Who Did It First?: Great Pop Cover Songs And Their Original Artists, by Bob Leszczak
I would like to begin this review with a bit of an apology. As a music historian with a popular series on artists not inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame I have gotten a lot of mileage out of joking about the lack of worthiness of Laura Nyro for being in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame . In reading this book, it is clear that Laura Nyro, even if she had a slender resume as a performer, was undoubtedly one of the most notable pop songwriters of her era, and given that she died young she likely had a lot more songwriting and performing in her. Her presence in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a songwriter, or as a singer-songwriter, which is likely how she was viewed, is therefore not a terrible fluke. It should be noted, though, that this book makes it clear that other artists are worthy of great recognition on the grounds of being extremely prolific and talented songwriters as well, perhaps most notably Neil Sedaka, who is nearly single-handedly responsible for the entire hit production of Captain & Tenille, who basically raided his unreleased album tracks from the 1970’s for their own catchy hit singles. Given the number of times that Neil Sedaka shows up as having written songs that were made famous by other people, his omission from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is especially suspicious, and therefore one can expect that I will be writing about him as part of my series of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame snubs soon, even if there is a long backlog of posts in that series yet to come.
This book amounts to one part of a three-volume encyclopedia of cover songs written by the same author, one of which looks at pop songs, one of which looks at rock & roll songs, and the other of which looks at R&B songs that have been covered whom the author and whose recording history the author wishes to discuss. Admittedly, there are songs in here that could easily have been considered as rock & roll or R&B songs, given the fact that numerous Elvis and Beatles songs appear here as well as Dobie Grey’s signature cover(s) of “Drift Away,” where the fact that the song was in fact a cover is not well known. The songs are organized in alphabetical fashion, after an introduction from the author, who himself has a modest presence on the pop charts as a charting vocalist himself. Each of the entries has the same format. The name of the song comes first, then its composer(s), its original artist, label, recording, release year, and chart success, if any. Then the most notable or definitive cover artist, label, recording, release year, and chart performance are given, followed by a few paragraphs that give the detailed history of the recording and the process by which it became a standard to be covered by others, giving a fascinating glimpse into the logistics and context of pop chart success as well as the sometimes chaotic process by which numerous simultaneous recordings blur the identity of covers and originals.
Despite the fact that this book is immensely enjoyable to read and deeply informative, there are a few comments that need to be made about the book. As has already been mentioned, there are some questions here about the arbitrary nature of the genre of the books listed here. Some additional comments could be made about the cover versions chosen, as the chart success of, say, the version of Lady Marmelade by for the soundtrack to Moulin Rouge was only credited to Christina Aguilera and not to the whole group. Perhaps the most obvious error, though, was his ascribing to Henry Nilsson the original composition of the song “Without You,” which was originally composed by two of the members for the notable power pop band Badfinger , a band that wrote amazing and beautiful music but had a cursed history worthy of being discussed in this book. Perhaps that shortcoming will be corrected in future volumes of this book. Although not perfect, this book is worthwhile as a research, encouraging its readers to indulge in their fondness for obscure music history, something that is often worthwhile to ponder. For those readers who share my love of music history and enjoy giving credit to songwriters and often little-known original recording artists whose songs are covered by others with lasting fame as a result, this is a book worthy of savoring and enjoying and considering as a worthwhile reference book.
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