Like a Version - a brief history of the contentious cover song
Updated: Jan 16
Image: Pastiche: Soft Cell Archive (Soft Cell), Capitol Records Archive (Glen Campbell), Motown/EMI Hayes Archive (Stevie Wonder), Roxy Music Archive (Bryan Ferry).
Photo Credit: uDiscoverMusic.com
I have always been fascinated by the cover version. I think I first became aware of the concept of a cover as a kid when the Beatles released Twist and Shout. My big brother pointed out to me that it was exactly the same song as La Bamba. As he had both the Ritchie Valens single and The Beatles hit, I must have played the two back-to-back dozens of times letting this new ‘cover phenomenon’ set in. It was only much later that I found out that Valens had borrowed the song from a traditional Mexican folk ballad. Twist and Shout, I was also to discover, wasn’t a Beatles song at all, but an adaptation of La Bamba by American songwriters Phil Medley and Bert Berns in 1961. First released by The Top Notes and taken into the hit parade in 1962 by The Isley Brothers, it wasn’t until the 1963 Beatles album Please Please Me that Twist and Shout became the mega-hit I knew.
I enjoy a good cover version. The whole concept is one that can stitch together distant sounds, eras and genres into a masterpiece that sometimes reveals a hidden layer to a well-known song that you never knew existed, or just breathe some welcome new life into an old but tired favourite.
Learning and performing others' songs is ground-zero for budding musicians starting their journey and should be regarded as an apprenticeship. Very few start their musical undertakings by writing their own songs. Fortunately, Gordon, my late brother was in a band and an ever-growing pile of sheet music and records were stored at our house, where the twice-weekly band practice would happen. This was heaven for me, who was learning the guitar at the time, and one of the many things I thank Gordon for.
Image: My early musical mentor - big brother Gordon
The cover version is a contentious issue. Nowadays, a cover version immediately puts itself in the firing line of music lovers, and especially the music press, all keen to judge and critique every note and nuance. Some offerings make it through the battlefield of personal scrutiny to be heralded as genius, while most are dissed across the various media platforms and consigned to the ‘don’t bother’ list. But this wasn’t always the case as we will find out in this fascinating look at the history of the cover version.
Before we go any further I need to credit the title of this feature to George Plasketes, who uses Like a Version as the heading for a chapter in his excellent 2010 book on cover songs named Play It Again - Cover Songs in Popular Music. Thanks George.
Image: Ritchie Valens and The Beatles - both borrowing from a Mexican folk song
The concept of covering a song has been around for as long as music has been written down. The earliest choirs performing Catholic masses often sang versions of earlier Gregorian chants. These ‘covers’ were intended to both teach and entertain – to attract worshippers and spread Christianity. Then, as now, covers helped to promote culture.
The term ‘cover’ started being bandied about in the early 50s when the Chicago Tribune described the buzz word as "trade jargon meaning to record a tune that looks like a potential hit on someone else's label". Record companies have jumped on the trend of hiring musicians to copy a popular hit in the hope of cashing in on its success since the advent of the recording industry.
Covers are even a celebrated music form as can be seen in what is called the Great American Songbook. This umbrella term is used for the collection of the most enduringly performed, re-recorded, and re-interpreted songs written between the 1920s and the early 1950s. These songs have mainly come from Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley, the New York songwriting and publishing district. It was only in the 50s that certain songs were semi-officially deemed the ‘standard repertoire’ for discerning listeners, and thus the term ‘standards’.
The list includes classics such as Stardust, Night and Day, Always, Stormy Weather, April in Paris, Sophisticated Lady, Summertime, and As Time Goes By, written by the likes of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart (or Hammerstein), and Duke Ellington They were sung by people like Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra. The songs would be improvised on by jazz groups, recorded in countless versions, and arranged for stage or studio according to the bandleaders’ aesthetics and (of course) the producer’s commercial goals. If you were a musician in those years, you were expected to know The Songbook before you got on the bandstand.
