11. “Ring of Fire” was first recorded by Anita Carter and was written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore. Recorded in late 1962 it appeared on Anita Carter Sings Folk Songs Old and New that came out in December. It was released as a single early in 1963. The original title is “(Love’s) Ring of Fire”, and I think it should be noted that Anita was a bona fide recording artist with several charted songs, outside of her work with the Legendary Carter Family. Johnny’s ex-wife Vivian had stated that it was Johnny that wrote the song and gave songwriting credit to June and allowed Anita to record it first. June Carter however had a completely different story and provides a solid background as to how she came up with the song.
Johnny held back on releasing the song until it was clear Anita’s effort was not going to be a hit and in fact it did not chart at all. Cash had a dream about adding what he referred to as “Mexican style trumpets” to the music. Johnny Cash (link with lyrics) recorded it April 19, 1963 and it went to #1 on the Hot 100 Country singles chart for the week ending July 27 and stayed there for seven weeks. It also reached #17 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart. Classic Cash with a dynamic take on the song. There are currently 325 versions of this song. To my knowledge the only Country version to chart was Alan Jackson at #45 in 2010. Eric Burdon and The Animals charted in Europe, South Africa and Australia in 1969. Personally I’m partial to Dwight Yoakam’s take that originally appeared on an EP in 1984 but was a key part of Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. reaching #1 on the Country Album chart in 1986. This song is still recorded a few times every year and it is in nine different languages, there are a few dozen instrumentals as well.
12. “Take Me Home Country Roads” by John Denver of course, it was co-written with Bill Danoff (Afternoon Delight) and his wife and fellow member of the Starland Vocal Band, Taffy Nivert. In truth Danoff was the one who came up with the core lyrics, based on his own personal experiences. Released as a single in May 1971 it would peak at #1 on Cashbox and #2 on Billboard in the US and #5 on the UK singles chart. Denver was a burgeoning Folk artist and the song was received as more of a Folk Pop song as it only reached #50 on the Country Hot 100. However, with the very first covers by Superstars Loretta Lynn and Lynn Anderson, other Country stars would follow such as Tennessee Ernie Ford, The Statler Brothers, The Carter Family, The Mercey Brothers and Skeeter Davis all within two years of the original. It is one of many songs that straddle genres. I think if you asked most people they would say its a Country Song, and the vast majority of artists doing it are from the Country genre.
There 330 versions of the song and it was covered nine times in the first year. In 1972 Olivia Newton John (a hit in the UK in 1973) did her version, one of 23 recorded that year. Rarely have I seen that many renditions of a song done in one year. No song of course is in the stratosphere of “Yesterday” that clocked 64 versions in 1966. As noted above, joining John in 1972 were Ray Charles (who did many Country songs), Toots and the Maytals did a modified Reggae take on the song and Felicia from Hong Kong had a version on her album of cover songs. The original song title was actually Rhododendron which is the State flower of West Virginia, where it is one of four official State songs.
13. “Green, Green Grass of Home” was written by the brilliant Curly Putnam. If you don’t know the name, he was the inspiration for the Paul McCartney song “Junior’s Farm” after he and Linda wrote it during a stay at his farm in Tennessee in 1974. Putnam has written or co-written too many songs to list but some of the more notable are; “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” a huge hit for Tammy Wynette and he wrote one for her (sometimes) husband George Jones “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, as well as hits for Ray Price, Merle Haggard and Tanya Tucker. There are currently 327 versions.
It was done very well when originally recorded by Country singer Johnny Darrell in 1965 and first covered by one of the biggest stars of that time, Porter Wagoner. However it was the next version by Jerry Lee Lewis that inspired Tom Jones to record it becoming a smash hit reaching #1 in the UK, Ireland, Norway and Australia and #11 in the US.
