Since the very first recordings and phonograph records were in their infancy the ‘cover version’ has become a staple of the music business. Initially it was rival record labels releasing their version of a song that had been ‘sold’ to them by a music publisher, publisher’s eager to earn royalties for their songwriter. Inevitably someone had to record a song first and even as late as the 1950s there could be as many as a dozen competing versions of the same song; sometimes more than one version made the best seller list.
From the 1960s onwards it became normal for there to have been just one version of a song issued and it then took its chances as to whether or not the public liked it well enough to make it a hit. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t and in some cases the songs on our list were covered in the years following the original recordings release, after it had not become a hit and these 'covers' are the the ones we best remember - Lulu's 'Shout' is the perfect example, few people today remember the Isley Brothers' original.
The Walker Brothers version of ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’ is another example. Written by Bacharach and David this was originally recorded by Jerry Butler and made #20 on the Billboard chart and sold virtually nothing in the UK when it was released in 1962. Three years later the Walker Brothers took it to the top of the UK charts and went 4 places better than Jerry Butler on the American charts; today the Walker Brothers version is the one that is played and best remembered.
A similar case in point is the Rolling Stones version of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Little Red Rooster’, that was in fact written by Willie Dixon. Barely anyone in Britain had heard of Wolf when the Stones topped the UK singles chart in December 1964. Wolf’s version had come out on Chess Records in late 1961 and apart from selling well in Chicago and some other cities, and the Southern States, where black record buyers bought it, the sales were mediocre. Inexplicably London Records in America failed to issue the Stones version as a single, but ‘Little Red Rooster’ has the honour of being the first, and one of the only, blues records to top the charts.
Why do artists cover records? Well, because they think a song may have hit potential is the obvious answer. But in many instances it s because an artist loves a particular songwriter or another performer. Brian Wilson idolised Phil Spector’s productions and so he and the Beach Boys covered the Crystals, ‘Then He Kissed Me’. The all girl group had already had a big hit with it and the Beach Boys failed to beat their success, but it is a classic homage.
In many cases the cover has become so well known that the original is barely remembered. The Four Tops ‘Walk Away Renee’ (originally done by the Left Banke), ‘Go Now’ by The Moody Blues (originally Bessie Banks), ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ from the Brothers Johnson (Shuggie Otis), ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ by Thin Lizzy (The Dubliners), ‘Superstar’ from the Carpenters (Delaney & Bonnie) and Jimi Hendrix version of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’.
The Beatles are one of the most covered artists in the world and we have selected a few gems for you. Siouxsie and the Banshee’s brilliant take on ‘Dear Prudence’, Wilson Pickett’s ‘Hey Jude’ and a brilliant version of ‘And your Bird Can Sing’ from the Jam. Perhaps most interesting of all is Fats Domino’s recording of ‘Lady Madonna’, because originally Paul McCartney wrote it in homage to the New Orleans piano man.
While some covers ape the original recordings others take them to a new and in some cases virtually unrecognizable place. Take Isaac Hayes’s version of Jimmy Webb’s song that was originally a hit for Glen Campbell; ‘By The Time I Get to Phoenix’ is a whole new deal. It’s the same with Cream’s ‘Crossroads’ (Robert Johnson originally), The extended version of ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ by Diana Ross (Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell), Deep Purple, ‘Hush’ (Joe South) and The Nice’s frenzied attack on Leonard Bernstein’s ‘America’ from West Side Story.
There are other songs that have two lives as hit records; Barry White’s ‘Just The Way You Are’ was a massive hit for its writer Billy Joel. UB40 and Chrissie Hynde’s take on Sonny and Cher’s ‘I’ve Got You Babe’, and Grand Funk Railroad’s very different look at Little Eva’s ‘The Loco-motion’; it’s one of those rarities where both versions topped the charts.
Anyway, there you have it, our list of 100 of the greatest cover versions ever. What do you think we’ve missed…and just as importantly why do you think your song should be on the list?
Besides the tracks already mentioned we've included:
Derek & the Dominos - Little Wing
CCR - I Heard it Through the Grapevine
Brian Ferry - A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
Jeff Buckley - Hallelujah
The Who - Summertime Blues
The Sex Pistols - Substitute
Rod Stewart - Handbags & Gladrags
Sandy Denny - Candle In The Wind
The Mamas & the Papas - Twist and Shout
Robert Palmer - Mercy Mercy Me/I Want You
The Cure & James McCartney - Hello, Goodbye
Mike Oldfield - Arrival
Diana Krall - The Look of Love
Eric Clapton - I shot the Sheriff
Louis Armstrong - Ain't Misbehavin'
The Allman Brothers - Statesboro' Blues
Fairport Convention - Si Tu Dois Partir
Sinnaed O'Connor - Nothing Compares 2 U
Graham Parker & the Rumour - Hold Back the Night
Dusty Springfield - I Just don't Know What to Do with Myself
Counting Crowes - Return of the Grievous Angel
P.P. Arnold - Angel of the Morning
5 Seconds of Summer - American Idiot
Lenny Kravitz - American Woman
Madonna - American Pie
Johnny Cash - Personal Jesus
Robert Wyatt - I'm a Believer
Devo - Satisfaction
The Sepcials - A Message to Rudy
Soft Cell - Tainted Love
The Clash - Police & Thieves
Elvis Presley - Snowbird
Mongo Santamaria - Watermelon Man
Joss Stone - Alfie
Manfred Man's Earthband - Blinded By the Light
Nirvana - The Man Who Sold The World
Nat King Cole - The Very Thought of You
Ella Fitzgerald - Nature Boy
Bat for Lashes - I'm On Fire
Joe Cocker - With A Little Help from My Friends
Sheryl Crow - The First Cut Is The Deepest
Patti Smith - Because The Night
Guns 'N Roses - Knockin' on Heaven's Door
Elmore James - Dust My Broom
Scissor Sisters - Comfortably Numb
Gregory Porter - The In Crowd
Elvis Costello - She
Patsy Cline - Crazy
Muddy Waters - Good Morning little School Girl
The Band - I Shall Be Released
Etta James - At Last
Freddie Mercury - The Great Pretender
Stevie Wonder - Blowin' In The Wind
Red Hot Chilli Peppers - Higher Ground
Metallica - Turn The Page
The Righteous Brothers - Unchained Melody
Jamie Cullum - Everlasting Love
Tom Jones & The Stereophonics - Mama Told Me Not To Come
Talking Heads - Take Me to The River
Alison Krauss - Baby Now That I've Found You
Amy Winehouse - 'Round Midnight
Astrud Gilberto - The Shadow of Your Smile
Al Green - How Can You Mend A Broken Heart
Herbie Hancock - Edith and The Kingpin
Jackson 5 - Doctor My Eyes
Gary Moore - Need Your Love So Bad
FGTH - Born To Run
U2 - Paint It Black
Otis Redding - My Girl
Willie Nelson - All the Things You Are
Gary Jules - Mad World
Larry Carlton - Sleepwalk
Ryan Adams - Wonderwall
Neil Diamond - He Ain't Heavy He's My Brother
Colin Blunstone - What Becomes of the Broken Hearted
Donny Hathaway - Young Gifted and Black
Spencer Davis Group - Keep On Running