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.