British cover versions

The pop cover

The British record industry used cover versions as a cynical and deliberate attempt to steal the thunder from American originals. There would be a race to get copies of American singles before they were released in Britain, and to cut cover versions by British artists. To most music fans, the American original would be the best and most desirable version.

Only Sixteen … gallery … click to enlarge

Listen to Sam Cooke doing Only Sixteen, then to Craig Douglas’s British cover. Craig’s mild warble entered the chart on 7th August 1959 on its way to the top spot in the chart. Sam Cooke’s original didn’t chart until the 23rd August on its way to #23. Al Saxon’s rival British cover on Fontana arrived on 28th August and got to #24. Timing was everything. The cover had got in fast. It had to. 

Burt Bacharach’s first hit record was The Story of My Life, which Marty Robbins steered to a US #15 hit, and #1 country and western (which it wasn’t). The British covers lined up in January 1958. Michael Holiday on EMI’s Columbia label got the #1 hit, but Alma Cogan, also on EMI (HMV) did the female version and hit #25. Comedian turned singer Dave King on Decca did better, getting it to #20, while the poppier version by Gary Miller on Pye made it all the way to #14.

So didn’t the Philips group issue a cover? They didn’t need to. They released the Marty Robbins original on Fontana and got nowhere. 

Bacharach’s second hit, released just a month later, was Magic Moments by Perry Como, on RCA (US #4). Again, it did better in Britain, getting to #1. Alma Cogan (HMV) and Dave King (Decca) had spotted Bacharach’s potential, and both waded in with cover versions, neither of which charted. You can’t beat having a TV show, one of the few American imported programmes.

Seven Little Girls, gallery … click to enlarge

The Avons 1959 cover of Seven Little Girls Sitting In The Back Seat (UK#3) is a direct imitation of the American original by Paul Evans and The Curls (UK#25). No significant difference apart from accent. It was also covered by Garry Mills on Top Rank, and his version is worth more than The Avons cover on Columbia. The premium may be due to the collectability of Top Rank, though many Garry Mills releases pass the £10 mark.

For record collectors … the American original will be usually be worth more than the British cover, especially if the British cover was the hit version.

Somebody, gallery … click to enlarge

In 1960, EMI’s Columbia released Joe William’s Somebody from the Jerry Lewis comedy film Cinderfella. As it was sung by Jerry Lewis in the film, this was a cover, on Roulette in the USA. Columbia licensed Roulette in Britain. In the same fortnight, Columbia released  Marion Ryan’s cover of Joe Williams cover. Ryan is #DB 4550, and Williams is #DB 4560, so Ryan was just ahead. EMI didn’t even use different labels from their stable for the two rival releases.

Sometimes cover artists got their eyes set on one singer and covered them rotten. Doug Sheldon covered Dion’s Runaround Sue, but spelled it Run Around Sue which suggests he’s circling the object of his desires rather than protesting at her infidelity. Not content, when Dicky Lee produced a direct Dion imitation in I Saw Linda Yesterday, Doug had a go at that too. Reluctantly, I admit that Doug’s version of both that and Your Ma Said You Cried In Your Sleep Last Night are on my guilty pleasures list. His courage at attempting The Miracles Mickey’s Monkey veered into foolhardiness. 

Singin’ The Blues gallery … click to enlarge

Yet a few of the cynical instant covers surpassed the originals. Singin’ The Blues was first recorded by Marty Robbins, and was a US Country #1 hit in 1956, also reaching #17 on the pop chart. So Guy Mitchell’s massive US #1 hit (from December 56 to February 57) was in itself a cover, by a fellow American . Tommy Steele’s version of Singin’ The Blues in 1956 was chasing the Guy Mitchell. BOTH versions were #1 hits in the UK early in 1957. Tommy Steele went with the whistling intro, added much louder and more piercing whistling throughout, then added the slur of Elvis, the nasality of Lonnie Donegan, and a touch of stuttering falsetto. Tommy Steel’s backing by The Steelmen was more basic … coming out of skiffle. Yet something Tommy Steele added makes it the better version: Personality. Go back to Marty Robbins with the oohing chorus and careful diction? Tommy Steele still wins. They both followed up their singles with EPs, and the sleeves say it all. Tommy Steele looks way cooler than Guy Mitchell. Better sleeve design too.