14. “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is the third Hank Williams song on this Top 20 list and his second most recorded song with 303 versions. Hank recorded it in late 1952 and it was released as a single on the ‘B’ side to “Kaw-Liga”. Hank Williams died at age 29 on January 1, 1953. Both songs were released shortly after his death, they would be his 8th and 9th #1 songs. Williams, just before his death had been wracked with pain following a failed operation to correct his spina bifida. This only fueled his drinking and after being prescribed morphine for his pain he now developed a drug addiction. All this and more was combined with his recent divorce from Audrey Sheppard, so he poured out all his hurt in the words of the song.
This, like so many of his songs paints a vivid picture and so many are autobiographical in nature, representing the struggles he had with pain, addiction, loneliness, love and loss. It is little wonder that he is the most covered Country Artist of all time and on the top 10 list of most covered singer/songwriters. When we look at the list of covers for this song we once again find Ray Charles who if you recall took Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” to #1 from his 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music where he also did Williams songs. Charles version of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” went to #23 on the R&B and #29 on the Hot 100 and #13 on the UK charts that same year, this was from his follow-up album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Volume 2. The song also charted twice in 1953 on the Billboard Most Played in Jukeboxes with renditions by Joni James #2 and Frankie Lane at #18.
15. “San Antonio Rose” is a song by the King of Western Swing, Bob Wills. An instrumental, it was first released in 1938 as Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Wills, with the help of the band would write lyrics for this very popular song and it came out in 1940 and was titled “New San Antonio Rose”. It was his signature song for the rest of his career. Combined there are 298 versions of this song in several languages as well. There was only one cover of the instrumental original by Cliff Bruner and His Boys in 1939 and it would not be done again until 1951 when it was recorded seven times and dozens more since then. Every self respecting Square Dancer and Two-stepping Texan knows how to twirl to this classic.
It is the one with the lyrics “New San Antonio Rose” that is the more popular and it was done by Bing Crosby, released in January of 1941. This was a big deal as most of Country Music at this time, particularly songs from Wills was labeled as Hillbilly Music and not fit for popular consumption. There is a well known rendition by Patsy Cline with the Jordanaires from 1961. Bob Wills was not one that conformed to any standards except his own, and he and his band caused a great bit of upset when they performed this song live on the Grand ole Opry in 1944 and used the instrument called the drums. It is true that drums were banned on the Opry stage. While the song may not be recorded every year there are recent versions by LeAnn Rimes in 2019 and Australian singer Sharon Heaslip in 2020. Give the song a listen, just about anything by Bob Wills will if not move your feet it will lift your spirit.
6. “Riders in the Sky” was written by Stan Jones. He had a Masters Degree in Zoology and was working as a Park guide in Death Valley in 1948. Based on a Native American story, in his own words he put it to the tune of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” but in a different tempo. He sang it as a campfire song for some Hollywood Scouts looking for film shooting locations, this led to a career in the movie business. First as a technical adviser and later composing music for John Ford in his movies like The Searchers and Rio Grande. Jones did the Rodeo circuit in his younger days so writing a Cowboy Song came naturally. Jones recorded it himself in 1948 but it was not released until later in 1949. So the first released version, recorded later in 1948 was by Bob Geddins, who was actually an R&B singer/songwriter as well as the founder of several independent record labels. Geddins was a pretty versatile singer so he did the song in what might be described as a Country Blues style and it was titled “Ghost Riders”. The first cover was by Burl Ives, he was another singer with songs in a range of genre. The third time was the charm as Vaughn Munroe‘s 1949 version became a hit song. It was now titled “Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend)”. It was later recorded by Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Gene Autry and other well known artists all in that same year for a total of thirteen recordings in 1949 alone. Under several different titles but most often as “Ghost Riders In the Sky” the song now has 356 versions.
7. “Always on My Mind” was written by Johnny Christopher, Wayne Carson, Mark James and the first recording was by Brenda Lee in 1971 but her June release was trumped by Gwen McCrae’s that came out in March. The third release of the song was by Elvis Presley, it reached #16 on Billboards Country chart. There are currently 353 versions of this song but none of them has done any better than Willie Nelson’s 1982 released that went to #1 on the Country chart in Canada and the US as well as #5 on the Hot 100. He would win a Grammy Award and so would the Song and the Songwriters. It also won CMA awards in both 1982 and 1983. “Always on My Mind” would be a huge hit for The Pet Shop Boys in 1987, hitting #1 on at least seven International charts including the UK and #4 on the Billboard Hot 100.
