Isn't it Ironic

Isn’t it Ironic?

Sorry, I’m not talking about Alanis Morissette! But there are artists who have been eclipsed by their own songs. Many of them are amazing songwriters but, ironically, their chart-topping hits were written by someone else. As I pointed out in my series, I Write the Songs, many great songwriters are not well-known, yet their songs are easily recognized by most people. Today I will point out the contrasts in popularity for some singer/songwriters. When I say ironic, I mean that things turned out the opposite or in an unexpected way from what one might have expected.

Willie Nelson

Now everyone knows of Willie Nelson, and I’ve mentioned him quite a bit. He is one of the best songwriters in Country music but his first #1 song was “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (1975), written by Fred Rose. Not only did Nelson not write it himself, it was a cover version that was first done by Roy Acuff. In fact, Nelson’s next five #1 songs: “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time”; “Georgia on My Mind”; “Blue Skies”; “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”, were all written by someone else.  During this time, he did have #1 duets written with Waylon Jennings: “Good Hearted Woman” in 1976 and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” in 1978. Willie released his first solo song in 1957 but not until 1962 did he hit the top 10 Country charts with a self-penned tune titled, “Touch Me”. In 1961 Faron Young had a smash #1 song with Nelson’s “Hello Walls” and Patsy Cline came out with “Crazy” – also written by Nelson – which in its own bit of irony stalled at #2 on the charts, later to be cherished as one of the greatest Country songs of all time. It was actually 23 years after his first release that he wrote and recorded “On the Road Again” in 1980, which became his first self written solo #1 song.

The Rolling Stone Magazine’s (500 Greatest Songs of All Time) list Willie’s; Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain #302, On The Road Again #471.

Harry Nilsson

Not everyone knows who Harry Nilsson is but he wrote “One” released by Three Dog Night in 1968 (charted #5). He also wrote and recorded “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” (used in the movie You’ve Got Mail) which was #7 on the Easy Listening chart, and “Me and My Arrow” which reached #7 on the Adult Contemporary chart. In 1968 (released on the Album Harry in 1969), he covered Fred Neil’s 1967 song “Everybody’s Talkin’” and it was used as the theme for the Oscar winning movie Midnight Cowboy in 1969.  While it managed to chart at #6, based on the success of the movie it also won him a Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

Nilsson is revered in the music industry and most of us can hum one of his songs that have been covered by everyone from Barbra Streisand and Ingrid Gilberto to the Monkees and The Yardbirds. Yet he could not write himself a #1 song. He penned a song that contains the line “one is the loneliest number” and in fact he had just one #1 hit which, ironically, is a cover of Badfinger’s “Without You“. This song was written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans and was first recorded by their band in 1970. I mentioned the tragedy surrounding this song in my post Valentines Day Songs. An added twist is that apparently when Nilsson first heard the song at a party, he thought it was The Beatles, who coincidentally through their company, Apple Records, were behind Badfinger. The song was also recorded at Abbey Road Studios. Nilsson would become close friends with the Beatles, John Lennon in particular. Later, Nilsson wrote and released on the album  Nilsson Schmilsson the novelty song “Coconut” (1971) and released it as single in 1972, it reached #10 but he would never chart another song after 1974. In 1994 at just age 52 he died of a heart attack, due to a congenital condition. Other notable songs he wrote were “You’re Breakin’ My Heart”, “Spaceman” – which was just used in the 2020 Netflix series Space Force (and also the inspiration for this whole blog post) – and “Jump into the Fire“, used in the movie Goodfellas. Very nicely covered by LaVern Baker, check out the rest of this amazing tribute album from 1995, For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson.

Bob Dylan 

On the singles charts, Bob Dylan has had one #1 appear on the Cashbox Top Singles with “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965). It reached #2 on Billboard, where during his whole career he had only three other songs hit the top 10 (on virtually all mainstream charts). That is until 2020 when “Murder Most Foul” reached #1 for Rock Digital Sales. So, the most celebrated American singer-songwriter and Nobel Poet waited 55 years for another #1 mainstream charted song. Isn’t that ironic!

Here is a sampling of the songs he wrote that charted quite high, with someone else doing the singing.