Tower of Strength gallery 1 … click to enlarge

 Frankie Vaughan was a covers specialist, and would take on the strongest opposition. Green Door was an American number one for Jim Lowe in 1956. Frankie Vaughan got it to number two in the UK, leaving Jim Lowe floundering at number eight.

Tower of Strength made number one for Frankie in 1961. The Gene McDaniels original version crept to number 49. According to the Rare Record Price Guide, a mint McDaniels is worth £10 mint in 2022 (it was worth £15 a few years ago).  I’m a Gene McDaniels fan. I got Chip Chip and Point of No Return.

Frankie is worth a pound or two, even in excellent condition. I paid just 29p for the copy illustrated and it plays perfectly. But having played them back to back a few times, Frankie’s version is far more powerful, and even the orchestration sounds better. 

Tower of Strength gallery 2… click to enlarge

Then Paul Raven’s version of Tower of Strength on Parlophone is rated at £10 mint. He became Gary Glitter, which you think would remove value, and possibly did, as the rarest version is often worth more. The fourth is the Embassy cover by Paul Rich, on Woolworth’s budget label. And you get Hit The Road Jack on the other side. Paradoxically, a clean one of these would easily get £2, and I’ve seen near-mint Embassy at £5. This is because there’s a kitsch collector thing about Embassy label discs. Paul Rich copies the Frankie Vaughan arrangement and vocal tricks exactly, but everything’s slightly feeble. We once had to commission a new cover of Tower of Strength for an educational series. The producer was an expert on finding soundalikes … we did Elvis and Beatles covers with no problem. Frankie Vaughan stumped him. He said finding someone to accurately follow Frankie at full belt was near impossible. 

Tell Laura I Love Her … gallery … click to enlarge

Ray Peterson had a #7 hit in the USA with Tell Laura I Love Her on RCA. It was duly released in Britain in July 1960. There was immediate controversy over the morbid teen death subject matter, and it’s said that the staid Decca label, which distributed RCA, ceased promotional efforts and destroyed 20,000 singles. The British cover version was by Ricky Valance on EMI’s Columbia label, and EMI had no such scruples, watching Welsh singer Ricky Valance get a #1 British hit with his cover of the song. It indicates that Decca retained power over RCA. The RCA disc is not especially rare, notwithstanding the 20,000 copies in the crusher, and only rates at £10 in Rare Record Guide, but that’s double the Ricky Valance version.

There’s a third version, by John Leyton which was produced by Joe Meek before he produced Leyton’s  Johnny Remember Me. It’s slower, and it’s not simply a copy of the Ray Peterson version. It was due for release by Top Rank right in the middle of the EMI purchase of the label, and was promptly shelved to avoid competition with the Ricky Valance version. EMI decided to scrap Top Rank and divvy up its artistes between Stateside, for the Americans, and HMV for the British ones. Later Tell Laura I Love Her became the title track of a John Leyton EP. It was a clever move as the EP contained Leyton’s two massive Top Rank hits, Johnny Remember Me and Wild Wind, but gave it a new identity. That’s the most valuable version at £40, but it’s an EP, it has a picture cover. It’s an RGM (Joe Meek) production.

Grabbing the chart place … before the Beatles

New Musical Express: 2 November 1962. HMV had the better advert

Sue Thompson must have felt pursued by Carole Deene, who covered three of her American hits: Sad Movies (Make Me Cry), Norman and James (Hold The Ladder Steady). They sound alike, as does the orchestration.