Before these modern times of protracted copyright infringement lawsuits, the idea of an original version of a song was an odd one. After all, prior to widespread radio and TV entertainment it was the norm for performers and families alike to learn a song off by heart from sheet music or a gramophone record. The whole purpose of publishing sheet music was to have a song performed as widely by as many people as possible.
Up until the 60s the majority of albums contained a few evergreen songs or popular standards. This made the artist more inclusive to a new audience who wanted something familiar, but fresh, to make them feel comfortable with an unfamiliar artist. One should remember that singers didn’t have the hype of today and very little promotion of new music happened outside of record stores and music halls. The general public recognised song titles more than the artists that performed them, and that’s how they would buy their records. It didn’t really matter who sang it, they just wanted to hear the song, something that the highly competitive record companies took full advantage of.
It was in the late1930s and early 40s as the younger generation lent their power to the record-buying public when things slowly started changing. The Swing era was particularly important, with its hero Glenn Miller and his Orchestra recording such classics as Stompin' at the Savoy and In the Mood. The bobbysoxers of the day ardently followed the newly established ‘Hit Charts’ and slowly but surely a copy wasn’t acceptable anymore.
Image: Well established musicians frequently covered one another's hits
Right up until the mid-50s the majority of people still mainly heard their favourite artists on the radio, or had the rare occasion of seeing them perform live on stage. With numerous small radio stations aiming shows at a local listenership it was rare that an artist from one fixed area could reach a mass audience. Stations would gear their programming to as wide a market segment as possible, but an artist in one specific genre would seldom get airtime on a station not geared to that listenership. This led to many popular covers of a song being adapted and played in the styles of jazz, country and western and R&B to meet the various scattered audiences’ preferences.
Commercial radio added a new dimension to the cover song’s popularity when they started selling air time to record companies to promote their artists. This increased the number of covers being released to new levels. Many radio stations of the time were regulated by the various broadcast authorities and only allowed a certain amount of ‘needle-time’ (the term for the amount of recorded music they were allowed to play) and the quota of local talent they had to promote during live broadcasts. The broadcast authorities also had a lot to say about the style of song that received airplay. Many of the Rock n Roll, Pop and R&B songs were frowned upon and toned-down cover versions with orchestral backing were the order of the day and appeared en masse.
Image: Pat Boone, the safe alternative to virtually everything
Record companies soon realised the importance of the cover version to attract a new circle of fans, and even a mediocre cover turned out to be a valuable marketing tool sometimes. Using less established artists to pay homage to one of the greats is still a common crossover strategy to show the versatility of the younger musician
Another reason for the success of the cover version was racial segregation. One hundred years ago, blackface minstrelsy had produced songs that were staples in vaudeville and on Broadway and a sure way to get a new song noticed. Until relatively recently radio stations were either vehemently against, or hesitant to play music from the Black community due to the politics of the day. This saw White singers pounce on the songs of their Coloured counterparts, dominating the charts with songs they never wrote. It could be called a Whitewash.
Elvis took Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog to #1. Bill Haley did the same for Joe Turner’s Shake Rattle & Roll. Both made millions for their record companies from versions that were ‘safer and less-sexualised’ watered-down versions aimed at the White American teenage market. In many cases this practice served to effectively sever any association between the song and its original performer, but not all. As Muddy Waters said of the appropriation of his music by White artists “they stole my music but they gave me my name”. Another way around the ‘colour problem’ was to add the general phrase ‘Traditional – Arranged by...’ to the record label,
A little closer to home, and probably the biggest musical ‘cover story’ in South African history, is the sad tale of Mbube, or as some may know it, Wimoweh or (The Lion Sleeps Tonight).