8. “I’m Nine Hundred Miles from Home” is a traditional song first recorded by the legendary Fiddlin’ John Carson in 1924. The song was not recorded again until 1942 when Wade Mainer and Sons of the Mountaineers did and titled it “Old Ruben” this is one of the several alternate names of the song. It is also know in the Bluegrass world as “Train 45”. All variations also have many instrumental versions and it was adapted by Hedy West when she wrote “500 Miles”, which was first released by The Journeymen in 1961. That version has more of Folk feel to it, however there is another popular adaptation that Country star Bobby Bare did in 1963 titled “500 Miles Away from Home“. Staying true to the original melody, folky versions all tolled this song has 353 versions. In case you were curious, The Proclaimers song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) is not related to this song but perhaps the Hedy West “500 Miles” may have inspired the number.
9. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” was written by one of the more evocative Songwriters I have ever heard or seen. Jimmy Webb is also the author of “MacArthur Park”, “Galveston”, “Up, Up and Away” and another very big hit to be mentioned later. The song was first recorded by Johnny Rivers who at that time had already posted many top ten hits, however it was not released as a single and only appeared on his 1966 album Changes. This opened the door for Glen Campbell and the best known version with his single which hit #1 in Canada and #2 on the US Country charts. In 1967 he took home three Grammy Awards for this song, this on the same day he earned two for “Gentle on My Mind”. Coincidently Glen Campbell also covered Bobby Bare’s “500 Miles Away from Home” and the #3 song in the previous post “Help Me Make It Through the Night”. Currently there are 351 documented version of this song. There are a large number of instrumentals of this song, and the first one was by the great pianist Floyd Cramer.
10. “I’m So Lonesome” was written by Hank Williams. He charted eight songs in 1949 but this was not one of them. It was the ‘B’ side to “My Bucket’s Got s Hole in it” which peaked at #2. Based on the popularity of a cover by B.J. Thomas that reached #8 on The Hot 100, Williams original was re-released in 1966 and reached #43. As we know many of the most iconic and most covered song were never hits when first released. Hank poured his heart out when he performed this poignant and beautifully sad song. It’s not a surprise to me that it ranks so highly on the list. This woeful tear jerker set the standard for heartbreaking songs. It was first covered by The Jordanaires as The Foggy River Boys in 1950, but not again until Marty Robbins in 1957. Using their usual name this time The Jordanaires were the first of 14 versions in 1966. The song currently has 335 versions in nine languages.
Some other notable covers include; Andy Williams, Johnny Cash, Wanda Jackson, Tanya Tucker, The Cowboys Junkies and more recently Sara Evans featuring Old Crow Medicine Show in 2020. Terry Bradshaw (yes the Steelers Quarterback) covered it in 1976 and went to #17 on the Country Singles Chart.
When I posted about the most covered pop songs and artists of all time, other than the unavoidable Hank Williams, there are not any other names from Country Music. This is understandable as the Pop music category is so broad, meaning that any specific type of music would not stand out on it’s own. For this list I went to my source of Secondhandsongs.com to see what was up if I just focused my research on the one genre. Now I did not skip over any Country Songs on my prior post so I know I’m going to be well outside of the top 100 most covered songs. As with the previous lists, these numbers exclude Christmas songs. Because songs get adapted, by that I mean perhaps the words get changed in a substantial way or it was originally in French but was translated to English, the line for credits and covers is not always so straight.
However, I have found that most adaptations come by way of copying the melody of another song, this is where we see two avenues; one is taking the melody from a foreign language tune and putting new words to it, the second being melodies from older English language songs. Many times the author is unknown, which makes reusing the tune a lot easier, at least from a copyright standpoint. Here we use the word ‘Traditional’ in a more technical context to refer to these songs. Basically we are talking about old tunes updated with new lyrics. I gave the example in the Pop songs post of “Aura Lee” being adapted to make “Love Me Tender” by Elvis Presley.