Face it … this pop music. The question of authenticity or ethnicity doesn’t come into it. In at least four cases … most notably Frankie Vaughan’s Tower of Strength and Susan Maugham’s even bubblier version of Bobby’s Girl … I prefer the British cover to the American original. Billy Fury’s version of Halfway to Paradise far exceeds Tony Orlando’s original. Anthony Newley took the chart honours from Frankie Avalon in the UK with Why and Newley is simply a technically better singer.

songUS releaseUS
UK coverUK
WhyFrankie Avalon120Anthony Newley1
Walk Don’t RunThe Ventures28John Barry Seven7
Halfway to ParadiseTony Orlando39Billy Fury3
Seven Little Girls (Sitting in the Backseat)Paul Evans &
The Curls
925The Avons3
Rubber BallBobby Vee64Marty Wilde7
Bobby’s GirlMarcie Blane3Susan Maugham4
Roses Are RedBobby Vinton113Ronnie Carroll3
A Hundred Pounds of ClayGene McDaniels3Craig Douglas7
Tower of StrengthGene McDaniels549Frankie Vaughan1
Tell Laura I Love HerRay Peterson7Ricky Valance1
Go Away Little GirlSteve Lawrence 1 Mark Wynter10
NormanSue Thompson3Carole Deene24
Twelve covers that beat the originals in the UK charts

Cilla Black

We (well we rock snobs anyway) will almost always favour an original over a cover. This came to mind when watching the TV miniseries biopic Cilla, starring Sheridan Smith. That was in 2014. She did a brilliant cover of Cilla Black singing Anyone Who Had A Heart with the studio musicians replicating Johnny Pearson’s arrangement for George Martin precisely. Cilla’s version was a #1 UK hit.

Sheridan Smith as Cilla

It set me seeking out Cilla’s version, then said, ‘Of course the Dionne Warwick is the ultimate …’ so we played them back to back. Oh, no it’s not. Cilla walks it with ease. Dionne Warwick took it badly saying that the cover was absolutely identical. It wasn’t. Cilla shifted the lyric and emphasis, and bassoon replaces sax.

Burt Bacharach: At one point it looked as if Shirley Bassey would record the song…but The Beatles producer George Martin suggested Cilla and I agreed immediately. It was late in 1963 and Liverpool was taking over popular music with some great songs and great people. There was an awareness that things would never be quite the same again – and Cilla Black was part of that … The great thing about the British is that they’ve always ‘got’ my songs right away. They are also one of the most loyal audiences in the world. I think Cilla reflected that kind of ability. She understood the song and she had a kind of long-term stickability, which is so very hard to achieve in this business … I was intrigued by Cilla. Although she was not the best technically, she could move an audience. She had a certain something.
Sunday Express 17 August 2015

She went on to do Bacharach’s Alfie in 1966. Cilla said she would only record it if Bacharach came over and produced it.

Cilla Black was at the peak of her popularity when she covered You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ and it was released in January 1965. As ever with Cilla, George Martin threw everything he had into the production. She had the power in her voice and sailed to number two in the chart, so she must have thought her third number one in a year was a cert, but then The Righteous Brothers original sailed effortlessly past her into the number one slot. Now no one ever thinks of Cilla’s version, but the original by the Righteous Brothers has been rated the most played single on radio of all time in some surveys. And it was a hit on reissue.

Which is the cover?

Look for A Star singles – gallery, click to enlarge

Look For A Star came out in 1960. The Top Rank record is by Garry Mills (again). The London version is Garry Mills. Yes, we have Garry Miles and Garry Mills. It seems bleedin’ obvious. Garry MILES is on London-American, an original Liberty Recording from the USA. Must be the original then. After all, we know Garry Mills does cover versions, like Seven Little Girls Sittin’ In The Back Seat.

Clue 1: The cheesey lyric was written by Tony Hatch, under the name Mark Anthony.

Both songs share the same cinema organ intruding at intervals and a a girlie chorus,with less echo on the organ on London, otherwise it’s a close facsimile. Both singers have pleasant, but light voices. Mr Mills manages an Adam-Faith tremelo on “above” and “love”, but Mr Miles only attempts it on “love.” 

Clue 2: It’s from the British cult horror film from 1960, Circus of Horrors. Yes, British horror film.

Go to the Internet Movie Data Base. The original song is the Garry MILLS one which features in the film. The pretty little ditty is ironic in the context of a movie about a plastic surgeon who transforms disfigured women into circus stars (then murders them when they try to leave the circus).

