident, the songs on JWH marked a significant change in Dylan’s songwriting and topicality. Settling into family life, Dylan turned away from the excesses of the city and began to slow things down a little. He even began exploring biblical themes and imagery.
Dylan’s recording of the song was made on a single day in November, 1967. Five takes later, the song was completed by splicing in elements from the third and fifth take. “All Along the Watchtower” was the session’s first track and the second single released from John Wesley Harding. This recording session stands in stark contrast to Hendrix’s recording of the song.
Less than a month after Dylan released John Wesley Harding, Jimi Hendrix commented to Dave Mason of Traffic how he wanted to do a version of Dylan’s song. A few days later, the two men (along with Hendrix’s drummer Mitch Mitchell) entered the studio to do just that. Dylan’s slow-paced, relaxed number was about to get a facelift of raging guitar and psychedelia that would change the song’s appearance forever. The Jimi Hendrix Experience began their cover version in late January 1968.
Hendrix’s session was so chaotic and frustrating that bassist Noel Redding split the studio midway through, leaving Dave Mason to fill in. However, according to session engineer Eddie Kramer, Hendrix ended up playing the final bass part. In less than five days, the recording was complete and the problems began. Hendrix was immediately dissatisfied with the result of “All Along the Watchtower” and began re-recording and overdubbing parts. As he went on, he got increasingly frustrated and unhappy with the product. What began as a four-track recording ended up on a 16-track machine. Everytime Hendrix would listen to the recording, he would hear new nuances and subtleties that he would want to incorporate. The finalized version was released in September 1968, almost eight months after recording began, a far cry from Dylan’s single-day recording session.
The biggest culprit in mis-identifying Hendrix over Dylan as the song’s author is probably Dylan himself. Dylan once described his reaction to the Hendrix cover: “It overwhelmed me…He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using.” The first time Dylan performed “All Along the Watchtower” live was in 1974, four years after Hendrix’s death and a full seven years after the initial recording. Of the live performance, Dylan said, “I liked [Hendrix’s] record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way…I always feel it’s a tribute to him.”
“Hound Dog” – Elvis Presley / Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton
“Hound Dog” differs from the above songs most significantly in that neither the first performer of the song, Big Mama Thornton, or the performer who is most famous for it, Elvis Presley, actually wrote it. The song was written by Jerry Leiber and Michael Stoller in 1952 for Thornton and was also the first record the songwriting team produced themselves. Thornton’s recording hit number one on the Rhythm & Blues charts in March 1953 and stayed there for over two months. In April 1953, five separate country versions for five separate labels were recorded. The song’s popularity was undeniable.
Thornton’s roots in the blues and jazz worlds lent perfectly to the call-and-response improvisations she added during Pete Lewis’ guitar solo. She even suggested the band bark and howl like dogs as the song ended. With her flexible phrasing and altering syncopations on top of drummer Johnny Otis’s (father of guitar legend Shuggie Otis) solid backbeat, Thornton would hop from the upbeat to the downbeat, stressing different parts of each line, never repeating where she would place the accent. With her straight to the point, no-nonsense delivery, Thornton belted out the innuendo and double entendre-laden lyrics. During the recording session, a Habanera variation as well as a Habanera-mambo arrangement were also recorded.
By the time Presley recorded his much more sanitized version of “Hound Dog” in 1956, numerous covers, sequels, follow-ups, and rip-offs had already filled jukeboxes and record shelves. Ironically, because of all the other versions of “Hound Dog” around, when Presley made his famous recording, he was apparently unaware that Thornton’s recording even existed. History has shown us that countless black artists were robbed by white artists. However, in this case, I don’t think that was Presley’s intention.
Presley had based his version of “Hound Dog” not on Big Mama Thornton but on a cover version by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. Bell had rewritten the lyrics slightly in an effort to appeal to a broader audience, and as a result, much of the original sexuality of the song was rendered limp. In yet another twist of irony, Presley was playing as a second billing in, of all places, Las Vegas. While in Vegas, Presley and his band would catch the Bellboys set nightly, and he eventually asked Bell for permission to cover the song. Presley’s version went on to top the charts until it was replaced by another Presley song, “Love Me Tender”.
Though Presley’s version of the song is certainly the most famous, much of its fame is not due to the recording but rather to its performance. Presley’s first performance of “Hound Dog” was on The Milton Berle Show. It was this performance that featured Presley vamping at half-tempo while staring at the audience, all the while rotating and thrusting his hips. It was here that “Elvis the Pelvis” was born, and it was here that Presley managed to restore, both physically and visually, the lyrical sexuality of Thornton’s original.