If you thought that controversy over song credits and the use of a melody or words is something new to music than you might want to reconsider your outlook as you read on. Right off the bat we have an adaptation, followed by a song credit mystery, and more surprises. Thanks again to Secondhandsongs.com who make it easier for me to connect these songs to their origins. It does not make for a clean list of Song Title/Artist/Writers all of the time but if credit is due I hope to make sure I mention it.
The Top 20 Most Covered Country Songs of all time (#1-5)
At #1 is “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” written and first performed by Hank Williams (and his Drifting Cowboys). Recorded in June and then released in July of 1952. The melody for this song was adapted from a Cajun song recorded as “Gran’ Texas”, which itself was also adapted from a Traditional refrain. That one was first released by Chuck Guillory and His Rhythm Boys in 1948. That’s were the Wikipedia reference ends. However, while it is true that “Jambalaya” is based on that Traditional Cajun melody, there is an earlier, nearly identical recording from 1940 titled “Gran Prairie“. Both of theses songs were recorded in Cajun French. The latter was first recorded by Happy Fats and His Rayne-Bo Ramblers. Happy Fats real name was Leroy Leblanc and he is accompanied on the fiddle by another Cajun Music pioneer named Harry Choates. Know as “the Father of Cajun Music”, Choates is well known for his adaption of ” Jolé Blon”. There is little doubt this song was familiar to Hank Williams but it is when he heard these traditional songs and talk about Cajun food while on the Hadacol Caravan music tour in Southern Louisiana in 1950 that the inspiration came for his song. We will avoid that rabbit hole but long story short it was very likely written with the help of fellow recording artist Moon Mullican who may have been paid directly so his name could be kept off the song credits and hence the publishing rights. Mullican was the first artist to ‘cover’ “Jambalaya” and released it just a week after Williams. Still a popularly performed Cajun song, there are currently only six documented renditions of “Gran Prairie” bringing it to a gran’ total 476 versions, making “Jambalaya” the 174th most covered song of all time and the most covered Country Song.
At #2 is “You are My Sunshine“, first recorded by The Pine Ridge Boys in August and then released in October of 1939. The song publishing credits (copyright date is January 30, 1940) and perhaps incorrectly (many believe) also the writing credit now belongs to Jimmie Davis, the one time Governor of Louisiana. However, it is believed that Davis did not write the song. He actually purchased the song. Among the several theories is that it was originally written by either Paul Rice (Rice Brothers Gang) as he claimed in 1937, yet he was the second to record it. Perhaps it was Oliver Hood who some say performed it as early as 1934. It seems the song was around a long time before Davis who was indeed a bona fide nationally known singer and songwriter claimed to have composed it. There is not an adequate paper trail and no one alive seems to know for sure, but it appears that Rice sold the song to Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell for $35 and since then they would have made millions off the song publishing rights. In Davis’s defence he did write some pretty great songs such as “Nobody’s Darlin’ but Mine” and others that have been collectively covered into the hundreds of times. There are currently 446 versions of this Louisiana State song including about 100 instrumentals. This is a beautiful little lullaby and most everyone knows at least some of the words. This 2016 Youtube video from Jasmine Thompson has over 34 million views. The vocal version of the song continues to be recorded at least once almost every year.
