Cover Me is the name of an album we received a while ago from two time vets of the Porcupine Mountain Music Festival, Jimi and the Band of Souls. It is a collection of songs written by others but interpreted by the Band of Souls. It just so happens that it is also the title of a book by Ray Padgett (Cover Me – The stories behind the greatest cover songs of all time – 2017 – Sterling). Padgett founded the blog of the same name in 2007 and it laid the framework for this New Yorker’s expansive thesis on the subject of cover songs. He also works as a senior music publicist for Shore Fire Media and in that capacity has worked with artists like Ben Harper, Lana Del Rey, and Maxwell.
Artists pull out an album of covers for various reasons. Sometimes a cover album is a tribute to a genre or songwriter the artist admires. If it has been too long between releases or they are drawing blanks in the writing department, artists may pull out an album of covers to buy some time. Probably the worst reason is the ‘escape’ album: an artist may owe their label one more record and they can get out from under their contract by banging together a quick album of covers. Whatever the motivation, the modern definition of a ‘cover’ is a song that has been redone by someone (or many someones) other than the original artist. The roots of the term have a couple of much different meanings if one goes back to the period bookending World War II.
Going back to the time just before World War II, sheet music was the preferred mode of disseminating popular music. A song was ‘covered’ by anyone who played it and the songwriters made their living based on how many paper copies sold. When the record industry was still in its infancy (say the 1930s and 1940s), people bought records according to the title of the song. If a song became a big seller, multiple record labels would push out disks of their own artists doing the same song. Stores would typically sell the same song performed by more than one artist and the record buying public was happy. In the early days, the singers took a back seat to the song.
Padgett points out that the first official use ot the phrase ‘cover song’ was published in a 1949 issue of that old war horse music trade magazine Billboard. The article in question was focused on a popular country-music hit when it said, “The original disking of Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me cut for King (records) by Wayne Raney, has hit 250,000 (copies sold), and versions are now available on all major labels.” The meaning is clear: Raney’s version drew enough buyers to encourage other labels to get the song out under their imprint. The Billboard piece continues, “Another King disk, Blues Stay ‘Way From Me?, by the Delmore Brothers, is close to 125,000 in six weeks, and the other companies have just begun to cover the tune.”
Interestingly enough, Padgett goes on to explain there are several meanings attached to the word ‘cover’, any one of which could work. In some cases, record labels would rush out copycat recordings of popular tunes to hoodwink buyers into purchasing their versions, making this type of cover a bit of a scam. Some believe the term was derived from the practice of stocking copycat versions in front of items on display, thus ‘covering’ the original disks on sale. Some take it to mean that by putting out versions of popular songs, the labels were ‘covering their bets’ that the song would be a big seller for them, also. Artists and Repertoire (A&R) men, when asked if their label was going to put out their own version of a popular song, would reply, “We’ve got it covered”.
Modern day artists also have different interpretations of not only the term, but of the practice of recording ‘covers’. The late Prince told George Lopez in 2011, “I don’t mind fans singing the songs, my problem is when the industry covers the music. You see, covering the music means your version doesn’t exist anymore.” In 2004, American Pie writer Don McLean took umbrage to the way the term is used when he posted the following on his website: “The word ‘cover’ is now used by music fans incorrectly. They use it to describe any attempt by an artist to perform old songs or previously recorded material. The use of this term gives them a bit of authority since it makes them sound like they are in the music business. They are in fact ignorant of what a cover version of a song really is. Back in the days of black radio stations and white radio stations (i.e., segregation), if a black act had a hot record, the white kids would find out and want to hear it on ‘their’ radio station. This would prompt the record company to bring a white act into the recording studio and cut an exact, but white, version of the song to give to the white radio stations to play and thus keep the black act where it belonged: on black radio. A ‘cover’ version of a song is a racist tool. It is NOT a term intended to be used to describe a valid interpretation of an old song…Madonna did not ‘cover’ American Pie; she just sang an old song and made an old songwriter mighty happy.”
McLean’s historical definition is by no any means incorrect, but by today’s standards ‘cover’ no longer applies as a ‘racist tool’. Record companies called the category McLean is talking about ‘Race Records’ in the period before WWII, a term eventually replaced by ‘Rhythm & Blues’. Certainly what he says about ‘black radio’ and ‘white radio’ is historically true. One only needs to find Pat Boone’s version of Little Richard’s Tutti Fruitti to be reminded how many songs by black artists were introduced to white audiences this way (hopefully spurring them to find the original artist’s superior versions). It also doesn’t hurt to mention that labels catering to black record buyers were not beyond reversing the flow of songs in their direction. Remember the first ‘cover’? Wayne Raney was most decidedly a white artist and his Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me may have been covered by other white artists, but the version that charted in the Race Records category was the cover done by Bull Moose Jackson.
