In my last post I gave you Joni Mitchell, who as a solo female singer/songwriter is the most recorded artist of all time. This is not a “Best of” numbers one through ten kind of list. Subjectively ‘the best’ can mean a lot of things, but I am focusing on cover songs. So, in total, whose songs have been recorded the most? Just a reminder a list of cover songs is not a list off all the songs that someone may have written, only those with documented re-recordings. Not surprisingly the list is dominated by contemporary popular music but I looked at all the major genres. I plan to recognize women solely as songwriters in another post and many different names will appear.
One might think that Carole King would be at the top of this list, but she is a bit of special project as her work lands into so many categories. As a composer of songs she and her lyricist (and for a time husband) Gerry Goffin were not only prolific but they wrote some of the most memorable tunes of a generation. She has also co-written songs with others and, she has composed the words and music for her own records. The aggregate total places her as the 9th most recorded writer of Pop music, you can find those stats on my post The 2023 Update of the Most Recorded Pop Songs of All time. So you will see her name appear more than once on my lists as I will attempt crunch the numbers as they say in order to find her placement on each of them. Here is a link for my post on Carole King.
When you read the list, just a reminder that these are only the songs they have written or co-written and recorded, not necessarily all the songs they have originally recorded-but were written by others. Those may have cover versions also. The most notable example would be Peggy Lee, she was the first to record “Golden Earrings” which has 174 versions and “Everybody Loves Somebody” has 142, but she did not have a song writing credit so they are not included in these totals. Édith Piaf was the first to record her very famous song “Non, je ne regrette rien” however it was written by Charles Dumont, Michel Vaucaire and there are 130 versions of this song.
Maybe on my next post I will give you a list for the most covered female performers, that’s a whole batch of different stats, songs and names. Conspicuous by their absence here on this particular list are women of colour. There are of course many that wrote songs, some great ones but I read the numbers and the data that is currently available. The total numbers of documented songs are how the names end up on this list. That is not to say it is absolute and therefore should be subject to some reflection at the very least.
You may have seen in the news lately that Joni Mitchell was honoured with The Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from The Library of Congress. This award was first presented to Paul Simon in 2007, it is to recognize “the profound and positive effect of popular music on the world’s culture”. Mitchell is the 15th honouree. They haven’t updated the honoree profiles yet so I can’t tell you what The Library of Congress has to say about her, but as you may have guessed I have a few things for you on Joni Mitchell.
Let me say right off the start that I think it is unfortunate that I have to write a separate piece on the most covered songs. The music industry really forces our hand in this regard. If we are looking at how women are represented and in general poorly recognized, cover songs are a reflection of that in many ways. Without taking too much time you can see that women are on the short end of the drum stick when it comes to prominent songwriters. If the most celebrated names are male, then the most covered songs will come from this source. Now, I am a big Beatles fan and I like most of names you find on the cover lists that I create. However they are heavily skewed toward men. I do realize we have to look at the bias that brought us here in the first place, again I take nothing away from the obvious talents of the men at the top, but there are worthy women who don’t get the same exposure.
When I research cover songs, there are a number of ways to look at the data. As I always do, I’m relying on Secondhandsongs.com for the information. Following the format of my periodic update on Pop Cover Songs, if I work down the list of The most covered songs written by a ‘singer/songwriter/recording artist‘. Currently the only woman on the top 10 list is Carole King, who is currently at #8 with 182 of the songs that she wrote or co-wrote having at least one cover version. The next category is The most cover versions combined. Again the only women on the top 10 list is Carole King with 3,382 versions of songs she has written. The third major category is The top 20 most covered Pop singles. The only female songwriter on the top 20 list is co-writer Billie Holiday at #18 with her song “God Bless the Child” having been covered 501 times.
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.
As we draw close to the 63 year anniversary of that fateful plane crash, I am releasing the third and final instalment on Buddy Holly. Myself and many others will be reading on February 3 about that day in 1959, as well as the before and the aftermath, all I will say is that at age 22 he had left a legacy that is a crucial part of Rock and Roll history. He was there at the beginning, though he was inspired by him, he was a contemporary of Elvis Presley as well as Chuck Berry, but for the two years from his breakout song, we will never know what he could have achieved. To me he stood as an equal. Today I will talk more about the person, his music, the portrayals, and tie up any loose ends from my prior posts.
Buddy started his professional career as a teenager, he and his bandmates were still in Jr. High School. When he found his ‘voice’ with the above song in 1956, he sounded like no one else. As much as he was a gifted lyricist, singer and musician, he also had an ear for songs from other composers/artists.