At #3 is “Help Me Make it Through the Night” which was written by Kris Kristofferson and recorded in October of 1969. It appeared on his 1970 eponymous album Kristofferson. However the most well known and successful version is by Sammi Smith, also released in 1970 but it was actually the third cover, preceded by Percy Sledge and Ray Price. Smiths version hit #1 on the US and Canadian Country chart and it went to #8 on the Hot 100. Willie Nelson covered this on his 1972 album The Willie Way but it was a re-recording from a Kristofferson tribute album in 1980 that reached #4 on the US Country chart and #1 in Canada. There are 426 versions of this song. The names that have recorded this song is impressive to say the least, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, LeAnn Rimes, Tom Jones, Tina Turner and so many more big names. Perhaps inspired by the two #1 chart appearances, Canadian artists Anne Murray, Bryan Adams and Michael Bublé have covered the song as well. Even my next door neighbour recorded his song. Wait, what? Yes it is true my neighbour and one of the nicest guys you will even meet is the six time Juno Award winning Larry Mercey. Before embarking on a successful solo career and still going strong I might add, he was the lead writer and singer for The Mercey Brothers. The song appears on their 1972 album Mercey Brothers Country.
4. “Crazy” was of course written by Willie Nelson, whose name appears in several spots on this Top 20 feature. Nelson wrote the song at least three years before it found its way to Patsy Cline who’s original recording hit #2 on the Country chart in 1961. Cline actually disliked the song and did not want to record it (or any Nelson song for that matter) but over time and with encouragement from her husband, her manager and Hank Cochran she agreed to try it. Willie Nelson was actually waiting in the car while Hank was inside try to convince her and was called into Patsy’s home to help teach her the very difficult to sing song. It was a crossover hit reaching #9 on the Hot 100 and #2 on the Easy Listening chart. It was her most successful song and in addition to becoming an Americana Standard, it is widely regarded as one of best songs of all time (#195 Rolling Stone Magazine 2021) and ranked on the 100 Greatest Country Songs by The Tennessean. Willie’s would be the first cover of the now 382 versions of the song when he recorded it in 1962.
5. “I Can’t Stop Loving You” was written by Don Gibson in 1957 and he released it in December of that same year. While Wiki reports 700 versions of this song I am working with Secondhandsongs.com which has 354 verified versions. Many of these songs may conflict with other reported numbers. While Don Gibson is not stranger to having hits with many #1’s and dozens and dozens more top 10’s and top 40’s, however the song is more well known by the cover by Ray Charles. It was smash worldwide hit going to #1 on The Hot 100, R&B and Easy Listening charts in the US and #1 in the UK, Sweden, Finland and Australia.
I will be posting the next five songs in the coming days.
This has become my most popular post since I started blogging over four years ago. In order to keep in sync with internet searches, particularly from Google I will be updating the stats twice per year. My apologies to my subscribers, there may not be a lot of new information for you since my last post, however people searching for the most covered songs and adding the year ie. 2022 puts my blog at the top of the first page. I have not found another website that tracks cover songs in the same amount of detail, categorization and comparison from year to year. Perhaps because this information and the initial post took days of research!
As I did last fall I have added some streaming numbers to this issue and increased the most covered singles list to 20 songs. I have three categories in today’s blog: 1. The most covered songs (by title) written by a single artist, 2. The most cover versions combined and 3. The most covered Pop songs. These numbers are for artists that write and record their own songs. For more on those known primarily as songwriters, read my series I Write the Songs.
The statistics I use come courtesy of Secondhandsongs.com and are verified via strict protocols. This website posts ‘covers’ submitted from around the globe and in many different languages, edited by very knowledgeable experts in music recording. There are other resources as cited but other than the odd personal anecdote or opinion, I’m using information and knowledge, not to mention YouTube posts that already exist. In addition, the numbers change daily, I had originally written this blog in December 2019 so it’s been interesting to see the changes over the four years. On the whole, the major artists in each list mostly stayed the same but may have shuffled positions. Keeping in mind the people on these lists are among the most important and iconic Singer-Songwriters of all time and recognized around the world. Having said that I certainly acknowledge there are many legendary international artists not included as the focus here for the most part is on Western and English speaking artists. The information in this blog is from statistics collected on or around February 2, 2023.
