If you have not been reading my most recents posts this is the fourth consecutive on the topic of Women in Music, and more specifically relating to the world of Cover Songs. Today I have compiled a list of Women whose songs have capture the imagination of enough artists to record, over and over and over again. This list is different than the songs that were originally sung by women, or the list of Singer/Songwriters.
Todays list include all genre and if we look at them it is also different from the list of the most covered performers. As the singer of the songs, most often you are not the author of that song, but sometimes you may be. So, before I get to the list let me explain what I mean by that last statement.
These are the most covered performers of all time
At the top of the list is Judy Garland. She was not a Songwriter but her original song “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” has been recorded by 2015 other artists. “Over the Rainbow” has been recorded by 1541 artists. She has four more songs at over 100 artists as well as another 15 of her songs performed at least once.
Billie Holiday’s original song “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)” has been recorded by 664 artists and she did not have a hand in writing that one. However a song she co-wrote “God Bless the Child” has 504. These songs and several others place her at #2 on the list. These (in order) are the next names on the list; Ethel Merman, Ethel Waters, Abbie Mitchell, Gertrude Lawrence, Mitzi Green, Emily Laurey, Doris Day and Adele, no not that one-Adele Astaire. The only artists in the top 20 to have written all or a majority of their original songs are, as noted Billie Holiday followed by Édith Piaf at #12, Joni Mitchell at #15 and Peggy Lee at #17. These last three names also appear on The Top 10 Most Recorded Women Singer/Songwriters.
Before I get to the list of the most recorded songwriters I think a little history is in order. While I tend not to include music outside the major genre, notable women composers and lyricists predate any of them. I have looked up “Women Composers” and found the top names such as Hildegard von Bingen who lived from 1098 to 1179 and is the first “identifiable” female songwriter. Francesca Caccini (1587-c1641) and Barbara Strozzi (1619-77). The only names I recognized on the list were Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-47), Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-53) and Amy Beach (1867-1944) as I have referenced them before. Keeping in mind by saying composers these names also often wrote lyrics as well.
A name that is not on the list is Carrie Jacobs-Bond (born August 11, 1862, died December 28, 1946) who I have mentioned in a couple of my past posts. She was a prolific writer and known as quite a good singer, but primarily she is remembered for writing some 175 songs. “I Love You Truly” , “Perfect Day” and “Just Awearyin’ for You” are her most popular songs, she was a tireless worker composing her last song at age 84. In the days before recorded music, she sold over 25 million copies of her manuscript of “I Love You Truly” and reportedly made over one million dollars in royalty payments by 1910 at age 48. Why so much money? She was a very smart person, making sure she copyrighted all her songs in her own name and did not sell her songs to anyone. In the years that followed her initial success, Man or Women, she maintained a much more than usual control over who initially recorded her music as well.
For the past lists I have gone beyond Seondhandsongs.com for reference’s, the only problem with that is that there are very few dealing with women songwriters. The only credible source apart from Secondhandsongs.com was JoniMitchell.com and this focus on one artist may or may not skew the numbers. I can’t find any comparable empirical data, even for Carole King’s songs. While I have not verified all the numbers from Joni’s site and can say that I have cross referenced many that don’t appear on the secondhandsongs.com database. Today I have chosen to list the names in the order they appear on Secondhandsongs.com. The numbers for Joni Mitchell are from their database only and therefore places her further down than you would see on my other lists.
Carole Bayer Sager
Some notable names to follow are Mariah Carey 708 covers, Felice Bryant 708 covers, Peggy Lee 695 covers and Katy Perry with 690 covers.
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.
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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