Elvis Presley took "Hound Dog" to rock 'n roll icon status. But Big Mama Thornton had the original, more sexualized version.EXPAND
Elvis Presley took "Hound Dog" to rock 'n roll icon status. But Big Mama Thornton had the original, more sexualized version.
Courtesy of Sterling Publishing

Songs Get a Second Chance at Life with Cover Versions

Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time
By Ray Padgett
240 pp.
Sterling Publishing

They are some of the best-known songs of the past 60 years: “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley; “Twist and Shout” by the Beatles; “Respect” by Aretha Franklin; “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix, and “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston. And while those tunes will always be most associated with those artists, there’s one thing: none of them were the original versions. And in fact, some of the greatest cover songs of all time started off as…flukes.

In this fascinating book – an extension of Padgett’s long-running blog – he details the stories behind 19 songs from their writing and original recordings (and reception) to their most famous and successful later takes by artists. Some are very much out of the original wheelhouse (who would have imagined Johnny Cash doing a Nine Inch Nails song?)

Padgett first details the history of the “cover” song, and it’s not what you may think. For while doing one today can be seen as a tribute or acknowledgment of the original artist, back in the ‘20s and ‘30s it was kind of a nuisance. As music listeners tended to be more tuned into a song than the performer, competing record companies would flood the market with covers of the same hit to dilute the commercial power of the original and cash in.

In the early rock era, plenty of songs by the original black artists were deemed too risqué for white teen ears or record companies were skittish about putting black faces on record covers. So you get Bill Haley’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” or Pat Boone covering “Tutti Fruitti.” Though Little Richard likely cried all the way to the bank on the latter one.

Featuring both archival and original interviews with the likes of the Talking Heads’ David Byrne, the Who’s Roger Daltrey, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, and even parody king “Weird Al” Yankovic, the book uncovers a lot of great stories. Like how “Unchained Melody” wound its way from being featured in a 1955 prison escape movie to the Righteous Brothers in the ‘60s to the movie Ghost, where it has its greatest success.

Or how members of Devo very nervously played their chilly, deconstructionist, utterly sexless take on the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” for an initially stoned-faced, tired-looking, wine-swishing Mick Jagger. They didn’t need his approval to cover the song, Padgett writes, but chose to because it was so out-there sounding. As Mothersbaugh retells, only a while into the song when Jagger jumped up and started doing his “rooster dance,” exclaiming “I like it!” were the boys from Akron relieved.

Padgett also writes about how some covers stick closely to the originals, but others created something entirely different. Otis Redding’s original version of “Respect” was just about a man who just wants some of it when he gets home from work. But Aretha’s Franklin’s take on it with social, gender and racial overtones (not to mention spelling out the title – something she did on a whim – and the background singers “ree-ree-ree-ree” chorus), made it something completely different. Even Redding would say with admiration, according to producer Jerry Wexler “that girl has taken that song from me…from now on, It belongs to her.”

Houston appears once in the narrative in the form of songwriter Jim Weatherly’s “Midnight Train to Georgia.” A hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips, the song’s original title was “Midnight Plane to Houston,” after something actress Farrah Fawcett said to him on the phone when he was looking for his pal and her husband Lee Majors. The phrase stuck with him.

But the first woman to cover the song, Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mom), wanted to change the method of transportation and the city to make it more personal to her (and…well…her last name was “Houston”). Her version wasn’t a hit, but Knight – who kept the lyrical changes – was able to score big with it. Knight also had a hit with a cover of Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," and her own hit inspired a cover by Creedence Clearwater Revival!

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