The most covered songs written by a single recording artist
Here are the Top 10 Artists with the most individual song titles (that they have authored) which have been covered by other artists: Listed as 2021/2023
Bob Dylan: 352/357 songs
Paul McCartney: 331/341 songs
John Lennon: 244/270 songs
David Bowie: 220/220 songs
Frank Zappa: 208/210 songs
Tom Waits: 196/199 songs
Bruce Springsteen: 186/194 songs 8a. Keith Richards: 186/188 songs 8b. Mick Jagger: 186/188 songs
Carole King: 175/182 song
Stevie Wonder: 179/181 songs
I checked to see who was next. New to 2023, Taylor Swift has been very quickly moving up the list and her 180 songs has passed Barry Gibb’s 177 and Neil Young’s 175. By the end of this year Swift will move into the top 10. The other pop artists in the top 50 Song Authors overall list are; Brian Wilson 168, Elton John 167, Elvis Costello 156, Ray Davies 151 and though not a performer, ABBA’s Manager Stig Anderson is at #50 with 145 songs. For the Phil Collins fans he’s #51 with 143 songs.
Just to point out the writers on the above list may have written more songs, so some are either not covered, covered but not documented and/or they may have songs not yet recorded by themselves or others. In general most songs don’t get recorded by another singer at all, but it just so happens these singer songwriters are so popular that a large portion of their songs, sometimes 100% continue to be remade, hence the increasing numbers.
Top 10 total number of all cover versions of songs recorded (written by individual Pop Recording Artist(s) of any songs they have written, including instrumental covers). Comparing totals from 2022 to 2023 the top 10 remain the same.
John Lennon: 20,163 to 22,146 (top solo song “Imagine” – over 500 versions)
Paul McCartney: 19,999 to 21,871 (top solo song “Wonderful Christmastime” – over 100 versions)
Bob Dylan: 6,679 to 7315 (“Blowin’ in the Wind” – close to 400 versions)
Stevie Wonder: 3,599 to 3863 (“You Are the Sunshine of My Life” over 310)
Keith Richards: 3,278 to 3508 ((I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction over 351)
Mick Jagger: 3,267 to 3497 ((I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction over 351)
Hank Williams: 3,164 to 3432 (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” over 306)
Carole King: 3,188 to 3382 (“You’ve Got a Friend” over 388)
Paul Simon: 3,133 to 3352 (“Bridge over Troubled Water” over 584)
David Bowie: 2,807 to 2921 (“Space Oddity”over 263)
I checked to see who would be next in line and the numbers there have changed quite a bit since my research in 2020. The following artists represent numbers (again just for pop artists): 11. Elton John with 2685/2723, 12. Björn Ulvaeus (ABBA) with 2611/2643, 13. Barry Gibb with 2571/2620, 14. Joni Mitchell with 2394/2446, 15. George Harrison with 2388/2413, 16. Robin Gibb 2303/2342. Next in line for pop artists but just outside the top 100 overall are at 17. Sting with 2182/2206, 18. Willie Dixon with 2120/2138, 19. Chuck Berry with 2089/2120 and at #20 is Maurice Gibb with 1839/1874 total covers.
As you can see there are number of record makers that appear on both Top 10 lists which include the 160 songs credited as John Lennon and Paul McCartney that were written and recorded while in The Beatles. As with Jagger and Richards, it includes the approximately 170 songs they wrote together with The Rolling Stones. Carole King wrote nearly 100 songs with Gerry Goffin that were recorded by dozens and dozens of artists, additionally they shared writing credits with other songwriters. Even though Bob Dylan did co-write some songs, he has written virtually all of his own songs as a solo songwriter.
The top 20 most covered Pop singles
This list doesn’t focus on the author, but you can see that several songs were written by the artist(s) themselves. Numbers are for 2021/2023. The songs on this list have changed positions quite a bit but the top 20 remain the same.
“Yesterday” Covered 1,009/1093 times, credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, written by Paul McCartney this song is #8 for the most covered songs excluding Christmas songs.
“Eleanor Rigby” Covered 633/696 times, credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, written by Paul McCartney. This is the next pop song on the list and at #37 overall.
