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Cover Tunes Outshine the Originals

16 Awesome Do-Overs + a few Honorable Mentions

Images clockwise from top left: Amazon; smoothradio.com; stereogum.com; CA/Redferns/Getty Images; Amazon; coolhunting.com.

This essay was co-written with my writing buddy Clay Coppedge. For simplicity, we’re posting it in my blog string here at The Riff, but it was his idea and he shares credit for the content. Clay and I have initialed each of our write-ups.

After I posted a tribute to Willie Nelson about his great new album, A Beautiful Time, fellow Texan Clay Coppedge emailed me to compare notes about all things Willie. “Hearing Willie Nelson sing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Tower of Song’ is right up there with hearing Johnny Cash sing ‘Bird on a Wire’ for all-time great covers,” he wrote.

“Hey, maybe that could be your next column!” he added. “You’re welcome.” And here we are.

Clay and I go way back, to our days as staffers at the Williamson County Sun newspaper in Georgetown, TX, in the late ’80s. We’ve moved on in our writing careers: I’m a freelancer in NYC and he writes book-length works, most recently Texas True Crime Miscellany. Still, we fondly recall those newspaper days, when we would take “study breaks” from the office at my nearby home and shoot the shit about various topics including great music — where we found lots of common ground.

Roundups of great cover tunes have been done & done, of course, here at The Riff, on Medium, and on sites such as Ultimate Classic Rock. But who cares? We have our own list. Clay pulled together some notes, I put in my dibs, and we came up with a Sweet 16 trove of covers at least as great as the originals.

Bruce Springsteen performed “Fire” in 1978, the year after he wrote it. After he left the tune off Darkness on the Edge of Town, The Pointer Sisters took it to #2, his highest chart spot. Though he’s recorded many great covers, Bruce didn’t make our Sweet 16 list — but he did make our lead photo. Image: rollingstone.com.

To help narrow down, we made some rules: First, it has to be a truly great song. Second, no “gimmes”: That would be things like Bruce Springsteen giving “Fire” to the Pointer Sisters, Stevie Wonder giving “Tell Me Something Good” to Rufus, or Prince giving “Manic Monday” to the Bangles. Those don’t count as Covers.

We’re not interested in songs where the cover is inferior to the original (hello Three Dog Night, the Carpenters, Whitney Houston … and so many more). Or when the original is so obscure that the public just knows the cover — such as Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (a minor ’79 disc by Robert Hazard). Or even if it’s a great song brought out of the shadows, like Elvis’s “Hound Dog” (see Honorable Mentions below). All fine stuff, however …

This list is about tunes where the songwriter established it first and then someone came along and made it their own — with a version even more memorable than the original.

“All Along the Watchtower” was transformed by Jimi Hendrix on Electric Ladyland (1968). It debuted on Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding (1967). Images: Amazon.

1. “All Along the Watchtower
Jimi Hendrix/Bob Dylan

I really liked the Dylan song. Great images and a sense of impending danger, but Hendrix blew me away with his version. He was the first to show me that a wah-wah pedal was something other than a war toy. Every note, every chord, every change, just blows me away, plus he respects Dylan’s lyrics. Hendrix once said there were a few Dylan songs that hit him deeply, that captured something he was feeling so much he felt like he’d written it. (Dylan returned the compliment by copying the vibe of Jimi’s version in live sets afterwards.) Hendrix’s take on “Like Rolling Stone” at the Monterey Pop Festival is a mind-blower — it later appeared on obscure discs including Live at Monterey — but the Watchtower rules. — CLAY COPPEDGE

After scoring a single with it, Joe Cocker made “With a Little Help from My Friends” the title track to his debut album in 1969; he later wowed the crowds at Woodstock. The original was the last song completed for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Images: coolhunting.com; Amazon.