Solomon worked for the Gallo Recording Company as a record packer in 1939 while also fronting his popular band, The Evening Birds, at Johannesburg’s Carlton Hotel. They were a class act and noted at the time as a 'very cool urban act that wears pinstriped suits, bowler hats and dandy two-tone shoes’. The band was noticed by Griffith Motsieloa, Gallo’s talent scout, which led to Solomon Linda recording and backing a number of songs for Gallo. He improvised the song ‘Mbube’ in the studio one day and a single version was produced by Motsieloa for Gallo. This chance improvisation went on to be a major hit for the band, selling a whopping (for the day) 100,000 copies by 1949.
Linda sold the rights to Gallo Record Company for 10 shillings (less than US$2) soon after the recording was made. However, by British laws (which applied to South Africa) those rights should have reverted to Solomon Linda's heirs 25 years after his death in 1962.
An American Musicologist found a copy of the original South African recording in the early 50s and gave it to folk musician Pete Seeger. Seeger renamed it Wimoweh and released it with his band The Weavers in 1952. It caught on and became a Top 20 hit in the USA. The Kingston Trio then re-released it in 1958 followed by The Tokens in 1961, complete with new lyrics and the title The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
Despite the popularity and wide use of the song, Linda died impoverished in 1962 of kidney failure. Neither Solomon Linda nor his family had benefited from his musical career.
Things changed after Riaan Malan, noted South African journalist and author, wrote an article for Rolling Stone about Linda’s story. He estimated that the song’s use in Disney's movie The Lion King netted US$15 million alone. His 2004 TV documentary A Lion’s Trail that screened on PBS prompted the Linda family to sue The Disney Company for its use of the song in the movie and stage show. They were supported by Gallo Records and the South African government. A settlement was reached in the Linda family’s favour and they received royalty payments for past uses and entitlement to future royalties.
Solomon Linda was eventually acknowledged as a co-composer of Mbube and a trust was established to administer and distribute royalty payments. The story of the lawsuit against Disney and the aftermath of the settlement is told in the 2019 Netflix documentary, The Lion's Share. This is one of the happier endings to a copyright issue - they aren’t all as successful
The flourishing Brill Building songwriting machine had teams like Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Doc Pomus and Mort Sherman, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and Jerry Leiber writing a stream of hits which eventually became ‘cover fodder’ for the numerous girl groups that flourished during the period between Elvis Presley and the Beatles.
The early 60s saw many of Dylan’s songs being reworked in gentler, well-harmonised versions by The Byrds. David Crosby even went so far as to say that the band played Dylan better than Dylan. They tried to back up this claim with their two The Byrds Play Dylan albums (1979 and 2002), but, as good as they were, they really didn’t have the same impact as the man himself.
Even huge names like Bowie weren’t innocent of borrowing from others. His 1973 album Pinups was a collection of little-known songs from big names like Pink Floyd, Them, The Kinks, The Yardbirds and The Who. No genre was left unexplored. Linda Ronstadt built a solid career with covers and had a very successful run with her collaborations of standards along with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. Carley Simon’s Torch album covered big band and show tunes, and even UB40 tipped a hat to numerous artists such as Jimmy Cliff, Neil Diamond and Delray Wilson on their two Labour of Love albums.
Image: Borrowers All - Carley Simon, Bowie and UB 40 all had success with cover versions
Some artists manage to transform a song into something truly special as with Dolly Parton’s song I Will Always Love You. It was already considered a Dolly classic, but when Whitney Houston recorded it she managed to transform it into one of Pop’s most enduring anthems. Likewise, Aretha Franklin spun the gender focus of Otis Redding's R E S P E C T on its head scoring a huge hit for the Disco Diva, and an early anthem for the feminist movement.
In the album-buying heyday of the 70s, sound-alike, and sometimes lookalike albums were created en masse to fill the bargain bins of supermarkets and discount record stores. The confusion was intentional with album sleeves featuring the name of the actual band and a small disclaimer informing you ‘originally recorded by…’ Readers of a certain age will probably remember being caught out by this devious ploy.
Image: Otis and Aretha; two sides of the story.
