Under Cover with Elvis Costello


Under Cover with Elvis Costello

Few singer songwriters can match Elvis Costello’s ability to sing songs that were written and recorded by others. I have included at least three of his originals and nine of Costello’s covers throughout my blog posts, but there are so many more great ones to talk about. I know not everyone ‘gets’ Costello and his distinctive voice stylings, but I suppose for fans that’s part of the allure, he doesn’t sound like anyone else. So, as to not disappoint, here is a clip of “Watching the Detectives“, as my title may have led you to expect it! This post was inspired by reminiscing with my best buddy (of 47 years) over a video chat.

First – a little bit about the man from Twickenham who grew up idolizing The Beatles and would go on to have the privilege of performing for Sir Paul McCartney when he was the third honouree of The Gershwin Prize for popular song in 2016. Declan Patrick Aloysius McManus was born August 25, 1954. This two-time Grammy winner was ranked at #80 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of all Time. He is a product of London’s Pub Rock scene, and, if you are following my posts, I may have mentioned once or twice that he is one of my favourites. Early in his career, he followed one of the leaders of that movement; Nick Lowe, who along with Dave Edmunds and Graham Parker I have seen perform live. That just leaves Elvis Costello, hopefully I’ll catch him before one of us kicks the proverbial bucket (list) for the last time! Just a update, I had the pleasure of seeing Elvis perform at Massey Hall in Toronto on August 8, 2022. So I can cross that one off the list. Opening act was Nick Lowe w/Los Straightjackets’. Elvis was quite amazing and has lots of energy, zeal and his fabulous voice. As I had hoped, he and Nick performed “What’s So Funny Bout Peace Love and Understanding” and “Indoor Fireworks”, both written by Lowe and recorded by Elvis.

Costello’s first three albums; My Aim is True, This Year’s Model, and Oliver’s Army are listed on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (2012). All produced by Nick Lowe at Stiff Records in London. Some may say it’s not that impressive to get on a list of 500 albums, but if we consider from when the beginning of the “Album Era” was, which is placed in the mid 1960’s to its decline (thanks to digital singles and streaming) to around 2005, there have been millions of releases. Despite the drop there are still many new albums produced every year, however US sales show that the 500 million in sales in 2005 is now down to about 100 million annually, as of 2019.

I have no idea as to the total number of albums within the purview of Rolling Stone Magazine and they don’t rank all genres, such as Classical Music or non-English language music. But, I am going to take an educated guess that during the 50 odd years of serious album purchasing, using Billboard’s Top 200 annual list as a guideline, that is approximately 10,000 albums for consideration. Rolling Stone would not be bound by that list, but I suppose my point is that perhaps their ranking of any artists albums is a bit more impressive, being recognized from an elite sample pool.

Despite this critical attention we find that it’s not that unusual for some of the greatest singer songwriters (Dylan, Mitchell) to fall under the radar of the Pop charts. After all it took Bob Dylan 50 years to get a #1 song, Joni Mitchell hit #1 only once on the Adult Contemporary Chart with “Help Me” in 1974, and Costello’s highest was “Oliver’s Army” at #2. However, this has not stopped him from amassing a huge worldwide following and producing 33 studio albums. Starting out as part Pub Rock and a little Punk-in for spice, he came to be described as part of the New Wave.

Over the years the “angry young man” as is often the case begins to mellow with age. However, his thought-provoking song writing continues to evolve, and he is also a very accomplished multi-instrumentalist, arranger, and producer.

Seemingly able to write songs “on demand” and with relative ease, his distinctive approach sets him apart from others in the industry. If you listen to him talk, he can sound a little self-absorbed at times, but when it comes to the music, he can be as selfless as they come. For example, at the Live Aid Concert in 1985, he had to choose just one song to perform at the Wembley Stadium show (btw the other was at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia), he chose The Beatles “All You Need is Love” over a chance to have one of his own songs heard by the largest audience in music history. Despite his impact on Rock & Roll he is not, by his own admission a “Rock guy”. He could not join in an encore with Sheryl Crow because she was doing “Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin. He does not own a Zeppelin album and did not even know of the song. For the ‘record’ I don’t own a Led Zeppelin album either.

Like many of his cohorts he has been labelled by some as a “sell out” of sorts for this change of course in music. I heard someone use the phrase at a Nick Lowe concert and I’m like, “buddy have you ever listened to more than one of his songs?”