2. “With a Little Help from My Friends
Joe Cocker/The Beatles

This Sgt. Pepper tune, a cheerio singalong for Ringo, rode the Zeitgeist of the Summer of Love. By the time Joe Cocker sang it at Woodstock in 1969, the rain-soaked and weary audience needed a hug. Joe delivers one with a mournful cry — more “I gotta get my friends!” than “I get by with a little help” — complete with R&B grooves and killer call-and-response vocals. Cocker’s spontaneous hand spasms veer from director cues to air-guitar moves: The dude is living out the moment (his best one ever). — JACK CRAGER

Aretha Franklin sang “Respect” in ’67; it debuted on Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul (1965). Images: Amazon.

3. “Respect
Aretha Franklin/Otis Redding

Redding wrote and sang this tune in 1965 as a manly message about bringing home the bacon and expecting some love in return. Aretha Franklin recorded it spontaneously in 1967 with her sisters Erma and Carolyn singing backup. Presto! Later onstage Otis said: “A good friend of mine, this girl, she just took the song!” (After Aretha’s hit, he might’ve laughed all the way to the bank … had he not died in a plane crash within weeks of its release.) With the gender switch, Aretha made “Respect” into a feminist anthem and musically she added the key punch: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Find out what it means to me!” Sock it to me, yeah! — JC

4. “Time Is On My Side
The Rolling Stones/Irma Thomas

The Rolling Stones might be the best cover band of all time. That’s not to discount their trove of original material, but a nod to the fact that their first few albums introduced me to artists I had never heard of, which led me down a rabbit hole of blues and R&B artists that I’ve never left. Here, I flipped a coin between this one, which Dave Marsh described as “a true portent,” and their first actual hit, “Not Fade Away.” I could have added half a dozen more. — CC

5. “Twist and Shout
The Beatles/The Isley Brothers

Like the Stones, of course, the Beatles started out as a cover band. None of their remakes made it bigger than this screamer —it charted at #2 in the US in April 1964, the same week the Fabs held all top 5 positions. In their hands, the Isley Brothers tune (itself adopted from the Top Notes) morphed from a smooth R&B shuffle to a full-throated rave-up. John Lennon famously laid down the lead vocal (with help from lozenges and gargled milk) while fighting a cold at the end of their first all-day album session. Making it all the more gloriously ragged. Shake it up baby! — JC

As a boy star on the rise, Stevie Wonder sang “Blowing in the Wind” in 1966. The song first appeared on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1962). Images: CA/Redferns/Getty Images; Amazon.

6. “Blowing in the Wind
Stevie Wonder/Bob Dylan

Stevie transformed this song from an idealistic folk anthem into something gritty and soulful. Never heard one song reimagined so much as this one, sung when Stevie was only 16. Hearing his version was like hearing the song again for the first time. — CC

7. “Tomorrow is a Long Time
Elvis Presley/Bob Dylan

Nobody sings Dylan like Joan Baez — it’s amazing what some of his songs sound like when done by somebody with, you know, a really good singing voice — and I first heard this one on her Any Day Now (1968) album of Dylan covers. I figured that was as good as the song could get. Then I heard Elvis’s ’66 version on KUT-FM, and I couldn’t shake it. Sometimes I think we forget, or at least minimize, what a great singer and interpreter Elvis was. He transforms this piece into what I bet Dylan had in mind when he wrote it. Dylan once said that Presley’s cover of this song was “the one recording I treasure the most.” — CC

Janis Joplin’s“Me and Bobby McGee” was released three months after her death. Kristofferson’s version appeared on his debut album (1970). Images: stereogum; Amazon.