“Bridge over Troubled Water” Covered 584/625 times, written by Paul Simon, #67 overall
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” * Covered 555/621 times, written by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach
“Can’t Help Falling in Love” *written by Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George David Weiss / Covered 522/575 times
“Let it Be” covered 501/564 times, credited to Lennon/McCartney,written by Paul McCartney
“Unchained Melody” * Covered 515/561 times, written by Hy Zaret and Alex North
“Fever” Covered 528/560 times, written by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell originally sung by Little Willie John
“Michelle” Covered 522/557 times, credited to Lennon/McCartney, written by Paul McCartney
“Hey Jude” covered 508/554 times, and as all of The Beatles songs were, credited to Lennon /McCartney, this one was written by Paul McCartney.
“Something” Covered 519/553 times, The Beatles, written by George Harrison
“Imagine” written and recorded (post Beatles) by John Lennon covered 497/549 times
“Here, There and Everywhere” by The Beatles at 496/544
“And I Love Her” covered 490/534 times, written primarily by Paul McCartney
“The Look of Love”, covered 483/519 times, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David
“Blackbird”, covered 468/518 times, written by Paul McCartney
“Hallelujah” covered 300/510 times, written by Leonard Cohen
“God Bless the Child”* covered 471/501 times, written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr.
“House of the Rising Sun” (adapted from Rising Sun Blues), covered 488/500 times, Traditional
“Love Me Tender” * a 1956 release by Elvis Presley is likely next on the list. Covered over 400 times and written by Ken Darby it’s based on the song “Aura Lee” from 1881 written by George Poulton and W.W. Fosdick. The two songs have the same melody so are credited to the composer George Poulton. Combined they currently have over 540 covers.
Several of these songs (marked *) were not initially considered a ‘pop’ song per se. For example “Can’t Help Falling in Love” though based on a melody from “Plaisir d’amour” composed by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini in 1784, it is otherwise considered an original song. Released by Elvis in 1961 and as noted above written by the well known George David Weiss (What a Wonderful World) with Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore.
The Beatles Still Dominate
Still holding in 2023, the only artists that appear on all three lists are John Lennon and Paul McCartney. It’s quite remarkable that from 2020 The Beatles (or it’s members) have moved from having 7 of the top 15 songs to 9 of the top 15 in 2023. Pop music aside, based on a combination of every cover song list, Lennon and McCartney are still extending their lead ahead of all music composers. They are over 6,000 songs ahead of the next name on the list, Richard Rogers followed by the Gershwin’s, Cole Porter and Duke Ellington. Three years ago I said “I can’t ‘imagine’ they will ever be surpassed” and so far it’s been proven to be true. Since last October (2020), their numbers increased and these songs; “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” at 472 which puts at #142 on the list of all songs, “Come Together” at 451 covers is joined by”Both Sides Now” written by Joni Mitchell and “Sunny” by Bobby Hebb that have moved into the top 30 Pop song list and the latter being at #161 on the most covered songs (all genre) of all time. We shall see if next year The Beatles (and it’s members) songs will (very likely) continue their trend of moving or maintaining their place on the lists.
The Beatles/members now account for 20 of the top 30 most covered ‘Pop’ songs of all time.
That above statement says a lot about how The Beatles music continues to be relevant to so many people. However in most countries the population responsible for making them popular is aging, so what will happen to their music in another 25 years? While I believe that cover songs are a strong metric that demonstrates popularity (among recording artists themselves in particular) and the enduring quality of the music, other measurements have to come into play as well.
If we look at the The Beatles/members remarkable showing in cover songs as noted above, how to they fair when it comes to sales and streaming? They are still at #1 for record sales and since very few people buy actual records anymore (despite the vinyl revival) and with digital singles downloads being the predominant manner of purchasing music, it will be hard to top them. The last Beatle songs came out in 1970 and the strongest solo efforts from Lennon, McCartney (excluding collaborations with Kanye and Rihanna etc) and Harrison all came out shortly thereafter, so we have had 50 years of music and ample opportunity for someone to surpass them.