Many artists such as Lowe or Joe Jackson, and for that matter David Bowie, always had diverse taste in music. I recall that Ammi Grant and Katy Perry were Christian artists and Gwen Stefani was a bit of a Riot Grrrl.

Some fans want their artists to do sort of the same thing over and over like AC/DC or the Rolling Stones (no offense), at last count these legendary artists were doing just fine.  And if you don’t like an artist’s change of course – you are free to listen to something else.

His knowledge of music is scholarly, and he puts that to good use when he chooses his songs. According to Secondhandsongs.com, Costello has had 127 of his original songs covered and an additional 20 songs he has written or co-written covered as well. They have so far documented 212 songs he has covered (as with any artist it includes covering your own song often in a different format such as w/Orchestra). He can do songs from any era, in any genre and whether with a String Quartet, Orchestra, another artist, solo, live, or in studio, he gives the songs the utmost attention that he would if it were one of his originals. His eclectic tastes include songs that no one else has covered, some of them are lesser-known tunes by well-known artists, such as “Hidden Shame” by Johnny Cash. True, as he is one of my favourites, I am letting my bias show, but there are so many great songs to choose from. To be honest, some are better than others so this selection will include the more impressive and/or the ones I like the best! Here are the covers in somewhat of a chronological order, if you are one who clicks on the links, try the original first and you can appreciate the cover even more.

Costello’s first released cover was “I Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach and first recorded by Tommy Hunt in 1964. Hunt is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees’ The Flamingos. The song is perhaps best known from versions by Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick. Undoubtedly, Elvis Costello would have heard the Springfield version which hit #3 in the UK in 1964 but perhaps his inspiration may have come from Tommy Hunt himself who would become a popular performer during the heyday of the Northern Soul movement just before Elvis Costello & The Attractions performed it for a release on Live Stiffs Live in 1978.

Costello’s third cover and one of my favorite versions of this tune, “My Funny Valentine” (1979) written by another legendary pair, Richard Rodgers, and Lorenz Hart. This was originally performed by Mitzi Green in 1937 via her character Billie Smith in the stage musical Babes in Arms. Hal McIntyre and His Orchestra with Ruth Gaylor is the first release with vocals from 1945. Since then, it has been covered over 1,100 times, making it one of the most popular Standards from the American Songbook and (excluding Christmas songs) it’s the fifth most covered song of all time.

In 1980 Costello would cover “Girls Talk”, a song he wrote but offered to Dave Edmunds who would rearrange it, record it (1978), and release it a year later hitting #4 on the UK charts. Costello gives the song a different feel, his release was on a single with another cover song, Sam & Dave’s “I Can’t Stand Up“. Neither song charted but, in my mind, both excellent songs but I have to lean to Edmunds for the better of the two.

Also, in 1980 on his album High Fidelity he would cover “Getting Mighty Crowded“, an original song by the great Betty Everett from 1964. The song was written by Van McCoy who brought us “The Hustle” in 1975.

Written by The Flying Burrito Brothers members Gram Parsons and Chris Ethridge, “I’m Your Toy (Hot Burrito Number 1)” from 1969 is a moving heartbreak song. Elvis released it 1981 on the album Almost Blue and he’s one of 17 to cover the song. Also, great versions were done by The Cowboy Junkies Live in 1992 and The Mavericks in 1999 as part of a Gram Parsons tribute.

On the same album of Country cover songs Almost Blue, Costello does a great version of Loretta Lynn’s “Success” which hit #1 for her in 1962. Famously covered by Sinéad O’Connor in 1992 where it would chart top 40 in a dozen countries.

Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” released as The Costello Show in 1986 is a fine interpretation of this song. For me, his rendition lies between the deeply soulful original by Nina Simone in 1964 with the more well-known Rock Blues cover by The Animals in 1965. Written for Simone by Bennie Benjamin, Horace Ott and Sol Marcus, it has been covered over 150 times.

The short and tragic life of the very influential Little Willie John left us many memorable songs, such as “Fever” which is the fifth most covered ‘Pop’ song of all time, currently at 529 versions. He co-wrote “You Better Leave My Kitten Alone” with fellow R&B singer songwriters Titus Turner and James McDougal, released in 1959. Also covered by The Beatles in 1964, the first Costello version was released on Live for Ireland 1988, later it appeared on his own studio album, Elvis Costello’s Kojak Variety in 1995.