This isn’t to say that we need to know who the original artist is to enjoy, or even recognise, a cover. Lenny Kravitz had a huge hit with American Woman, but it was written by 60s Canadian group, The Guess Who, Johnny Cash’s Hurt is thanks to Nine Inch Nails, Nazareth’s This Flight Tonight is a rock version of the Joni Mitchell masterpiece. All covers and originals are in a league of their own and have benefited from each other while introducing some great songs to a new and younger audience.
Some artists have lent themselves to being covered. The Beatles song Yesterday has been covered over 2200 times alone, and a book could be written about the various Elvis covers that have been released. Dylan has also racked up his fair share. Russel Reisling, Professor of American Literature and Culture, puts forward a reason for Dylan’s enduring popularity. He wrote; “There’s clearly something about a Dylan original that continues to resonate within the socio-political events of our culture and continues to inspire musicians to perform and copy his songs.” When I listen to early Dylan protest songs I can’t but help feel that the professor is correct and nothing much has changed over the years. The conflicts may be different but the anger is still there.
Communications scholar, George Plasketes, in his 2010 book on cover songs named Play It Again - Cover Songs in Popular Music, writes that “covers are about favourite songs and great songs – Classics and Standards. They show how musical artefacts are kept culturally alive, repeating as echoes”. He feels that regardless of whatever elements they may add or take away in the process of creating the cover, it still captures, conveys, and furthers our collective musical history.
Scholars have identified and named numerous types of covers (as scholars tend to do) but they mostly agree that there are two main categories of cover. The first is the ‘Transformative Cover’ which we discussed with the sanitizing and appropriation of Black music by White artists. More recently it has come to represent any artist who puts their own individual stamp on the original, so making it their own. Other examples of transformative covers include the glut of orchestral rock albums that were popular in the late 70s, and of course, foreign language covers. Songs covered in different countries in the local language still have a huge impact on the popularity of an artist's original song to this day.
The second is the ‘Straight Cover’, also known as the Karaoke cover. This sounds as close to the original as possible and is meant in homage to the original artist, but anyone who has spent time in a Karaoke bar will know that some of the homages miss the mark. In Japan it has become common for versions of the original and the local cover to simultaneously make it on to the charts. This has stoked the fires of the local recording industry.
Image: Sukiyaki by Kyo Sakimoto, otherwise known as A Taste of Honey.
Tribute bands fall into this category. The tribute band grew from the cover band. While the cover band performed copies and renditions of songs by numerous artists, tribute bands specialised in one particular performer. Some of these tribute bands have gone on to have huge careers. Bjorn Again, the ABBA tribute act has built a huge following since they formed in 1988 and are still going strong long after ABBA's disbanding. Dread Zeppelin’s reggae take of Led Zeppelin songs is another unexpected success, and seeing their Elvis impersonator frontman cover classic rock songs is a strange sight. And on the topic of Elvis covers, the number of impersonators of, and stage reviews about, The King are staggering.
A tribute band who has won their place in musical history is the Beatles rip-offs, The Rutles. This originally fictional band was created by Eric Idle and Neil Innes for inclusion in a mid-1970s BBC television comedy programme. They later became an actual group which toured and recorded, releasing two albums and even achieved a few UK chart hits. Their albums have gone on to become an essential and important part in the collections of purist Beatles fans.
Covers of songs have also won major awards for their usurpers, as in the Grammy Awards of 1992 when Michael Bolton won for his remake of Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman and Natalie Cole wowed the world with the posthumous duet with her father, Nat King Cole for a remake of Unforgettable, which was itself written by Irving Gordon in 1957.
It was never more apparent that the music industry was undergoing changes than during the 1980s and 90s. The lines between creativity and imitation became increasingly blurred and the cherished notion of copyright ownership and artistic independence started to undergo scrutiny and be challenged. Although imitation can be the sincerest form of flattery, this was a period when any music that wasn’t chained down was pillaged, especially for the use in adverts in the hope of kindling fond memories in their target market and even lend identity to various products.
