Cover Me: The Stories Behind The Greatest Cover Songs Of All Time, by Ray Padgett
As someone who is generally fond of cover songs, this is a book I happily waited for from the library for it to arrive. Although I did not look up the cover songs beforehand, I found myself familiar with most of them and also found it interesting the way that cover songs became a phenomenon of respect at the point where they were transitioning away from simply being a way for race records tracks to reach a white audience and vice versa. Nowadays songs from the urban mainstream reach the white mainstream at the same time due to streaming, but for a time it was possible for bands to make covers while disguising somewhat their specific inspiration, choosing songs that were either familiar or obscure enough to allow them to do their own take on it, and this book does a good job at pointing out how it was that the best cover songs increase the greatness of the original by showing depths that may not have been originally recognized when the songs were first created. And it is that greater depth that makes for compelling reading, and listening.
The contents of this book extend for a bit more than 200 pages and contain the author’s thoughts about nineteen definitive covers. Again, most of these are covers that I am familiar with as a music listener, and the author spends time discussing the process by which the covers were recorded as well as the original recording and its fate. Sometimes cover versions were tossed off in one or two takes, and at other times they were obsessively worked over. The author looks at these covers in chronological fashion, beginning with Elvis’ “Hound Dog,” and the concerns about racism in the part of the listening audience for the Big Mama Thornton original. Then the author moves to the Beatles’ cover of the Isley Brothers/Top Notes’ original “Twist And Shout,” the Righteous Brothers’ cover of Todd Duncan’s “Unchained Melody,” and Aretha Franklin’s seminal cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” After that the author writes about Hendix’s cover of Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” Joe Cocker’s Beatles cover of “With A Little Help From My Friends,” The Who’s “Summertime Blues” cover of Eddie Cochran, and CCR’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It It Through The Grapevine,” a discussion which also mentions the Ike & Mary Turner cover of the CCR original “Proud Mary.” After that the author examines the various covers of Gladys Knight & The Pips and Cissy Houston of the Jim Weatherly track “Midnight Train To Georgia,” which was originally “Midnight Plane To Houston.” Patti Smith’s cover of Them’s “Gloria,” the Talking Heads cover of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River,” Devo’s “Satisfaction” cover of the Rolling Stones, and the breakthrough Weird Al cover “Polkas On 45” follow. The author then concludes with a discussion of important covers by the Pet Shop Boys (“Always On My Mind”), Whitney Houston (“I Will Always Love You”), the Fugees (“Killing Me Softly), the Gourds (“Gin And Juice”), Johnny Cash (“Hurt”), and Adele’s Dylan cover “Make You Feel My Love.”
In exploring individual covers and their originals, the author provides an implicit study of what it is that makes a great cover great. A great cover song provides a chance for a band/artist to pay homage to the original while also exploring their own take on the song. Sometimes an overstuffed original is pared down to its core essentials, or an obscure song is given a new lease on life by someone who is able to bring out its greatness. At times a great song in one genre is transmitted to another genre where it is equally great but in a very different way. However it is done, the existence of these great covers demonstrates that even in an age where artistic creativity is valued so highly, a cover can serve as an entree into a band’s work by fans who can enjoy something familiar but also different. One can also see the way that many bands are ambivalent about their cover songs and the way that sometimes people can prefer the cover to the band’s original, such that playing them can become a cross that a band has to bear rather than something that the band wants to celebrate for the long haul.