Look for A Star EPs – gallery, click to enlarge

Garry Miles (aka Buzz Cason) was a member of Brenda Lee’s backing group, The Casuals, and donned the Garry Miles persona as her opening act. He’d previously backed Jerry Lee Lewis. His version of Look For A Star was a US #16 hit on Liberty. Garry Mills had a #7 British hit on Top Rank.  The bounce-back from the USA onto London-American failed to chart in the UK, though Buzz Cason became a songwriter, who went on to write the #1 hit Everlasting Love (Love Affair) and became one of Elvis Presley’s backing vocalists.

Good songs got recycled for many years. The Locomotion, written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King was a number one American hit for their fifteen year old babysitter, Little Eva, in 1962. It then repeated the feat for Grand Funk Railroad in 1974, and got close enough, number three, for Kylie Minogue in 1988.


The British band’s relation to country, which we steadfastly call Country & Western has no option but to cover American originals. We get very serious about it too. I was booked for a voiceover recording one night and arrived early. There was a pink 1950s American car outside the studio with steer horns on the bonnet (US ‘hood.’) I went into the waiting area and listened to pedal steel and banjo and hillbilly accents. Very nice. Then the band emerged from the studio … plaid shirts, fringed vests, jeans, cowboy boots, bootlace ties, stetsons and wide leather gun belts with empty holsters. I stood back as they headed to the coffee machine chatting in strong country accents. By country I mean ‘English West Country’ … Dorset and Somerset. What I found most odd is that they’d dressed in their Dude Ranch finery to record.

Country was different. Often there was no attempt to “steal the hit” as when Frank Ifield had a huge hit with Lovesick Blues in 1962. He was following the 1952 American hit by Hank Williams, who in turn was reviving the 1922 song.

gallery … click to enlarge

Tom Jones was able to slip effortlessly between R&B covers and C & W covers like The Green Green Grass of Home (UK #1) and Detroit City. I was a stagehand paying out his microphone cable one summer, and his ability to make country sound like soul was outstanding. In the case of Green Green Grass of Home he was two years after the American hit (Porter Wagoner, US #4 1964), and he learned his version from Jerry Lee Lewis. They duet on the song on the 2009 CD compilation Last Man Standing. Bobby Bare had also done Green Green Grass of Home and Tom Jones covered his 1963 hit Detroit City but not until 1967, so not a “chart steal.”

Englebert Humperdink had a #1 UK hit with Release Me in 1967. That’s a 1949 song, that was a US hit in 1954. The very best version of the song was Esther Phillips R&B chart #1 take in 1962 (Pop chart #8) which may be where he heard it. Odd. I love Esther Phillips singing it, but for me Englebert’s version would be in my Top Ten most loathed recordings.

Ken Dodd’s series of mid-sixties hits  (Still, 8 x 10, Tears) were covers of American (white) C&W songs from a year or two earlier.

The R & B era

British beat and mod covers often rate as more collectable than original versions. This is mainly the collectability of the genre itself.

Twist and Shout gallery … click to enlarge

Twist and Shout is a Phil Medley-Bert Russell composition, but the similarity to La Bamba is glaring. The earliest version was called Shake It Up Baby by The Top Notes, produced by Phil Spector in 1961. Bert Russell felt Spector had ruined it and it was redone by The Isley Brothers for a US#17 hit (R&B #2) in 1962. 

The Beatles included it on their Please Please Me LP, and John Lennon’s sore-throated vocal is the definitive version of the song and an example of the cover surpassing the earlier hit. The Beatles made it the title track of an EP, which would have charted if EPs had been admitted to the singles chart. It was in the EP chart for 64 weeks, often at #1. So Brian Poole & The Tremeloes, so good at cover versions that they beat The Beatles to that Decca contract, covered The Beatles and got a #4 hit.

The Beatles Live At The BBC adds radio broadcasts. These were done quickly live and they recycled songs they used to do in Hamburg between their own material … I Got A Woman, Too Much Monkey Business, Young Blood, A Shot of Rhythm & Blues, Sha La La, Some Other Guy, Johnny B. Goode, Memphis Tennessee, Lucille, Sweet Little Sixteen, Hippy Hippy Shake on top of their recorded ciovers.