Artists also sometimes cover their own songs. Susan Vega is a case in point when she released Tom’s Album, a collection of 12 different versions of her song Tom’s Diner. It’s a strange idea and one that worked in her favour when the UK duo, DNA, sampled her a capella version and put it to a dance track. It was released as a hit bootleg under the name Oh Suzanne. Her record company had them swiftly apprehended and asked Vega what action they should take. She loved what DNA had done and told her record company to release it as a single and drop charges, which they did.
Things became macabre when a number of albums featuring covers of songs from artists who had all committed suicide started appearing. A posthumous tribute album is one thing and kind-of expected, but this started bordering on extreme bad taste.
Social consciousness saw a different side of the story evolve when covers were released not for commercial gain, but in support of such causes as HIV/AIDS relief and research, the environment, education, hunger relief... the list goes on. Even politics got involved when Nancy Regan got behind an album called Stairway to Heaven / Highway to Hell (1990) during her ‘Just Say No’ campaign. The album was recorded by the Make A Difference Foundation, the don't-drink-and-rock band who performed metal covers of Led Zeppelin, The Who, Hendrix, The Sex Pistols, and even Elvis.
The rise of Hip Hop in the 90s, with its reliance on using old hits, also sparked a run for covers and an increasing number of new artists revisited, re-interpreted and re-examined the back-catalogue of a significant cross-section of styles, genres, periods and artists. The new genre also saw the culture of sampling and remixing grow. At first, these were obvious and easy to recognise, but as copyright infringement became tighter, the samples were buried deeper and deeper into the mixes so that sometimes just a subliminal suggestion of the original remained.
The increasing popularity of the internet and platforms like YouTube has given the cover version another huge boost. Hopeful amateurs and professionals alike flood viewers with home or studio videos of one-off covers and their own re-arrangements; some even go viral and hit the big time. Television shows such as the Got Talent and the Voice franchises have seen the launch of a number of new names, and often a renewed interest in songs that had gone out of fashion. One such artist is Brian Justin Crumb who won worldwide fame when he performed Radiohead's Creep in the 2016 series of America's Got Talent. He may have only gained 4th place in the competition, but his jaw-dropping performance is still viewed by millions and positively impacted on sales of the original.
In conclusion I’d like to paraphrase an observation from George Plasketes book. ‘When a song is re-recorded repeatedly it developes a genealogy of its own. Culturally, the song is kept alive and it eventually receives the mantle of being a ‘standard’ – basically an artefact that has stood the test of time. The term Standard used to refer particularly to the works of artists such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rogers and Hammerstein etc, but over time new artists who have endured the often fickle tastes of music listeners have joined the list. This hallowed collection of greats has seen the inclusion of artists such as Dylan, Elton John & Bernie Taupin, Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards, Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen. Their songs have now been added to the growing number of songs that are a catalogue of enduring anthems, cultural echoes and an often affectionate reminder of a certain juncture in the history of society, or sometimes just our personal journey through life’.
As a music blogger I have the honour and privilege of exploring all kinds of music and can happily see that some of the new artists and songs that I am discovering today will be included in the 'standards' lists of the future. Such is the evolution of music.
For those still uncertain about the credulity and ethics of the cover version, I think Leonard Cohen hit the nail on the head when telling his recording company (regarding a planned honorary tribute album to him 'I’m Your Fan’): “Treat me like a commodity. I’ve already got the integrity part covered”. Gotta love him for that.
Andrew Knapp 2021
This article was a lot of fun to research and write and I would like to mention the following reference sources: Wikipedia / Slate.com (Carl Wilson) / NPR / Timeout.com / George Plasketes: Play It Again - Cover Songs in Popular Music ISBN-13: 978-1138250031.
Special thanks to my long time friend Lynda Martin for her input, suggestions and proofing.
The author owns no rights or copyright to the =iImages and video links which were all sourced from the public domain and social media platforms.
Words © Andrew Knapp 2021