Born September 25, 1933 in Victoria B.C. and died December 29, 2022 in Longview, Alberta.
This is a name few will know or perhaps remember, even in his homeland it is only those of a ‘certain age’ that know of his songs or the folk duo of Ian & Sylvia. However what they produced, in particular three major hits in the early 1960’s are legitimately iconic. Born in Canada Tyson was a Rodeo Cowboy and following a serious injury, he ‘naturally’ turned into a singer-songwriter. You all know there are a lot of voices that sing about it, Tyson is one of the few that actually was a Cowboy. For more on his (& Sylvia’s) most well known song, a post will appear on A Sound Day later this month.
As I “wrap up” my miniseries on Billie Holiday I will finish with the only song she recorded that is associated with Christmas. That is to say it is not a Christmas song at all, however since it’s debut in the Musical, On the Avenue in 1937 the song has snuggled it’s way onto Christmas Albums by many an artist. It was first performed in the movie by Dick Powell and Alice Faye, the first record was by Ray Noble, which was released January 27, 1937 so chronologically it came out before the February 4, movie debut.
Billie was one of at least 10 artists to cover this song in it’s first year of release, and her version is often mentioned when referring to the more memorable renditions of the song. Written by Irving Berlin, the lyrics reference, wind, snow, cold, icicles and the month of December. At the time it was being recorded by Billie and many others it was a song about love and warmth, not a Holiday or Christmas song.
Here is a clip from the movie.
I am sure many of us are having our fill of Holiday and Christmas songs and for many December 26 brings some welcome relief in more ways than one. However tis’ the Season and so I thought to kick off my contribution I would give a little background on some of the songs such as this one that were not purpose designed. Many of the songs around Christmas and the Holidays have some interesting origins. For more on that story you can check out my upcoming Holidays #1 post.
If you have read some of my past posts you know how I love to connect the dots. I will leave you an interesting link between “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and Christmas Songs.
First, here is the legendary Jazz Guitarist Django Reinhardt and his oft partner the equally legendary Jazz Violinist Stéphane Grappelli with their instrumental version from 1938.
Again from 1938 we have Reinhardt but this time featuring the Violin stylings of the amazing Michel Warlop with “Christmas Swing”. In this case…perhaps all roads lead to Reinhardt.
This is the song that many will first associate with Billie Holiday. Written with Jazz pianist and band leader Herbie Nichols it was recorded in sessions from August of 1955 but released in 1956 on the five track album of the same name. This is also the title of a biopic that came out in 1972 with the legend Diana Ross playing Holiday. The movie did not receive the greatest of reviews and is loosely based on Holiday’s autobiography which has the same title as well if you’re sensing a theme here – but as often the case with these films, it’s not very factually accurate. However it is quite enjoyable from my standpoint and well worth watching just to see Ross perform the songs.
Billie herself would record over 200 cover songs and many memorable versions from The American Songbook/American Standards. Of her 40 original songs, “Lady Sing the Blues” has not been covered as often and coincidentally there are currently 40 versions. The first one appeared in a medley by Susan Carter in 1970. This next clip is from one of the many tribute albums to Billie Holiday, interestingly it so happens to have been assembled by the versatile actor Peter Stormare. As I understand the story, Peter, who has his own record label named Stormvox was grieving the death of Jimi Hendrix back in 1970 and his mother gave him a Billie Holiday album which helped him to the point of him promising his mother he would do a tribute album.
This is the instrumental track from the co-writer Herbie Nichols and it was released at about the same time as the vocal track in 1956.
Written by Billie Holiday and as she did on most of her songs collaborated with Arthur Herzog. The lyrics are deeply personal, coming from her knowledge that her husband Jimmy Monroe was sleeping with other women. Always delivered with that haunting intensity this song has inspired 260 versions to date. It was recorded in 1945 and released in June of 1946. It would be the last song she wrote.
There are so many remarkable covers of this song that it was impossible for me to choose just one to post. However, Nina Simone is where I often land, I don’t think I have to “explain” that…
This song has dozens of instrumentals, once again there are so many versions from artists on my favorites list.
You may recognize the name Don Shirley if you watched The Green Book, here he plays a medley of her songs including “Don’t Explain” and is accompanied by bassist Ken Fricker and cellist Juri Taht.
I will provide a couple of links at the end to other covers but as I said it was so hard to chose; here are the sublime Chet Baker from his tribute album, Bakers Holiday (1965) and Saxophone great Dexter Gordon from 1964.