Some examples to start us off. Back in the early sixties, the singer-songwriter was a rarity. You had songs written for you, or you covered songs you knew.
Blue Suede Shoes
The cover is often better known than the original, almost always if the cover artist is a major star. That’s what stars do. They lift your song.
If you were the composer, you probably didn’t care. Carl Perkins wrote and recorded Blue Suede Shoes for Sun Records in December 1955, and released it on January 1st 1956. Elvis had just moved from Sun to RCA, and recorded it early in 1956 and put it on the Elvis Presley album in March 1956. Carl is definitely the original as well as the composer. As his original shot up the chart, RCA executives mused that they might have lifted the wrong Sun artist in choosing Elvis. Elvis pressured RCA not to release his cover version as a single, as he was aware of the high possibility of wiping out his friend Carl’s climbing hit. Elvis persisted too, against strong opposition from RCA and Colonel Parker, only releasing his version as a single in September when Carl’s was slipping down the chart, and Scotty Moore says that it was released then to help out Carl who was in hospital after a serious car crash.
Carl sold a million singles and went to #1 in the USA, while Elvis only reached # 20. In the UK, Carl Perkins got to #10, Elvis to #9, an order replicated elsewhere outside the USA. But the reason Elvis has the “best-known” version is that he did it on early 1956 TV shows (before it was a single for him, thus helping Carl’s sales), with jokes about blue suede shoes, then put it on the first LP, and three EPs. I’ve seen Elvis’s blue suede shoes in a glass case. They look a muddy grey-blue to me, not at all what I’d imagined.
Then Elvis re-recorded it in 1960 for the G.I. Blues film and album, and it was a huge best selling LP. Factor in all those Elvis compilations from the mid 70s to today, starting with 40 Greatest in 1974. There must be way more copies of Elvis’s cover in circulation as a track, though as singles go, more Carl Perkins exist.
The Beatles and The Stones
The Rolling Stones were masters at producing cover versions of blues and soul records … look at their early hits: Come On (Chuck Berry), It’s All Over Now (Bobby Womack), Little Red Rooster (Howlin’ Wolf). The first two albums are virtually all cover versions. ‘Phelge’ is ‘Nanker Phelge’ a name for the whole group. Jagger & Richards wrote Tell Me.
The Beatles first album, Please Please Me, is half cover versions: Anna (Arthur Alexander), Chains (The Cookies), Boys (The Shirelles B side to Will You Love Me Tomorrow), Baby It’s You (The Shirelles), A Taste of Honey (Bobby Scott) and Twist and Shout (The Isley Brothers). Some of the songs were recent hits, Twist and Shout was only a few months old, but there was no attempt to compete with the original for sales.
In 1963 every band in the country played Twist & Shout, and there you get the phenomenon of bands covering the cover version. Brian Poole & The Tremeloes were covering Twist & Shout because The Beatles LP and EP version was so well-known and heavily played that it was a quasi-single.
Throughout the sixties, major hits by white bands were covers of black originals such as Louie Louie, (The Kingsmen, originally Richard Berry & The Pharoahs) or Do You Love Me? (Brian Poole originally The Contours). Louie Louie has had so many cover versions that it’s generated a book by Dave Marsh, plus two CD compilations of versions.
There are two more. The Louie Louie Collection (1994, focussing on Northwest US bands) and The First Louie Louie Spanish Compilation in 1997. It is the world’s most recorded song with 2000 versions, though the Louie Louie Discography gets up to 4000 releases. That should be 4001, because they don’t list my DVD Only in America where it is the instrumental theme. We were filming in New York, I bought The Best of Louie Louie and we listened to the Rice University Marching Band version (on a DVD player!) in the Gramercy Park Hotel. We decided on a brassy rock version as the theme music. It’s most popular with marching bands.
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
Sometimes the cover eclipses the original. Ewan MacColl wrote The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face in 1957 for Peggy Seeger, his new lover. Her 1957 version is on YouTube, as is a later version.
It became a folk classic, first covered by The Kingston Trio. This is true of most folk classics. It was covered by various artists, such as the The Ian Campbell Folk Group’s horrendous but jaunty banjo-driven version in the mid-60s. The Peggy Seeger original is considerably better than the other folk versions..
They were all played quickly too. Roberta Flack re-recorded it in 1969 for her album First Take, taking it at literally half the speed (2m 03s for Ian Campbell to 4m 22s for Roberta Flack), with an insistent bass line from Ron Carter, and improving the melody considerably around the edges. Three years later in 1972 Flack’s version was used in the film Play Misty For Me, released as a single, and became a US #1 hit (UK #14). Her version renders the earlier folk versions truly unlistenable, and most of the many covers are actually covers of her version.
Ewan McColl was so obsessive about folk that he thought only Scots people should sing Scots songs, and only English people should sing English songs. He was obsessed with authenticity, though at heart he was an actor and a fake … his real name was Jimmie Miller.
SEE my review of the play MISS LITTLEWOOD which tells some of his story.
This is an extract:
Greg Barnett captured the essence of Jimmie Miller, Joan Littlewood’s first husband, and founder of the Communist theatre group The Red Megaphones. Jimmie changed his name to Ewan MacColl, and it’s satisfying to know that Ewan MacColl’s studied authenticity was fake. I saw him perform po-faced in a folk club in the 60s. Apparently, he was an awful blinkered man, flying into a rage at the mention of his greatest composition, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, as transformed and performed by Roberta Flack. She tweaked the melody too, turning an excellent song into a masterpiece. He couldn’t forgive her. He ran the Critics Group, inventing strict guidelines for “a folk performance.” Fun was not included. A recent story by Shirley Collins:
I first met him when I was 20 and my antenna went up straightaway. I genuinely don’t want to be unpleasant, but he was unpleasant to me, quite sexist, and pretentious and pompous – words that should never be applied to a folk singer. He said to me that I shouldn’t wear nail varnish. What a wretched thing to say to a young woman with an interest; what a way of putting someone down. He was self-invented; there seemed nothing truthful about him, and that’s always concerned me greatly. He was an actor, really, even as a singer. The way he’d turn his chair, sit astride it, put his hand to his ear… my heart would sink. I know it’s not fair as he’s not here to defend himself, but I’ve had my opinion since I first met him, and I’ve not seen any reason to change it. Shirley Collins, The Guardian 25 Jan 2015
She is correct. He was an actor originally who increasingly became interested in folk music. Yes, he was a great folk archivist, and he also wrote Dirty Old Town, but he was also a pedantic arsehole, and that came across.
He hated Roberta Flack’s version. Justine Picardie his daughter-in-law said of the cover versions:
He hated all of them. He had a special section in his record collection for them, entitled ‘The Chamber of Horrors’. He said that the Elvis version was like Romeo at the bottom of the Post Office Tower singing up to Juliet. And the other versions, he thought, were travesties: bludgeoning, histrionic and lacking in grace.
Completely wrong. Roberta Flack recreated and improved the song brilliantly. It’s the only version you’d ever want.