What is a Cover Song?
On October 15, 1966, before Aretha covered his song, Otis Redding made his mark with a cover that had already been recorded over 50 times. The original was by Ray Noble in 1932. “Try a Little Tenderness” was written by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly and Harry M. Woods and was a hit song for several artists over the years. This sentimental ballad was sung in this format for over 30 years and although the Queen of Soul herself Aretha Franklin added a small touch of soul on her 1962 recording, it was Redding who transformed the song. It was deep and soulful and he added his own ending referred to as a coda. Yet he receives no writing credits and it’s regarded as a cover song. His version was sampled by Jay Z and Kanye West in their tribute song “Otis“. On this original song they also sampled two other songs and the official credits include all seven of those songwriters.
With the exception of sampling, sometimes the use of another song is inadvertent, and when you think about the millions of songs there are it’s understandable that this happens from time to time. We can look at the song, “My Sweet Lord” (covered over 100 times and listed at #454 of the 500 Greatest Songs) as an example. The song was released by George Harrison in 1970, after which a lawsuit for copyright infringement was raised on behalf of Ronnie Mack and the Chiffons against Harrison. The claim stated that “My Sweet Lord” essentially copied the musicality of the song, “He’s So Fine” (covered 15 times), written by Ronnie Mack and recorded by The Chiffons. The lawsuit upheld that “He’s So Fine” was the original melody. George Harrison admitted this song may have been in his head while writing “My Sweet Lord’ and he inadvertently used part of the melody and I completely believe it was unintentional. If you listen to both songs it’s pretty clear to me one is not a copy of the other, and while the credits are now shared, it’s not really considered a cover song.
A Brief History
I need not go any further than my own hometown for a great resource called Covers Uncovered: A History of the “Cover Version” which is a 2014 thesis paper by Sean Dineley from the Graduate Program in Popular Music and Culture at London’s Western University. The paper divides the cover song into three eras: Pre-rock which was post WWII to the early years of Rock and Roll, Rock which focused on the 60s -70s and Post Rock which represents the last 20 years or so. While there is some great research here and some revelations as well, it also skips over periods of time (which in the interest of the academic paper was completely necessary). The paper points out the economic benefits of the cover song for the record and publishing companies who reap the profits from the re-recordings. Based on the era, the social impact and the artistic input is discussed.
This and other research from people such as music historian Elijah Wald, a number of musicologists, or Ray Padgett who wrote the book “Cover Me” (2017), seem to show that the term “cover song” was popularized around the 1950s. It had been in use for perhaps a decade before but certainly not known outside the music industry. Before that there was no use for the term itself as music consumption was largely about the song, so one may buy their favorite orchestra playing the popular songs of the day, and your neighbours may have been buying their favorite bandleader and so on. Competing record labels really just wanted to outsell they other guy so if a song was popular, they would release their own version. As I’ve mentioned in past posts, singers such as Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra began to develop loyal listeners and through to the beginnings of Rock and Roll the singer and bands like The Beatles started to come to the forefront. Yet the cover song itself through its many incarnations and meanings still remains. Complexities aside, our common understanding now is how I began this blog, a cover song is a re-recording of an original song.
What can be considered an Original Song?
The original of a song is the first recording and release the song. Original songs, in many cases, are not actually written by the singer(s). Therefore, the song writing “credits” go to the author of the song, not the singer(s). It just so happens that sometimes the singer may have also written the song. Bob Dylan, for example, almost exclusively sang the songs he wrote himself, as did The Beatles, as does Adele, Taylor Swift and many other well-known artists. That’s sometimes how they get to be so well known; they have talent, they write original songs that set them apart from everyone else and… boom you get U2.
Not to say we haven’t seen our fair share of very successful vocalists that did not write much or, in the case of Elvis Presley, any of his songs. Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Linda Ronstadt also come to mind as successful artists who did not write their songs. When it comes to most music, the idea that a singer should always write their own material is very much the exception. Note, this does not make these artists cover singers. If they release it first, it’s an original – no matter who wrote it.