The Beatles catalogs first digital release was on Apple Itunes in 2010, before the streaming revolution. First available on Spotify in 2015, followed by other streaming services. They started 2022 having surpassed 10 Billion streams on Spotify alone. On all platforms they have over 16 billion streams which when combined with other numbers such as physical and digital sales has them still ranked as the #1 Best Selling Artists of all time. At #2 on that list is still Michael Jackson followed by Elvis Presley, Queen (ranked #1 in Streaming from artists on this list at 21 billion), Madonna, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Elton John and U2 to round out the top 10.
As the 45 rpm record cut into album sales, and CD’s killed vinyl records by 1989, Streaming in turn killed the CD. Streaming of course has changed the music landscape in so many other ways. Historical “apples to apples” comparisons are hard to make. Even the Billboard rankings are now heavily skewed toward Streaming numbers. Having said that these are the new metrics we have to gage the popularity of songs. Music is now more accessible than at anytime in history. If we look at the leading Streamer, Spotify (launched in 2006), by 2015 they had 77 million users, in 2022 they have had at least 422 million annual users and 188 million have paid subscriptions. Worldwide, music streaming has been used by billions of people.
Ed Sheeran’s single “Shape of You” which held the all time Spotify most streamed top spot since 2017, has been passed by The Weeknd with “Blinding Lights”, still they both exceed 3 billion. The Beatles “claimed sales” (an industry term) at 600 million may not sound that impressive anymore but streaming and sales are not the same thing at all. Still The Beatles music since 2015 is streamed on Spotify alone, on average over 1.4 billion times per year. Keeping in mind their last release was 52 years ago. Compare that to the still active Rolling Stones who have about 900 million on average per year but still an impressive 6.3 billion total streams. Yes I know this does not include the listening habits of many a luddite, troglodyte or myself for that matter… but we don’t come out of the basement for a head count very often.
After that look at The Beatles and the Stones numbers I thought that it would be interesting to see how these legendary artists from the first two lists are doing as individuals (only Lennon and MCCartney qualified) along with other solo artists for the top streaming totals.
According to Chartmasters.org and using the top covered artists lists I mentioned above, each have the following streaming numbers for 2022 (only those included on the 161 all-time top sellers list).
David Bowie: 6.8 billion Stevie Wonder 5.2 billion Bruce Springsteen: 5.1 billion Paul McCartney: 4.1 billion Bob Dylan 3.7 billion John Lennon: 2.2 billion
Just to give some perspective for the beginning of 2023, Drake still has the most at 55 Billion streams and other top artists include; Taylor Swift at 41 Billion, Ed Sheeran at 40 Billion and Ariana Grande at 34 Billion.
Note: all song statistics are by Secondhandsongs.com and may conflict with other available data and or lists. For example JoniMitchell.com lists the song she wrote and recorded “Both Sides Now” as being covered over 1200 times, where Secondhandsongs.com currently lists only 445 versions (originally recorded by Judy Collins). Keeping in mind that while I believe they are accurate, the Joni Mitchell numbers come from a small team solely dedicated to researching her songs, whereas Secondhandsongs.com is currently listing 189,995 artists, 134,027 original songs and 1,218,316 covers as of Feb. 2, 2023. To maintain a consistent and level playing field and quite frankly save myself 100’s more hours of research to verify individual artists, I use SecondhandSongs.com which is the most reliable information I have found.
Although all songs were credited to Lennon/McCartney, who was the main composer on the most Beatles songs? Answer. John Lennon at 73 songs, Paul McCartney was on 70 and the two share close to 50/50 on 17 other songs. George Harrison managed to squeeze in 22 songs and Ringo got just 2!. The balance of what they recorded were cover versions. For some slightly different numbers and a detailed statistical analysis check out this interesting link, “John or Paul? Data Resolves the Age Old “Who was the #1 Beatle” Question”.
All of The Beatles songs (referenced above) have been clearly identified as 100% (or very close to that) as written by either John or Paul, verified by their own statements.
Originally edited by Richelle Dafoe, revised, errors and all on Feb. 2, 2023.
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