This week in 1968, The Beatles inaugurated their Apple Records label in a most auspicious fashion, releasing "Hey Jude" as a 45. The B-side was "Revolution." Written by Paul McCartney and employing a 36-piece orchestra, "Jude" did nothing to dispel the perception that Paul was the "soft" Beatle and John Lennon the "rock" Beatle. No one - least of all the Apple accountants - seemed to mind, as the song sold 5 million copies by the end of that year, and is now believed to be the group's biggest earner if not their biggest seller. (Inflation, yo.)
McCartney ostensibly wrote the song for John's eldest son, Julian, with whom he had always been close. However, he had just fallen in love with Linda Eastman and John said he always thought it was about him, so no doubt some of Sir Paul's emotions toward those two got muddled in the mix somewhere. Whoever it's about, "Hey Jude" became an instant standard and has since been covered God knows how many times.
Rocks Off found this out firsthand when we searched "Hey Jude" on Spotify earlier this week - we found string quartet, electric sitar, New Age guitar, Pan pipes, Gregorian Chants, you name it. No wonder McCartney is so rich. In fact, Rocks Off is about ready to strangle Macca right now, but instead we'll just bring you a few of our more... interesting discoveries, and a couple we knew a long time ago were going to make this list.
5. Earl Scruggs: Someone once said the true mark of a great song is if it can survive being arranged for solo banjo. OK, we totally just made that up, but we'd listen to Earl Scruggs pick his way thorough War and Peace. This version from his Nashville's Rock album would have worked much better with longtime partner Lester Flatt's flat-picked guitar instead of all those mushy countrypolitan strings, though.
Alternate: Tom Jones, the only man who can make a song written to soothe a small boy whose parents' marriage is breaking up sound like a come-on.
4. Ella Fitzgerald: The First Lady of Song keeps the scatting to a minimum and the tone conversational on this swinging big-band arrangement that shows what an instant standard "Hey Jude" really was. Fitzgerald's version appeared mere months after The Beatles', on her 1969 album Sunshine of Your Love, which also includes her takes on Cream's title track and a couple of classy Burt Bacharach tunes. Nevertheless, not remembered as one of her finer efforts.
Alternate: Try the feather-soft arrangement Count Basie & His Orchestra give the tune on their album Basie On the Beatles. Just not while driving.
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3. Bing Crosby: For those of you who think Der Bingle only dabbled in British Invasion pop when Jack Frost started nipping at his bourbon and David Bowie came a-knocking on his chimney, think again. Crosby handles the vocal well enough - until the end, when he really does seem to think he's singing "The Little Drummer Boy" - so no doubt it's those Lawrence Welk-y backup singers and marching-band brass that caused Crosby's "Jude" to stiff - parent album Hey Jude/Hey Bing! peaked at No. 162 on the Billboard 200. Peaked.
Alternate: Crosby was one of Elvis Presley's heroes, but unlike his idol, the King took it easy on the schmaltz during the From Elvis In Memphis sessions in 1969 and came out smelling like a rose. Restored to From Elvis in Columbia/Legacy's 2009 expanded edition.
2. Tim "Ripper" Owens, etc.: Ever wondered what those famous "na-na-na-na"-s sound like up against the Axl-ish wails of short-lived Judas Priest front man Owens and the pyromaniac guitar stylings of George "Dokken/Lynch Mob" Lynch? Wonder no longer. Yeesh. This comes to us from Butchering the Beatles, Restless Records' 2006 tribute album (cough) whose cast list reads like a dress rehearsal for 2008's We Wish You a Metal X-Mas & A Headbanging New Year: Lemmy singing lead on "Back In the USSR"; Billy F. Gibbons tackling "Revolution"; Damn Yankees' Jack Blades & Tommy Shaw doing "Day Tripper"; Kip Winger winging "Drive My Car," and so forth. Proceed at your own risk.
Alternate: Hollywood alt-rockers The Flys, whom you may remember from their 1998 hit "Got You (Where I Want You)," recorded a much less abrasive, though otherwise unremarkable, cover for the 2009 comp Covered In Classic Rock. Try Great White's "Eye of the Tiger" instead.
1. Paul McCartney, Live On Saturday Night Live: Yes, we know McCartney wrote the song, so this would not technically be a "cover." But this is our blog, and our rules; The Beatles were not the musical guest that night. Rocks Off missed this episode, hosted by Alec Baldwin in only his third SNL appearance, when it originally aired in February 1993; it's the one where Chris Farley famously asked Paul, "Hey, remember when you were with the Beatles?" We caught it on a Comedy Central rerun in 2000 or so, and "Hey Jude" has been our favorite Sad Beatles song ever since, albeit occasionally interrupted by John's "Across the Universe."
Alternate: Wilson Pickett, our real No. 1 and the only cover we've ever heard that even approaches the original. The horn arrangement is first-rate, that's Duane Allman on guitar and there's real pain in Pickett's vocals, before he unleashes a couple of those patented soul-man screams Rocks Off hopes to pull off just once before we die.
BONUS: FIVE FUN FACTS ABOUT "HEY JUDE"
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- "Paul McCartney wrote this as 'Hey Jules'; the change to 'Jude' was inspired by the character "Jud" in the musical Oklahoma! McCartney loves show tunes."
- "The 'na na na' fadeout takes four minutes. The chorus is repeated 19 times."
- "Ringo was in the toilet when recording started. He made it to his drums just before his cue."
- "The song debuted at No. 10 in the Billboard Hot 100, and in doing so it made history by becoming the first ever single to reach the Top 10 in its first week on the chart."
- "Sesame Street did a parody of this (and tribute to healthy eating) called 'Hey Food.'"