8.“Me and Bobby McGee
Janis Joplin/Kris Kristofferson

Kristofferson must’ve written this (he shares a byline with record exec Fred Foster) for the covers train: Right before and after Kris recorded it in 1970, versions popped up from Roger Miller, Gordon Lightfoot, Charley Pride, Jerry Lee Lewis … But the gender-evasive title made it suitable for female singers too, and Janis Joplin nailed it for her final album, Pearl, shortly before her death. (Kris found out she sang it the day after she died.) Released posthumously in early 1971, Janis’s scorching version reached #1. — JC

9. “Proud Mary
Ike & Tina Turner/Creedence Clearwater Revival

What, exactly, do these artists have to do with the Mississippi River? I love both versions. Easy and rough, reflected off each other. As Yogi Berra once said about him and his son, “Our similarities are different.” Same deal with this song. — CC

John Prine and Bonnie Raitt’s live duet of “Angel From Montgomery” appears on John Prine Live (1988). Image: YouTube.

10. “Angel from Montgomery
Bonnie Raitt/John Prine

When this appeared on the first John Prine album (1971), it sounded like another tuneful story where the scraggly singer inhabited an imagined character. When Bonnie Raitt took it on (in ’74) she became that character — an old woman whose “old man is another child who’s grown old” — with the ache of years in her voice. The best recorded version features the two of them singing this onstage on John Prine Live: “How the hell can a person?” she wails, “Go to work in the morning / Come home in the evening / And have nothing to say?” And then they sing glorious harmony. —JC

11. “Take Me to the River”
Talking Heads/Al Green

Take your pick. Both great. I think awesome cover versions fall into two categories: There are songs the cover artist transforms, remaking it into their own creation. The others are songs that work because the cover artist respects the source material too much to transform it. This one — recorded by Al Green in 1974 and Talking Heads in 1978 — falls somewhere in between. — CC

“I Fought the Law” got radicalized by the The Clash in 1979; they took cues from Bobby Fuller (1965), who copied The Crickets (1959). Images: Amazon.

12. “I Fought the Law
The Clash/Bobby Fuller/The Crickets

Sonny Curtis unleashed this law-basher with the Crickets after he took over singing and guitar duties for the late great Buddy Holly. The Crickets rocked it. For the Bobby Fuller Four version the pace had smoothed out but the drummer jokes (six beats after the “six-gun”) lived on. Just six months after that hit, Fuller was found dead in his mother’s car of gas asphyxiation, in what was ruled a suicide (and disputed evermore). Then came the Clash. In the US, their version appeared on their first album and gave the song new teeth. — JC

13. “Knockin on Heaven’s Door
Warren Zevon/Bob Dylan

Guns N’ Roses does a fine version of this, but I’m a card-carrying Warren Zevon fan from way back, and hearing his take, performed in the studio while he was dying, gets to me every time. — CC

14. “Hallelujah
Jeff Buckley/Leonard Cohen

With 300+ covers, “Hallelujah” has been done to death. “I think it’s a good song,” said composer Leonard Cohen, “but I think too many people sing it.” The most convincing — and best known — version is by Jeff Buckley, recorded shortly before his own death in a mysterious drowning accident at age 30. Released as a single ten years later, it became a posthumous smash hit. — JC

Johnny Cash brought a world-weary wisdom to “Hurt” in 2002, shortly before his death. The video even won over composer Trent Reznor, who created the tune with Nine Inch Nails. Image: YouTube.

15. “Hurt
Johnny Cash/Nine Inch Nails

Before Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash did his own “mortality” albums, which were as raw and honest as the man who sang them. I heard Cash’s version of this before I heard the Nine-Inch Nails version. The video is haunting. I still like the cover better than the original. Songwriter Trent Reznor said, “That song isn’t mine anymore.” — CC

16. “Stay All Night
Willie Nelson/Bob Wills

Here we bring it all back home to Willie. Bob Wills laid down the template for country rock with this rockabilly evergreen back in 1945. Then Willie Nelson adopted it on his outlaw version in 1971, taking it along for his never-ending tour through the lands and years. — JC

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Woulda Coulda Shoulda wrote about these gems

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Jack Crager

Jack Crager

Jack Crager is a writer and editor based in New York City (jackcrager.com).

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