Artists that Sing Covers = Not as talented

Artists that Sing Cover Songs are not as talented (as those who don’t).

Ok hold your hand up if this is what you believe. Ok good, only a few of you did but you few are apparently not alone. The more research I do the more I run across some misinformed or misguided sentiment that if you ‘only’ cover a song(s) you are somehow not as talented. And some are wondering if perhaps there is some truth in this, the short answer is NO! The longer explanation is a bit more complicated. First, different genres have different ‘feelings’ for lack of a better term about who writes, who sings and who plays. But songwriters come from all over the music map, and making music is a lot more than just about the writers. With the odd exception as …

 once in a century you get a Bob Dylan

He can play several musical instruments, he can write songs like few others and he can sing. This Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees list of accolades include a Pulitzer Prize special citation, 10 Grammy’s, an Academy Award, a Nobel Prize in Literature and the list goes on. Now, just for fun let’s just suppose for a moment that if Bob Dylan were in to Classical music he would be interpreting Beethoven and DeBussy and not writing “Like a Rolling Stone“. And unless you were listening to Classical music you most likely never would have heard of him. A silly supposition but it helps (I hope) to try and prove my point. Would Bob Dylan the Classical musician be any less talented than the Bob we have come to know and love? No. Would Bob Dylan be composing (writing) as is the term, new music in this genre? Most certainly, but who would actually notice? Would Bob Dylan then be a popular musician? No, at least not outside of the Classical circle and maybe the odd Movie soundtrack. So getting back to reality, if Bob Dylan the writer of hundreds of songs now covers someone else’s song which he has done over 200 times, so…is he now somehow less talented? The question seems as absurd as it was at the beginning of this post. So you say well that’s Dylan, he gets a free pass on cover songs. So then it gets more absurd trying to and pick and choose who is talented based on whether they cover just one song, just a few or hundreds.

Getting back to Classical music for a moment, it is all about the ‘cover’ song (to stretch the definition a bit) I mean how many times have people recorded and/or performed ‘Brahms Symphony No. 1‘ from 1876? I don’t know but likely into the millions. According to a study conducted in 2010-11 by the League of American Orchestras the most performed Composers were; 1. Beethoven, 2. Mozart and
3. Tchaikovsky. Sorry, but that new guy Dylan just would not show up even in the top ten! Thankfully, for most of us Bob Dylan chose Popular Music over Classical.

Which leads me to the next question, what is Popular Music. Well it is music that has a general or wide appeal. It is easily consumed for the most part, that means you can usually sing along or hum the tune without being a musician yourself. I can’t do either but that’s beside the point! It has recognizable verses, repetition and some pattern to it. It’s now referred to as just ‘Pop’ music and over time, with the development of more diverse genres, tastes and performers it’s much harder to define. Sure there are still songs that are considered Folk Music, but it may have an audience beyond your typical die hard Folk fan as in the Dylan example above. With any genre or subgenre, songs sometimes creep out of their lane and become widely known, but for the most part stick to a classification and audience. That’s not to say there aren’t songs that perhaps transcend genre, but we certainly can’t confuse a Country song with a Death Metal song. And the term ‘popular music’ at its very essence (assured by the music industry) has a shelf life. If the same songs stay popular for too long, well people just don’t make enough money.

So if we accept that ‘covering’ a song is just another form of artistic impression, not unlike the Boston Pop’s  playing ‘Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture” we can perhaps dispel any thought of who is more or less talented based on which songs they perform. As always it comes down to personal taste. For the music industry it comes down to sales. In Pop music we like our various charts etc. to help us see what the next big song or artist is but only history tells us what has endured. The ‘cover song’ I think is a great barometer, it can remind us of how ‘hot’ a song once was or take a ‘cold’ song and warm it up.

So here is to the cover song and the artists that choose to reinterpret for us something they have connected with or are just trying to make a buck or two. The end result is a song that we can decide whether we listen, like, or buy. And here is to the composers of the music and the writer of the lyrics that give the singer the template to perform the songs. For every Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards there are the *non performing writers such as Leiber and Stoller, Holland-Dozier-Holland or Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry. Something that got reinforced in my mind about music when I toured the Chess Records building was that it takes more that just a singer and a song on a piece of paper to make a great song. The studio itself, the producers, arrangers and especially the musicians can make a profound difference on the feel and quality of the end product.

Carole King and Gerry Goffin

Here’s a few cover songs to close out this post; Bob Dylan covering Joe Turners “Boogie Woogie Country Girl” written by Doc Pomus and Reginald Ashby. Herman’s Hermits covering Earl-Jean (The Cookies) with “I’m into Something Good” written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Al Green covering The Beatles “I Want to Hold Your Hand” written by John Lennon/Paul McCartney. Link Wray covering Elvis Presley with “Don’t” written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The Standells covering The Rolling Stones “Paint it Black” written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Elvis Costello covering The Supremes  “Remove This Doubt” written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and  Eddie Holland. Prince covering Joni Mitchell, “A Case of You” written by Joni Mitchell.

References; Images;

*I know some of the names listed performed but the song writing team were not singers together like Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards.

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