A few weeks ago, my wife and I were in the car when “Lotta Love” by Nicolette Larson came on the XM station we were listening to. I’ve always liked the song, so I turned it up. Her comment was, “I can’t stand that song.” I only point this out because she loves Neil Young, especially his ’70s albums such as Harvest and After the Gold Rush, and I point that out because although it’s not Young singing “Lotta Love,” he did write the song, and as such, it echoes his very distinctive style. However, instead of first recording it himself (though he would do so), Young gave it to his friend and sometimes backup singer Larson in 1978. Her recording of “Lotta Love” was her biggest hit.
That seemed to happen a lot in the ’70s, and in fact, there are a number of instances where well-known singers gave another artist a song, only to have the benefactor of the gift have a very big hit with it. Below is a chronological list of eight Top 40 hits from the ’70s written by famous artists who allowed other artists to record their music — a move a few of them may have regretted.
1) “Tighter, Tighter,” Alive N Kickin’ (1970); Written by Tommy James
Alive N Kickin’ was recording for the Roulette label, and labelmate Tommy James had written and was going to produce a song for them to record. Problem was that as he was working on the song, he decided he liked it so much that he had his own group, Tommy James and the Shondells, do the song — “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” It hit #2 on the charts in 1969, and as a way to make it up to Alive N Kickin’, he gave them another song he had written, “Tighter, Tighter.” That song did pretty well, too, going to #7 on the Billboard pop charts, selling more than a million copies, and receiving a gold record as well. It would be the group’s only Top 40 chart appearance.
2) “You’ve Got a Friend,” James Taylor (1971); Written by Carole King
To be honest, Carole King didn’t actually write “You’ve Got a Friend” for Taylor as much as she shared it with him. King wrote the song for her album Tapestry, and at about the same time she was recording that album, James Taylor was working on his album Mud Slide Slim. Taylor heard the song in the studio, loved it, and asked for and was given permission to record it, actually using the same musicians and backup singers that King had for her recording. Oddly enough, the song was derivative of Taylor’s song “Fire and Rain,” as King had heard the line in that song “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend” and had written the song as a response. Taylor’s single topped the charts at #1, and won both James Taylor and Carole King Grammy Awards that year.
3) “Want Ads,” Honey Cone (1971); Written by General Norman Johnson
Though General Johnson’s name may not be as familiar to most people as are the names on this list such as Springsteen, Bowie, and Young, you probably do know his voice as the lead singer of the group Chairmen of the Board, with songs like “Give Me Just a Little More Time,” “Pay to the Piper,” “Everything’s Tuesday,” and others. But Johnson wrote and co-wrote an awful lot of really big hits for other artists as well, and familiar titles include Clarence Carter’s “Patches,” Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home,” 100 Proof Aged in Soul’s “Somebody’s Been Sleeping,” and of course “Want Ads,” which the Honey Cone took all the way to #1. Unlike most of the other songwriters on this list, Johnson never had a #1 song as a singer, so this one had to hurt a bit.
4) “All the Young Dudes,” Mott the Hoople (1972); Written by David Bowie
Apparently, David Bowie was a big fan of Mott the Hoople, a band who, though appreciated critically, in the early 1970s weren’t selling a lot of records. The story goes that Bowie tried to help them out by first writing and offering them “Suffragette City,” which they refused, then writing and offering them “All the Young Dudes.” They recognized the song’s potential right away. Mott the Hoople drummer Dale Griffin told Rolling Stone, “I’m thinking, ‘He wants to give us that? He must be crazy!'” Griffin might have been onto something there. Though it’s the lowest charting record on this list, having peaked at #37 on the Billboard pop charts, it may well be the most critically acclaimed of the bunch, having twice made Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Rock and Roll Songs of All Time” as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of “The 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.” It would be the group’s only Top 40 chart appearance.
5) “Rock Your Baby,” George McRae (1974); Written by Harry “KC” Casey
Written by Harry Wayne “KC” Casey and his Sunshine Band collaborator and co-member Richard Finch (who both play on the record), the song was actually written for the Sunshine Band, but as KC told me in a 2015 interview, even though his band hadn’t yet had a big hit at the time (they were still a year away from the first of five #1 records), “I was happy for George McRae to have a hit with it. I had already been putting together material for KC and the Sunshine Band, and honestly that song just didn’t feel like it was in the direction I wanted us to go in. It didn’t fit our group.” McCrae added his vocals to the already-recorded instrumental backing track, and the result was a #1 hit in the US and England. “Rock Your Baby” came to be known as one of the records that kicked off the disco era, and to date has sold more than 11 million copies.
6) “Because the Night,” Patti Smith (1978); Written by Bruce Springsteen
The story goes that Springsteen had written some of this song and, after playing around with it in the studio, wasn’t happy with it. Patti Smith’s group was apparently in the studio next door, and both groups were sharing producer Jimmy Iovine. Springsteen offered the unfinished song to Smith, who added some lyrics, recorded it, and put it on their next album. It peaked at #13 and was the only Top 40 hit of Smith’s career.
7) “Lotta Love,” Nicolette Larson (1978); Written by Neil Young
Through Larson’s work as a back-up singer she became friends with Linda Ronstadt, who recommended her to Neil Young when he needed another back-up singer to accompany him on some recordings. She sang back-up on Young’s Comes a Time album and eventually signed her own contract with Warner Brothers. The story about how she came to record “Lotta Love,” however, is a little more convoluted. Ronstadt reportedly said she suggested that Larson record the song, while Larson said she discovered the song on a cassette of demos in Young’s car, told him she liked it, and he said, “Want it? It’s yours.” In any event, it was Larson’s only really big hit. It rose all the way to #8 on the charts in early 1979 and is one of only two songs Larson had that made the US Top 40.
8) “If I Can’t Have You,” Yvonne Elliman (1978); Written by Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb
The Bee Gees wrote so many songs for other people that I actually could have done this whole article about them, and some of the more famous ones include “Grease” for Frankie Valli, “Islands in the Stream” for Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, “Emotion” for Samantha Sang, and “Heartbreaker” for Dionne Warwick. But this one has an interesting story, in that for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack Elliman was supposed to have recorded “How Deep is Your Love” and the Bee Gees were going to do “If I Can’t Have You,” but apparently producer Robert Stigwood decided “How Deep” was a better vehicle for the Bee Gees and switched it up. Good call, as “How Deep is Your Love” was the first #1 single from the album. Elliman didn’t get the shaft, however, as “If I Can’t Have You” became the fourth #1 off of the album and the first #1 not by the Bee Gees. While some of the songs the group wrote for others still sound like Bee Gees songs (and they often sing on them), i.e., Samantha Sang’s “Emotion,” this seems to be all Elliman’s own. Listening to it, you have to think it was better suited for Elliman’s voice, and all in all, I think it’s one of the best songs of the ’70s. It was her biggest hit and only #1 record.