The R & B / Beat group boom in the UK was American fuelled. By which we really mean mainly African-American. If bands didn’t have a songwriter in their midst, they covered American songs, usually Black American songs. When you went to a dance, that’s what you got.

I think of various incarnations of friends bands … it was all blues and R&B, later adding more and more soul. Mostly the songs covered were first known in versions by black artistes, even if some were written by the usual (white) suspects … Bert Berns, Mann & Weill, Leiber & Stoller.

Surprisingly one of the seminal albums, R&B At The Marquee by Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated has only five covers out of twelve songs … both Korner and Cyril Davies wrote their own. Cyril Davies was considered so authentic that his singles and EPs sat on the Pye International R&B label with the Chess greats.

Take a look at the list of other albums … a question mark is relevant. Now I’ve Got A Witness by “Nanker Phelge” (The Rolling Stones) is simply Can I Get A Witness without words. Them and The Who (3 out of 12 on My Generation) had fewer covers, showing that Van Morrison and Pete Townshend got going as songwriters earlier in their career path than (e.g.) Ray Davies and Steve Winwood.

gallery … British LPs and cover versions … click to enlarge

The list … I looked at the albums and did it quickly. I didn’t double check the songwriters, so I might be out by one or two here or there. It doesn’t alter the overall picture. Use the REPLY box to correct me.

artistalbumUS coversUK covers
The BeatlesPlease Please Me77
The Rolling StonesThe Rolling Stones93 (?)
The Rolling StonesThe Rolling Stones #293
The SearchersMeet The Searchers12
(2 ‘white’)
Brian Poole & The TremeloesTwist & Shout151
The AnimalsThe Animals
1 ‘Trad. arr. Price
1 Bo Diddley/Eric Burdon)
The KinksKinks8
+ 2 S. Talmy
Manfred MannThe Five Faces of Mann86
Georgie Fame & The Blue FlamesRhythm & Blues At The Flamingo100
Georgie Fame & The Blue FlamesFame At Last!120
Alex Harvey & His Soul BandAlex Harvey & His Soul Band122
The YardbirdsFive Live Yardbirds100
Zoot Money’s Big Roll BandIt Should’ve Been Me120
Zoot Money’s Big Roll BandWere You There? Live 1966163
The HolliesStay With The Hollies122
Tom JonesAlong Came Jones88
Graham Bond OrganizationThere’s a BOND Between Us75
John Mayall with Eric ClaptonBluesbreakers75
Spencer Davis GroupTheir First LP93
Spencer Davis GroupThe Second Album9
+1 Jamaica
The Alan Price SetThe Price To Play120
Chris Farlowe14 Things To Think About12
1 Dylan
2 standards
Mid 60s British albums

It wasn’t just British bands entranced by blues and R&B, but it may have been a greater percentage. Look at a set list for Levon & The Hawks, four Canadians and an American. They had left Ronnie Hawkins and were on their own, swinging between Ontario and the South.

Land of 1000 Dances

Take Land of 1000 Dances. Chris Kenner wrote it in 1962 and it was on the American Instant label, a follow up to his #2 US hit I Like It Like That. Surprisingly, Land of 1000 Dances didn’t get a British release at the time, waiting until January 1965 to come out on the very collectable Sue label.  

New Musical Express, April 1965

The version by Cannibal and The Headhunters (US#30) introduced the ‘na na na na’ chorus. They’d heard Rufus Thomas performing it, couldn’t remember all the words and filled in the gaps with ‘na na na na’. It was released in the USA in late 1964 (on Rampart), but on EMI’s Stateside in Britain in April 1965, when it had just charted in America. 

In October 1965 The Action did the mod cover on Parlophone. The Action’s version has a solid metallic bass guitar sound and excellent backing vocals, and is by no means a replica of any earlier version.

The next summer, in August 1966 Wilson Pickett released the best known version (US R&B #1) on Atlantic, faster and with horns. Wilson Pickett was the only British chart version, at UK #22.  There are dozens of other covers. 