Blowin’ in the Wind” did not chart for Dylan, yet three weeks after it was released in 1963 it was a #2 hit for Peter, Paul and Mary that same year. Stevie Wonder hit #9 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B charts in 1966.

All Along the Watchtower” was released in 1968, and the single did not chart. Six months later, Jimi Hendrix covered it and it reached #5 in the UK and was his highest Billboard hit at #20. The song is #47 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (1973) charted fairly well hitting #5 on the Adult Contemporary chart, and three top 10’s internationally. Eric Clapton had little success with his version in 1975, but the Guns N’ Roses version hit #1 on five international charts in 1990. The song reached #2 in the UK yet only #18 in the US on the Mainstream Rock chart.

If Not for You” (1970) from the album New Morning managed just #30 on the Dutch chart.  Olivia Newton John in 1971 hit #1 with it on the Adult Contemporary/Easy Listening chart in the US as well as reaching several top ten charts around the world.

In 1965, “Mr. Tambourine Man” did not chart for Dylan, yet it hit #1 for The Byrds in the US, UK, Ireland and South Africa. This version started the genre of Folk Rock and is ranked #79 on Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Songs while Dylan’s original is at #106. The Byrds would strike again with Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do” which reached #4 in the UK yet only #40 in the US.

The song “Wagon Wheel” has an interesting story, and I will give a brief recounting as I understand it. Dylan wrote the beginnings of it during the sessions for the movie soundtrack and album Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in 1973. It was never officially released as a song, but the rough-cut chorus got out on a Bootleg record and was titled “Rock Me Mama“. It was based on a 1941 Big Bill Broonzy song “Rockin’ Chair Blues” that Dylan had understandably yet mistakenly credited to Arthur Crudup who covered it from Broonzy and titled it “Rock Me Mama” in 1944. Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show wrote more lyrics, 25 verses actually, and they released it in 2004. It has since sold over 1 million copies. Darius Rucker recorded the song with the group now known as Lady A in 2013. It hit #1 on the Country charts in Canada and the US and #15 on Billboard’s Hot 100. They also won the Grammy Award for Best Country Solo Performance. It has sold about 3.8 million copies. Not bad for a Dylan song that wasn’t even a song!

“Make You Feel My Love” was written and first recorded by Bob Dylan (released September 30, 1997) but first released as “To Make You Feel My Love by Billy Joel on August 19, 1997. As for chart performance, the Joel version hit #9 in 1997 on the US Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks. In 1998, Garth Brooks hit #8 on the same chart but it turned out to be a smash #1 hit on the Country charts resulting in Grammy nominations for both Brooks and Dylan. Adele reached #26 with her version in 2008. After the song appeared on some talent shows her version reappeared on the charts in 2010 and 2011 hitting as high as some top 10’s, now with worldwide sales at about 2 million. Once again Dylan’s own version did not chart, yet one of the most powerful love ballads ever written.

(500 Greatest Songs of All Time) list ranks; Like a Rolling Stone at #1, Blowin’ in the Wind at #14, The Times They Are A-Changin’ #59, Tangled Up in Blue #68, Mr. Tambourine Man #106, Desolation Row #185, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door #190, Positively 4th Street #203, Just Like a Woman #230, Subterranean Homesick Blues #332, Highway 61 Revisited #365 and Visions of Johanna #404.

Dylan’s 12 songs makes him third highest on the list and the best rank by far for a solo artist. The Beatles have the most at 23 entries (not including solo songs; Imagine at #3 by John Lennon, Maybe I’m Amazed #339 by Paul McCartney and My Sweet Lord #454 by George Harrison, Next are the Rolling Stones with with 14 songs, I Can’t Get No Satisfaction being #2.

Manfred Mann

Manfred Mann is actually the drummer for the British band that bares his name. They built their success on a number of cover songs; “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” being the first to hit #1. But they liked Dylan quite a lot so they recorded “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” which hit #2 in 1965, and “Just Like a Woman” which was #10 both in the UK only. Later that year they released Dylan’s uncharted song “Mighty Quinn” (Quinn the Eskimo) which was #1 in three other markets besides the UK and it hit #10 in the US.