One may wonder why some songs continue to be recorded so many times, but compositions by Cole Porter seem to be too hard to resist. After all, he is the seventh most recorded author of all time with over 10,000 versions of his 155 songs. Costello’s version of “Love for Sale” appears on the 1994 re-release of the 1981 Album, Trust. It was a one-off song that needed a home, so he stuck it on this album, and I, for one, am glad for it because I think he did an amazing job. “Love for Sale” first appeared in Cole Porter’s play The New Yorkers in 1930, sung on stage by Kathryn Crawford, June Shafer, Ida Pearson, and Stella Friend. However, the prudish mores and newspaper headlines of the day didn’t like the tune as it happened to be presented by prostitutes in the play. Like most versions, Costello follows in the style of Elizabeth Welch. In 1931 the play was moved to the Cotton Club and with a little tweak of the arrangement Welch delivered a somewhat sultry yet tongue in cheek performance – in fairly stark contrast to the original in the typical “show tune” style.  Welch was the singer who made the song “Stormy Weather” famous in her live performances, though there are no early recordings. I first found this song thanks to my dear departed old roommate Ric and his Manhattan Transfer 1978 Album; Pastiche and I think one of the best versions of the song ever recorded. Their version is in a style that harkens back to the original stage production and the first released recording by The Three Waring Girls, which comprised of June, Ida and Stella mentioned above, recorded December 24, 1930, and released early 1931.

Costello was a busy man in 1994, apart from several of his cover songs appearing on the Trust and Almost Blue album re-releases, he shows up on tribute albums for Van Morrison, Gershwin, and Arthur Alexander.  He does a live duet with Tony Bennett, several songs for the BBC TV series “Family”, a single release, songs that appeared on his 1995 album Elvis Costello’s Kojak Variety, and a Compilation Album. Not to mention his own new album titled Brutal Youth which contained all original songs written by Costello, except for his recording of the Yeats poem “A Drunken Man’s Praise of Sobriety” that appears on the bonus disc.

As is typical for me, and I drone on about these songs, I suddenly realize I’m not going to fit them all in. So, to get in a few more I must force myself toward some brevity!

I’ve already mentioned Elvis Costello’s Kojak Variety, released in 1995 and it has several great covers on it, including this lesser-known Aretha Franklin song “Running out of Fools“. Costello’s version sticks very much to the original arrangement. Covered only 11 times and Elvis was the first one to do so in over twenty years.

Costello has developed many relationships leading to some great cover songs such as with June Tabor, the British Folk singer. She has recorded several of his songs and he in return covered many of hers such as the poignant “I Want to Vanish” in 1996.

Many will be familiar with Costello’s cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” in the Austin Powers movie. This song was written for the stage production of Neil Simon’s Promises, Promises in 1968. Performed and later first recorded by Jill O’Hara and Jerry Orbach. You will know the award winning Orbach from Murder She Wrote, Law and Order, the dad in Dirty Dancing and the voice of Lumière in Beauty and the Beast among many other memorable roles.

Costello teamed up with Opera Singer Anne Sofie von Otter in 2001 for an album which included a cover of “It’s April After All” written by one of my favorite Canadian Singer Songwriters, Ron Sexsmith.

I blogged about The Commitments movie/group some time ago, but I did not include their amazing cover of “The Dark End of the Street“. This song was written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman (Aretha Franklins’ Do Right Woman – Do Right Man) and first recorded by James Carr. This R&B classic has been covered over 90 times by artists from just about every genre, and Costello covered it in 2004.

Costello teamed up with The Brodsky Quartet for several songs and their version of The Beach Boys “God Only Knows” is as stunning as it is unique. Recorded live in 1993 but not released until 2006. If you are a listener of the YouTube clips, avoid the first 20 seconds on this one as the audio is quite annoying.

I admit I had not heard of the Spanish singer Vega before (apologies to my extended Spanish, well actually Catalonian family!). Somewhat ironically, the discovery comes from her 2017 Italian album, Non ho l’età. Elvis Costello is featured on the title track as well as “Dio come ti amo” which is a cover of Domenico Modugno from 1966. Quite coincidentally I just talked about Modugno in my last post and his song “Nel blu, dipinto di blu”, also covered by Vega. Give Vega a listen, she is quite amazing!

While I know Costello has recorded many more covers, and I suspect many yet to come, I think that’s a good place to finish, I hope I haven’t worn you out and that you enjoy some of the music from this diverse and talented artist.

 References: 123,

 image: ElivsCostello.com

Edited by Madison Dafoe (post edit errors by yours truly)

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