When It Can Get Confusing
Many new versions of songs are based on other artists’ covers rather than on the original itself. This would be known as a cover of a cover. A good example is Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares for Me” from 1958. At about 200 documented cover versions, it is a Jazz vocal standard written by Walter Donaldson with lyrics by Gus Kahn. It is from the film version of the musical comedy Whoopee! (1930), and the song became a signature tune for Eddie Cantor who sang it in the movie. The first actual recording was by Ted Weems and His Orchestra in 1930 with vocals by Art Jarrett. Oddly, in the early days of recording of just about any ‘so and so’ with his orchestra, the vocalists are rarely mentioned. Lyrics of this song seem to vary quite a bit from recording to recording, yet after her unique version re-emerged in 1987, many subsequent covers would be “in the style” of Nina Simone. Similarly, since 1966, “Try a Little Tenderness” has been covered about 150 more times, some following the original and many, such as Three Dog Night use the Otis Redding arrangement.
Some songs are even more complex in their development. For example, “Stagger Lee“, written by Lloyd Price and his collaborator Harold Logan and released by Price in 1958. It became a #1 Billboard hit song in 1959. His lyrics are taken from a song first recorded in 1923. The lyrics are based on a real-life event where a Billy Lyons was shot by a criminal named “Stag” Lee Shelton. Many of the words come from the account of Billy taking Shelton’s Stetson hat and paying for that with his life. Here is the oldest known recording available, “Stack O’ Lee Blues” by “Ma” Rainey with her Georgia Band. We see this sometimes with very old songs that get a new arrangement or words added or subtracted. In the case of this song, the original writer is not known and is listed as ‘Traditional’. Over the years it was recorded in different ways, some more bluesy, folksy or with a Jazz twist. Lloyd Price didn’t directly cover “Ma” Rainey, he used the storyline and added his own music and practically made it a brand-new song, hence gaining songwriting credits he did not have to share with an ‘original’ writer. His version has been covered over 70 times. Here is a version by The Levon Helm Band from 2014.
Here are some song songs where you may even have known the original but not recognized the song when it was covered.
One of the best examples is “This Flight Tonight” by Nazareth. Their song bears little resemblance to Joni Mitchell’s original, yet the lyrics are almost identical. Nazareth confused us once again with a cover of “Love Hurts” in 1974. This Everly Brothers song written by Boudleaux Bryant was released in October of 1960 and covered by Roy Orbison the following year. Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris were the only other artists to cover it in 1974, and Emmylou still sings it during almost every concert.
I also find the Talking Heads 1978 version of “Take Me to the River” quite different than Al Green’s original from 1974.
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” was covered by Lorde for the The Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack and is a stark contrast to the original by Tears for Fears, written by Chris Hughes, Roland Orzabal and Ian Stanley.
Cake gives the song “I Will Survive” (1996) an acid tone compared to the triumphant sounding original by Gloria Gaynor from 1978. Written by Dino Fekaris and Freddie Perren (“Reunited” by Peaches and Herb). Incidentally “I Will Survive” is the most covered song released in 1978 with over 150 versions.
“Woodstock” is one of those tricky songs. Written and originally recorded by Joni Mitchell on September 13, 1969 she held back her release to allow her friends Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to record it and release it in March of 1970. Mitchell’s release was a month later. One is a rock song and the other is a folk song, the lyrics and melody seem to fit both perfectly and it’s been covered about 100 times since.
“Hurt” by Johnny Cash has become a classic and is a perfect example. The original is actually by Nine Inch Nails and if not for all the attention it would have been difficult to pair the two songs.
This next song is one where you very likely have not heard the original and did not know (like me) that this smash hit was actually a cover. Written by Chip Taylor, “Wild Thing” was first recorded by The Wild Ones in 1965. The next version was by The Troggs that hit #1 for two weeks in the summer of 1966. Due to a copyright dispute, it’s also the only #1 song to be released by two record labels simultaneously. Atco Records and Fontana Records used the same master recording so both releases were combined for chart and sales tracking, making it a million-dollar seller. Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time put this song at #257. It has since been covered about 110 times.
Trivia. What is Chip Taylor’s real name?
Answer. James Wesley Voight, and he is the younger brother of Jon Voight. Some of his other notable tunes are “Angel of the Morning” popularized by Merrilee Rush and “I Can’t Let Go” covered by Linda Ronstadt. Chip Taylor is also an accomplished performer and has recorded about 30 albums.