Manfred Mann went on to form Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and recorded “Blinded by the Light” (written by Bruce Springsteen for whom it never charted). In 1976, it gave them their only #1 hit in Canada and the US on the Billboard Hot 100. The song reached #6 in the UK. The irony here is that Springsteen had not yet charted a #1 single on Billboard’s Hot 100.

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce was superseded by a couple more of his own songs. He wrote a song with an image of Elvis Presley singing it but the demo version he sent to the King would go unheard before his passing on August 16, 1977. Bruce had made friends with Robert Gordon after seeing him play with Link Wray, so he gave the song to him. “Fire” was a blistering song that received lots of FM Rock radio airplay in December of 1977 and into 1978 but it did not appear on any mainstream chart. Later in 1978, the Pointer Sisters version of “Fire” became their highest ever hit at #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 as well as #14 on the R&B charts and #22 on Adult Contemporary. It was an international hit, scoring top 10’s around the world. Here is a live version from Springsteen.

Patti Smith’s signature song and her biggest hit is a reworking of Springsteen’s “Because the Night“; her release would hit #13 in 1979. The unreleased song was originally from sessions for the album Darkness on the Edge of Town and Jimmy Iovine’s involvement led to the rough song going to Smith, who, by Bruce’s own admission, “owns” that song.

From what I’ve read, it appears Bruce was genuinely upset that all these songs he wrote (“Blinded by the Light”, “Fire” and “Because the Night”) had done better than his best hit to date of “Born to Run” which reached a respectable #23 spot on the charts in 1975. Eventually, he would have his highest ever chart spot on the Billboard Hot 100 at  #2 with “Dancing in the Dark” (1984) and since then he has had several #1’s on Mainstream Rock Charts. However it wasn’t over yet, on the B side of the single release of “Dancing in the Dark” was “Pink Cadillac” which for Bruce reached #27 on the chart then called Top Tracks, a precursor to the Mainstream Rock Airplay chart. Springsteen, who first recorded the song in 1982, blocked Bette Midler’s attempt in 1983 to record it citing that apparently, it wasn’t “a girl’s song”. However, Natalie Cole received the go-ahead and she released it in 1988. Her version reached #1 on the Dance Chart, #9 on the R&B and #16 on Adult Contemporary. Unlike Bruce’s original (and I know I’m repeating myself but it’s something Bruce’s own songs have rarely done), Natalie Cole’s version charted well internationally, hitting #4 in Canada and Ireland, #5 in the UK and Germany and several other high chart positions. Some of you might be thinking of Aretha Franklin, but she had a phrase “in my pink Cadillac” (and the car in the video) for the 1985 release of “Freeway of Love” (written by Jeffrey Cohen & Narada Michael Walden).  It hit #1 on the R&B and #3 on Billboard Hot 100 charts. Just to tie it all in there still is a Bruce connection, his longtime saxophone player the great Clarence Clemons played on the recording and also appears in the video.

(500 Greatest Songs of All Time) lists; Born to run #21, Thunder Road #86, Born in the U.S.A. #275.

Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell, not unlike Bob Dylan, has had even more limited success when it comes to the singles charts. She has only one #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart in 1974 with the song “Help Me“.  According to, she’s ranked second at #87 behind Carole King who is ranked at #42 (whose full time job for a number of years was writing music for other people) for female writers and recording artists that have had their songs covered by the most people. The next female recording artist on that list is Billie Holiday at #274. If we boil the list down to include popular music only then Carole King is at #7 and Joni Mitchell is at #11. So why didn’t Mitchell, who has an amazing voice and is a world class guitarist have more chart success? The short answer is that with a few exceptions, she is ultimately a Folk singer and these artists and their songs do not tend to chart well. And dare I say it’s also because she is a woman and suffered her songs being tragically underplayed while she was at her peak.

