Something we’ve all experienced at least once: that little bit of shock upon finding out a song you thought you knew well is actually a cover version. Cover songs becoming more successful — or at least more well-known — than the original versions isn’t all that uncommon, but it can be a bit surprising nonetheless. There’s often a story behind why, too; bands seldom cover a song because they picked it out of a hat. There’s normally a connection of some kind, or a desire for a different take. For this JUKEBOX, I’ve made a playlist of the original versions of songs most people better know as cover versions, and attempted to include a little history in most of them.
1) “Ol’ 55,” Tom Waits (1973)
The first of two appearances by my favorite sentient glass of bourbon. This from back when Waits was trying to be some kind of crooner instead of whisky-and-cigarettes version we know today. You probably better know it as an Eagles song. For what it’s worth, Waits isn’t much of a fan of that version, describing their cover as “antiseptic.”
2) “Blinded By The Light,” Bruce Springsteen (1973)
In college, I played Springsteen’s original to a friend who was only familiar with Manfred Mann’s version of this and he a) agreed this version was much better, and b) could finally unhear “wrapped up like a douche.” In the words of fellow REBEAT writer Jim Ryan, “[o]nce you hear the original by Bruce Springsteen and come to appreciate how much more intricate this is compared to the cover, then throwing the word ‘douche’ at Manfred Mann becomes second nature as a result.”
3) “I Love Rock N Roll,” The Arrows (1975)
Many of Joan Jett’s most famous songs — especially during her early career — are covers, including her signature hit, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” A young Jett supposedly heard the Arrows play this song on TV and one day decided to cover it herself. The advent of MTV certainly helped spread her version.
4) “Black Magic Woman,” Fleetwood Mac (1968)
This one still surprises me. I know most bands sound different early career, but this doesn’t even remotely sound like a Fleetwood Mac song. Santana would perform it a year or so later and make it famous.
5) “Let It Be,” Aretha Franklin (1970)
This one requires a bit of explanation. This was a Lennon/McCartney track from the start, but the Beatles weren’t the first ones to record it. Joe Cocker technically recorded the first version for his sophomore album in 1969, but it wasn’t released at the time. Aretha Franklin was the first to release the song, and added (well, technically created) her own gospel-soul twist. If the sentence “Aretha Franklin covering the Beatles” isn’t enough to convince you to listen to this, please see a doctor because something’s not right.
Speaking of Aretha…
6) “Respect,” Otis Redding (1965)
Yup, Aretha’s signature song and probably one of the best-known songs of all time is a cover. Redding’s version is him telling his woman that she can fool around all she wants but he demands some respect when he comes home. You know, an anthem!
7) “I Will Always Love You,” Dolly Parton (1974)
This is admittedly known AS a cover by many, but when someone mentions the song, what’s the first thing you think of? Probably the solid drum beat leading into Whitney Houston belting the chorus. Parton’s arrangement is rarely covered, save by artists who dip their toe into the country genre once in a while, but was a #1 hit in its day. Fun fact: shortly after Parton’s original was released, Elvis Presley requested to cover it. Parton was ready to do it… until Colonel Tom Parker told her she’d have to sign over 50% of the publishing rights, which she declined. I wonder how many people have the same story. Pretty sure Parton’s okay with all of those royalties she’s getting from The Bodyguard soundtrack.
8) “The Tide Is High,” The Paragons (1967)
Best known as a Blondie song, the Paragons’ is somehow less obviously tropical than the more famous cover. That has to be a first.
9) “I Think We’re Alone Now,” Tommy James & The Shondells (1967)
Tommy James is another man who might be better known through his covers than his originals, even though his original songs were hits in their own right. The main reason I’m including this over “Mony, Mony” (famously covered by Billy Idol) is because Tiffany’s an entirely different genre. Billy Idol’s still rock, but Tiffany was teen pop incarnate, and this became her signature song.
10) “Hound Dog,” Big Mama Thornton (1952)
Big Mama Thornton basically invented rock ‘n’ roll and had an inhumanly powerful voice. “Hound Dog” was a respectable hit in its day. Then Elvis came along and overshadowed everything she did. Such was the early career of Elvis.
11) “Cocaine,” JJ Cale (1976)
Now-legendary guitarist JJ Cale was famously low-key (which, in retrospect, isn’t an oxymoron, thank you very much) which explains why his version didn’t get much recognition at first. Then Eric Clapton came along and changed both of those things. Clapton’s fond of noting that if you study the lyrics it’s actually an anti-cocaine song.
12) “Downtown Train,” Tom Waits (1985)
We end where we began — with a Tom Waits song better known as a cover. Rain Dogs may be Waits’ most famous — and some would argue best — album, a unique experience top to bottom, but the song “Downtown Train” is best known as a Rod Stewart cover. This will never not be strange to me, because Rod Stewart is basically the antithesis of Tom Waits. (Also, is it me, or is Rod Stewart looking more and more like Barry Manilow every day?)