Covers and gender switching

Switching gender: Boys (and girls)

Boys: The Shirelles, Top Rank B-side, 1960

The Beatles were relaxed about crossing gender to cover girl group songs. Paul McCartney said Ringo would do Boys, which was a fan favourite with the crowd, and which Ringo used to sing with Rory Storm & The Hurricanes:

And it was great – though if you think about it, here’s us doing a song and it was really a girls’ song. ‘I talk about boys now!’ Or it was a gay song. But we never even listened. It’s just a great song. I think that’s one of the things about youth – you just don’t give a shit. I love the innocence of those days.
(Paul McCartney, Rolling Stone, October 2005). 

Please Please Me had a further Shirelles cover in Baby It’s You as well as The Cookies Chains. All girl group.

Manfred Mann also mined girl group songs … Doo Wah Diddy Diddy was originally recorded by The Exciters as Do Wah Diddy Diddy. The image of a sharp guy walkin’ down the street, snappin’ his fingers and shufflin’ his feet works better than Manfred Mann’s switch to snappin’ her fingers and shufflin’ her feet when you think about it. Cool for a 1963 guy. Odd for a 1963 girl. Sha La La was a cover of … The Shirelles again. The lyric works both ways.

Gallery – click to enlarge

Brian Wilson idolized Phil Spector productions and The Beach Boys covered Then He Kissed Me by The Crystals and changed it to Then I Kissed Her.

Da Doo Ron Ron was a popular cover:

I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still
Somebody told me that his name was Bill


I met her on a Monday and my heart stood still
Somebody told me that her name was Jill

Lots of bands did it, and so did my youth club band once I persuaded them that The Crystals were more fun than picking out Shadows and Ventures numbers painstakingly. We thought we’d cleverly invented the gender switch, but everyone did the same one. Funny, I never heard ‘Lil’ always ‘Jill.’

Sometimes gender switch is misguided. Brenda Lee decided to cover She Loves You and did on Top Teen Hits. The record label (US Decca which is UK Brunswick) decided to re-label it He Loves You. In fact as it’s third person, reporting what someone said, there was no reason to switch gender, and Brenda didn’t … she sings I saw her yesterday … she said she loves you. It’s just the song title.

It’s an old folk singer conundrum. Do you sing the words regardless of the narrative gender or do you switch? When you read a story aloud, as on an audio book, or just reading to kids at bedtime, you just read the dialogue for both genders. I might change my voice, but then I’m a ham actor at heart. I had multiple voices for reading The Famous Five.

Maid of Constant Sorrow: Judy Collins, Elektra LP, USA 1961

Folk singers generally stick with the integrity of the lyric. Not always … Man of Constant Sorrow was personalized and became Girl of Constant Sorrow for Joan Baez and a more historically resonant Maid of Constant Sorrow for Judy Collins. They also change the state. Dylan changed Kentucky to Colorado and Joan Baez and Judy Collins (who was born in Colorado) changed it to California.

Joan Baez was content to sing in a male role in her cover of The Band’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down as in Virgil Caine is the name and I served on the Danville Train … (though from there she mangled the lyrics).

Bob Dylan was assured enough to sing It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl, oh, lord, I know, ‘cause I’m one in House of The Rising Sun.

Eric Burdon of The Animals had to make the switch to many a poor boy as well as diluting the lyrics by turning the brothel into a gambling house, and the gambler sweetheart into a gambler father. Think about singing it to a club audience swilling Newcastle Brown in Geordie Land in 1964, and you can see Eric’s point. Folk etiquette is to sing as written, regardless of gender of singer and person in the ballad.

… and credits

The House of The Rising Sun: The Animals, Columbia 1964

Is it a cover version if the songs’s origins are ‘traditional’ so lost in the mists of time? Eric Burdon now claims he learned House ofThe Rising Sun from Northumbrian folk singer Johnny Handle in a Newcastle folk club. He also said they heard it while touring with Chuck Berry, though elsewhere he said that playing their then new single House of the Rising Sun on the Chuck Berry tour made it a hit.

I’ll take that with a large pinch of salt. The Animals first hit was Baby Let Me Take You Home. This is credited to Bert Russell / Wes Farrell (UK #21). The song is simply Eric Von Schmidt’s Baby Let Me Follow You Down (as recorded by Bob Dylan) with a slight word change. i.e. a “steal.” It had been recorded shortly before by Hoagy Lands in the USA as Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand.

I remember reading an interview with Eric Burdon just as House of The Rising Sun was released, where he said both singles had come from Dylan’s first LP Bob Dylan. I know, because I went straight out and bought it as a result. But they released it as Russell / Farrell rather than as Von Schmidt. How and why? They also localized the B-side, Timmy Shaw’s Gonna Send You Back to Georgia became Gonna Send You Back To Walker, the area of Newcastle Eric Burdon came from.

Bob Dylan was always “partial to a credit” and spoke openly and shamelessly about lifting songs in a radio interview and putting his name on the credits. There is also ‘Trad.Arr.’ i.e. ‘Traditional, arranged by’ which gives the ‘arranger’ songwriting royalties. So as well as two songs, Alan Price understood Trad. arr’ and that is his name on the credit on House of The Rising Sun. Eric Burdon has said that Alan Price explained his name was there because of alphabetical order, Alan preceding Eric. There was no room on the label to put five names. No one sussed apparently that alphabetical order goes by surname, placing Messrs Burdon and Chandler before ‘Price.’

Never mind the shenanigans, it is the best male version of the song (in spite of the gender switch) and Dylan was first annoyed that someone else got the hit but has also said it was an inspiration to go electric.

Ode to Billie Joe

There are real pricing oddities with covers, like Life ‘n’ Soul’s cover of Ode To Billie Joe. Life ‘n’ Soul astutely noticed that if you can have a singer called Bobbie who’s female, you can switch Billie Jo to female too. So it becomes saw a boy who looked a lot like you  … and he and Billie Joe were throwing something off the Tallahatchee Bridge. Not a single innovation over the original otherwise, competent, but not as well sung or played. A good Embassy version at most, but it’s worth way more than the original at £35 mint, compared to £5 for the vastly superior Bobbie Gentry version. The B-side, Peacefully Asleep, is classic 1967 fare, which may push its value.

In the end, gender switch morphs into Answer Discs, which is a separate section.