So, what are the values? I would have guessed Chris Kenner first, Cannibal & The Headhunters next, as anything on Sue or Stateside is sought after. In fact, the mint values in the 2022 Rare Record Guide were The Action £75 (more for a demo as illustrated), Chris Kenner £35, and Cannibal & The Headhunters £30, Wilson Pickett £10. Partly that’s rarity in the UK. The Pickett disc is not hard to find.

Even late reissues of covers have value. Edsel re-issued several of The Actions’ singles in 1982 and it was reissued by Edsel on the box set of The Action 45s in 2014. Original Parlophone singles are the most sought after but the Edsel reissues are still valued at £10 each.

So … the British cover is most collectable. Right mod band.

American covers

What happens if you reverse the direction of the Transatlantic traffic? 

Americans “in England” … click to enlarge

As the British Invasion took over the American charts, some Americans tried to record British-material albums … Brenda Lee, Bobby Vee,and The Everly Brothers.

Del Shannon on Home and Away (it came out four decades later in 2006) and Nancy Sinatra on Nancy in London hoped that some Beatle dust would be sprinkled upon them, though neither album was a covers compilation.

From the Bobby Vee article here:

Bobby Vee Sings The New Sounds from England came in 1964. Most of the songs weren’t from England at all, just done in beat group style. She Loves You and From Me To You were deeply misguided choices of songs to cover at that point in time.  The idea was Snuff Garrett’s – to get there before the originals hit the US charts, but they were too late. Both Vee covers sound very much like the Embassy label cover versions from Woolworths in the UK, perhaps not as good. It’s a total exact copy right down to the oohs. OK, one difference cheesy organ (Farfisa?) replaces harmonica. Except it’s Bobby Vee, not The Beatles.

Brenda Lee tried to do the same with Top Teen Hits, her excuse being a shift of person to He Loves You in the title.  It also contains Can’t Buy Me Love, Always Something There To Remind Me, Wishin’ and Hopin’ (because it had been a UK hit), The Crying Game.

The Everly Brothers had a try that worked: Two Yanks In England, subtitled Where it’s happenin’. The Hollies were the backing band as well as extra vocalists. Graham Nash has said Reg Dwight (Elton John) played piano. They didn’t go for major hits (well, Pretty Flamingo and Somebody Help Me were #1 in the UK) so much as Hollies rarities. I’ve Been Wrong Before was from the first Hollies album. Have You Ever Loved Somebody was a Hollies song from Evolution which became a Searchers and a Paul Ryan single, and Don’t Run and Hide had been a Hollies B-side (Bus Stop) as had Signs That Will Never Change (Carrie Anne).

Soul covers the Brits

Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin (Satisfaction), Wilson Pickett (Hey Jude) and many other soul artists covered The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. There are compilations of covers, especially of Lennon & McCartney. Booker T & The MGs did McLemore Avenue in tribute to Abbey Road:

McLemore Avenue: Booker T & The MGs, Stax, 1970
Recorded at Stax Studios, 926 East McLemore Avenue, Memphis

Booker T:  I was in California when I heard Abbey Road, and I thought it was incredibly courageous of The Beatles to drop their format and move out musically like they did. To push the limit like that and reinvent themselves when they had no need to do that. They were the top band in the world but they still reinvented themselves. The music was just incredible so I felt I needed to pay tribute to it

Come Together: Black America Sings Lennon & McCartney: Ace CD 2011
The Soul of Lennon & McCartney: Dino CD 1995

Otis Redding covered Satisfaction so well, you might say “thoroughly” that for years there was an urban myth that he’d written it and sold it to the Stones, possibly at midnight on a moonless night at the crossroads at Birmingham’s spaghetti junction. He also did Day Tripper though I thought that was over-souled.

One of the great joys of cover versions is you can while away hours deciding whether  Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come and Wonderful World are better than Otis Redding’s covers. Or whether Aretha Franklin’s Respect trumps Otis Redding’s original. Or whether Otis Redding’s My Girl is better than The Temptations original version.


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