10 Classic Songs That Were Actually Cover Versions

You may never have realised these vintage hits were not the originals

Photo by Ivan Dorofeev on Unsplash

1. Without You — Harry Nilsson 1971, Mariah Carey 1994

Without You was a worldwide hit for American singer-songwriter Harry Neilson and later for Mariah Carey. Because Nilsson was such a respected singer-songwriter, it is widely assumed he wrote Without You.

However, Nilsson first heard the song on the radio and thought it was a Beatles tune. Once he found out it was an album track by a less well-known band, he recorded it. Nilsson changed the arrangement and delivered a dynamic vocal performance. It became the haunting ballad we are familiar with.

Mariah Carey’s version is a cover of the Nilsson cover she enjoyed as a child.

The song was actually written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans from the British band Badfinger in 1970

Badfinger did indeed have a strong Beatles connection, so Nilsson’s musical antenna was excellent. They were the first band signed to the Beatles’ Apple label and they were occasionally produced by Paul McCartney and also by George Harrison. They had a major hit with a McCartney song, Come And Get It.

The band were named by Neil Aspinall, the Beatles close friend. Apparently, Badfinger was the nickname the Beatles had given to a German stripper they’d known in their Hamburg days.

2. Unchained Melody — The Righteous Brothers 1965

The Righteous Brothers are forever synonymous with Unchained Melody. They had a major global hit with the song in 1965 and charted again in 1990 when the song was used on the soundtrack to the blockbuster film, Ghost.

The song had actually been a hit ten years earlier. It was written in 1955 by Alex North and Hy Zaret for a little-known film called Unchained. A cut-down version was sung in the film by actor and singer Todd Duncan while lying on a prison bed watched by other wistful prisoners.

Todd Duncan’s version was never released as a single but four other artists did release Unchained Melody in 1955, including Liberace. Bizarrely, all four artists had chart success with it simultaneously, a record that continues to this day.

3. The Twist — Chubby Checker 1960

Chubby Checker’s high-octane recording and live performances of The Twist were responsible for the Twist dance craze that swept the world in the 60s. He reached number 1 with the song in 1960; think Chubby Checker, think The Twist.

However, The Twist was written by Hank Ballard. It was merely the B-side to a minor hit called Teardrops On Your Letter by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, two years before Chubby Checker took it to world fame.

4. Blinded by the Light — Manfred Mann’s Earth Band 1976

This song was a number 1 in the USA and a top ten hit around the world. Blinded By The Light became a classic for this British rock band.

Blinded By The Light was actually written and recorded in 1973 by a then-unknown singer-songwriter from New Jersey by the name of Bruce Springsteen.

The original version, by the artist who was to become the Boss, was a less grandiose affair than that of Manfred Mann’s.

Blinded By The Light was the first track of Springsteen’s debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park in 1973. Springsteen released it as his first single without success.

5. Mandy — Barry Manilow 1974

Mandy was singer-songwriter Barry Manilow’s first number 1 hit and successful around the globe. Many people wrongly assume that Mandy was written by Manilow.

In fact, the song was originally called Brandy and was written by US songwriters, Scott English and Richard Kerr three years before Manilow had a hit with it. Manilow changed the title to avoid confusion with another song at the time with Brandy in the title.

Brandy was a minor hit in 1971 for co-writer Scott English.

6. The Air That I Breathe — The Hollies 1974

A standard slow dance ballad at wedding parties the world over ever since this massive hit, from British band The Hollies, got to number one in 1974.

The song was written two years earlier by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood and first recorded by Hammond for his album, It Never Rains In Southern California

Hammond’s version is more subdued and stripped back than the more well-known Hollies version.

The song gained another unusual ‘cover’ version in 1992 when the publishers took Radiohead to court for copyright infringement. Radiohead had released a song called Creep that used a similar chord structure, arrangement and melody as Hammond’s original version of The Air That I Breathe.

Hammond and Hazlewood were awarded royalties and joint songwriting credits for Creep.

7. She’s The One — Robbie Williams 1998

She’s The One was a massive worldwide hit for Robbie Williams, winning a number of awards and launching the former boy band singer to global solo stardom. Another wedding dance favourite.

Robbie Williams has been known to imply he wrote the song. However, it was actually written by Karl Wallinger and released by his band, World Party, a year earlier.

Williams’ cover is very similar to World Party’s original and even includes two members of World Party on his recording, something that is reported to have upset Wallinger greatly.

The World Party original was not a hit for them but their version of the song did feature in two films, The Matchmaker (1997) and The Big Hit (1998) with Mark Wahlberg and Lou Diamond Phillips.

8. Rhinestone Cowboy — Glen Cambell 1975

Rhinestone Cowboy is forever associated with Glen Campbell and US country music after reaching number 1 in the USA and around the world in 1975. Bruce Springsteen even recorded a cover version for his film Western Stars because of the soundtrack’s country musical influences and connections to Americana.

The song also formed the basis for the film Rhinestone (1984) starring another iconic American country star, Dolly Parton.

What could be more American than Rhinestone Cowboy?

And yet, Rhinestone Cowboy is not an American song at all. It was written by Australian songwriter, Larry Weiss, in 1974; Weiss achieved little success with the song in his home country. Campbell heard it while touring Australia and liked it so much he recorded a cover. The rest is history.

9. Black Magic Woman — Santana 1970

Black Magic Woman was a major global hit for Santana and they are forever associated with this song. They recorded two versions but the most popular is their first where they fused the instrumental Gypsy Queen, by Gábor Szabó, into the track. Two covers for the price of one.

Black Magic Woman was originally a minor UK hit in 1968 for the first incarnation of Fleetwood Mac and written by their then lead guitarist, Peter Green.

As well as the merger with Gypsy Queen, Santana made several other changes to the chords, keys and arrangement of the original for their much better-known version.

10. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun — Cyndi Lauper 1983

Cyndi Lauper’s first major hit is renowned as a feminist anthem worldwide. The song gained a host of music, video and vocal awards.

The original was quite the opposite of a female anthem. It was written and recorded by Robert Hazard from a male perspective, explaining that he couldn’t find a good woman to settle down with because all they wanted to do was have fun. The song was never even officially released.

Lauper removed the rock arrangement, changed the perspective to female and added an upbeat synthesizer background riff to give us this classic piece of 80s pop.

An earlier version of this article first appeared on Vocal Media.

Fiction and nonfiction, often with a touch of humour. Top writer in music. Also, travel, language and other topics.

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