I also couldn’t help notice McLean’s comment that Madonna’s version of American Pie had, “made an old songwriter mighty happy.” Whether he agrees with the modern interpretation of the term or not, ‘covers’ also translate into dollar signs for the songwriter. Prince’s complaint about having his songs covered meant, “covering the music means your version doesn’t exist any more,” yet he reportedly loved Sinead O’Connor’s cover of Nothing Compares 2 U. I am willing to bet that he was perfectly happy with the royalties he received from her version, just as the Beatles were prompted to send Joe Cocker a thank-you note for covering their Sgt. Pepper’s track With a Little Help From My Friends. Mick Jagger is said to have danced around the room when Devo played him their first release, a decidedly disjointed version of Satisfaction. Let us not forget that Jagger and the Stones started out covering American R&B artists and Jagger himself was not beyond recording the occasional cover (see Dancing in the Streets done with his pal, David Bowie). McLean’s historical lecture aside, the modern definition of a ‘cover’ has been refined to reflect artists reinterpreting songs rather than doing direct copycat versions just to make the record labels happy. In the movie biz, rebooting old movies is an accepted practice and could be viewed as the cinematic version of doing a ‘cover’.
Padgett would have had a hard time compiling a coherent list of all the cover songs that have been issued even if he limited himself to one or two decades or just the rock and roll era. Wisely, he digs into the back stories of nineteen tracks that, when examined closely, tell a story about cover songs rather than trying to tell the story of all cover songs. The previously mentioned Joe Cocker provides a classic example of what Padgett is trying to tell his readers.
Joe Cocker was a working musician struggling to make a living long before Woodstock and John Belushi’s parody of Cocker’s performance style that made them both big stars. His now legendary spastic gyrations weren’t the result of alcohol or substance abuse; Cocker played no instrument so he developed other ways to express himself while performing. Legend has it that a backstage encounter with a Ouija board gave the answer, “With a little help from your friends” when he asked, “How will I ever get famous.” This occured before the song had even been written, but once he heard Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, if the anecdote is true, it surely would have come back to him. Cocker further explained that he was contemplating things while using their outdoor toilet (remember, this was Sheffield, England in the late 1960s) when he had an epiphany about how he wanted to perform the track. Taking inspiration from Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, he envisioned a near gospel take on the song replete with a ‘chorus of black girls doing a call and answer’ during the song’s chorus.
Once record producers Denny Cordell and Tony Visconti heard Cocker perform the song live, they knew that they had to get it on tape. Unhappy with the sound of the ‘chorus of black girls’ used to record the track, Cordell set off to all four ends of America to find the right blend of voices to use on the track. After a month of this expensive nonsense, the studio’s money men instructed Visconti to use the original track (substandard ‘chorus of black girls’ and all) and put the record out. It went to the top of the charts and Visconti was sure that Cordell would come home and fire him for his little act of insurrection. It turned out that Cordell was relieved that the record was finally done.
Having topped the charts in the U.K. in October of 1968, Cocker had indeed made the Ouija board prophecy come true. The Beatles were so thrilled with it they let him record She Came in Through the Bathroom Window and Something before they released their own versions on Abbey Road. The Woodstock Festival didn’t resonate with Cocker as an epic gig, but when the Woodstock film hit the theaters in 1970, Cocker’s segment got everyone’s attention. He may not have been a gifted songwriter, but he turned his ability to do ear-catching covers of other people’s songs into a memorable career. Having the track picked up as the theme song for The Wonder Years in 1988 brought another resurgence of interest in Joe Cocker. He was pragmatic about the whole process: “In a lot of these songs I’m not trying to top the original, ‘cause you can’t. I’m just trying to give them some new life.” When he died in 2014, Paul McCartney remembered sitting with Cocker and Cordell listening to the playback (of Friends) at the studio on Saville Row; “It was just mind-blowing, totally turned the song into a soul anthem, and I was forever grateful to him for doing that.”
Not all artists embrace their covers, even if they became hits. The Who recorded Eddie Cochran’s 1958 hit Summertime Blues but never got a good enough take to release it on record. Needing a filler album to take up the space between their ground breaking Tommy album and the record that would end up being called Who’s Next, Pete Townsend and company decided a live album would do the trick. They recorded countless shows on tour but in the end, burned the tapes as no one wanted to sit and listen to hundreds of hours of music to pick the best tracks. They also burned the tapes so they wouldn’t end up as bootlegged albums. Given two more shots to get a live album, they recorded the tour’s last two shows. The one at Hull University had problems with the bass track so they were more or less forced to use the tapes from their show at Leeds University. Of the three covers on the album, Summertime Blues was released as a single and shot up the charts. Today, Townsend refuses to play the song because it wasn’t written by The Who.
One day near the end of my junior year in high school, guitarist John Spratto from The French Church stopped me in the hall and said “Listen to The Who’s Live at Leeds! It is the best live album ever.” We listened, agreed with him, and The Twig promptly covered Summertime Blues because we were, after all, a covers band. We also injected a fair amount from another cover of the tune by the American power trio Blue Cheer. Maybe Pete Townshend won’t play it live any more, but I would if anybody asked!
Top Piece Video: The Who rock Summertime Blues in 1969.