For songs where she wrote both the words and music, she is by far the most influential female artist. From “So far, we’ve found 6552 covers of 171 of Joni’s songs done by 4847 different artists!” The breadth and depth of artists citing her as having an effect on their music is almost unmatched and she has mutual admiration for many: from the Jazz world with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter; from Rock we have Prince, Chrissie Hynde and John Mellencamp; from R&B, Donna Summers and Chaka Khan; from Folk there’s Judy Collins and (minus her mutual respect) Bob Dylan and even Country with the legend Emmylou Harris. Accolades, tribute songs, albums and critical acclaim all point to one of the greatest artists of our time, yet with only one #1 hit song and zero on Billboard’s Hot 100 – Joni Mitchell is better known for her ‘songs’ themselves rather than for singing them, now that’s got to be just a little ironic.

(500 Greatest Songs of All Time) lists; Both Sides Now #170, Help Me  #282, Free Man in Paris #470.

More Notable Songs & Songwriters

I’ve pointed this out before but it fits this category nicely, one of the greatest R&R songwriters ever is Chuck Berry, but his only #1 Billboard Hot 100 song was a cover version of “My Ding a Ling” a novelty song written by another legend, Dave Bartholomew who wrote “Ain’t that a Shame” and many other songs with Fats Domino.

(500 Greatest Songs of All Time) lists; Johnny B. Goode #7, Maybellene #18, Roll Over, Beethoven # 97, Rock & Roll Music #128, Sweet Little Sixteen #272 and Brown Eyed Handsome Man #375.

Dolly Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You” which hit #1 on the Country chart not once but twice in 1974 and again in 1982. Yet for all her amazing success in Country music, the version of the song by Whitney Houston hit #1 on every major chart in the world between 1992 and 1993. It won every major music award in 1993 and 1994 including the Grammy for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female and The Soul Train Award for Best R&B song of the Year. Dolly has made more money in royalties from this recording than from her own two releases combined and then some I’d speculate.

(500 Greatest Songs of All Time) lists; Jolene #217

Leonard Cohen wrote and recorded “Hallelujah” in 1984. It’s an amazing creation, but his original version pales when compared to the success of the song itself which has taken on a life of its own. In 1991, John Cale did a version on an album dedicated to Cohen titled I’m Your Fan. It’s the one in the movie Shrek but oddly the soundtrack cites the Rufus Wainwright version (you can thank copyrights for that I think). Based on Cale’s version, Jeff Buckley recorded it in 1994 but it was not released as a single until 10 years after his death in 2007. Cover song expert Ray Padgett’s new book is titled I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen which of course heavily features “Hallelujah”.

(500 Greatest Songs of All Time) lists; Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah #259

Speaking of “I’m Your Fan” I am all over that with Nick Lowe. So, I have to mention that not only is he a master of writing witty ironic lyrics and song titles but one of his songs made him lucky due to a twist of fate. He wrote “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” and first recorded it with Brinsley Schwarz in 1974 and again with his own band in 1978. It remained a quietly brilliant yet little-known song. Also at this time me and my buddies were discovering British Pub Rock including the music of Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds and Graham Parker. While Lowe was producing Elvis Costello and the Attractions, his version of the song first appeared as a B-side to “American Squirm” by Nick Lowe and His Sound (1978), then again on Costello’s 1980 album, Armed Forces which had quite a bit more success. But the version by a fairly well-known Jazz singer named Curtis Stigers (“I Wonder Why”), appeared on the 1992 soundtrack for the movie The Bodyguard. The soundtrack also featured the above-mentioned song “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston. On the strength of that song, the album became the best-selling movie soundtrack of all time. At this time Lowe was at a bit of ‘low’ point in his career. As he had retained the rights to this song, his portion of the royalties he received from the album sales not only saved him but (so I’ve read) may have surpassed all of his other songs to that point, combined. Eighteen years after the songs first release he was able to use that money to support himself and his band for some time. If that is not ironic enough for you, the song never actually appears in the movie, it’s only on the soundtrack! The song has been covered about 50 more times since then, including The Wallflowers and The Holmes Brothers.

(500 Greatest Songs of All Time) lists; Elvis Costello’s version of (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding #284

Here are a few other ‘ironic’ surprise artists that never reached #1 on Billboard: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sheryl Crow, Backstreet Boys, One Direction, James Brown, MC Hammer and Pat Benatar.

Edited by Richelle Dafoe

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