April 22, 2022

FTV: Cover Me – Part 2


     In Cover Me – Part 1, we expanded on some of the cover songs discussed in the forty pages Classic Rock Magazine devoted to the topic in March 2022 (Issue #298).  Some covers are better than others, some became more famous than the originals, and just about all have interesting stories behind them.  Take Elvis Presley’s well known version of Hound Dog.  The song was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller not long after they had relocated from New York City to Los Angeles.  Johnny Otis asked them to write some songs for the singers in his band and after checking them out, they wrote Hound Dog.  It was Originally recorded by Big Mamma Thornton in 1952 and climbed to #1 on Billboard’s R&B Chart  in 1953.

     Three years later, Elvis caught Freddie Bell and the Bellboys in Las Vegas and liked their comedic take on Hound Dog.  Presley liked it well enough to add it to his act.  His hip swaying version on the Milton Berle Show caused a ruckus which in turn helped his Don’t Be Cruel single (backed by Hound Dog on the B-side) become a two sided hit release.  Elvis was not thrilled to have recorded it in the first place, but the cat was out of the bag, so to speak.  Stroller and his wife were returning from a European vacation on the Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria when it was rammed by another vessel on July 25, 1956.  They survived and after the freighter that rescued them docked in New York, an excited Jerry Leiber met them on the pier.  The first words out of his mouth were, “Elvis Pressley recorded Hound Dog!” As I said, there are some interesting stories attached to cover songs, so let us explore a few more discussed in CRM #298.

     Before Fleetwood Mac reimagined themselves as a power-pop juggernaut in the late 1970s, they were an upcoming band doing their best to emulate the American blues artists that inspired a lot of British bands.  I heard some of their early stuff back in 1970, including the Peter Green penned The Green Manalishi (With The Two Prong Crown).  Fleetwood Mac ‘turned up the heat’ (as CRM described their evolving sound) on tunes like Green Manalishi, acting as a prelude to what would become known as ‘heavy metal’.  The original may have also hinted that Green’s time with FMac was nearing the end:  “By the beginning of 1970, Green’s mental health was in a precarious state.  His increasing inability to deal with success wasn’t helped by his LSD use.  The Green Manalishi, with its air of foreboding and paranoia, captures his state of mind,” according to CRM.  

     The connection between The Green Manalishi and the emerging genre of heavy metal wasn’t evident in 1970, but it was after Judas Priest covered the song in 1978.  There was no other band flying the HM banner higher than Priest in the late 1970s.  The track was included on the US release Hell Bent For Leather (retitled from Killing Machine, the album released in the UK in 1978 without Green Manalishi). Green M was on Priest’s 1979 live album Unleashed in the East and quickly became a metal classic.  Priest kept FMac’s basic song structure but singer Rob Halford’s delivery was less spooky than Green’s and bracketed by the turbo-charged twin guitars of KK Downing and Glen Tipton.  Many people did not know it was a cover let alone a connecting bridge from early 70s Brit-blues and late 70s metal.  In 2017, Halford acknowledged the tracks were different, but still great:  “A good song will take any kind of interpretation.  You can take it and make it into anything.”  A great summation of just about any cover song.

     How about Blinded By The Light?  If you listened to rock radio in 1976, the name associated with the song would have been Manfred Mann’s Earth Band.  The song was all over FM radio but it was not, ironically, high on Mann’s list of songs they wanted to cover.  Mann said, “I made a list of three or four songs that I thought could make singles, and Blinded was at the bottom.  Even when I got round to it, I didn’t really see it.”  They worked up a seven-minute version which was tweaked and rearranged from the original.  Mann replaced the original soul-revue sax section with swirling keyboards, and then kicked off the song with the chorus.  In the end, they had taken Bruce Springsteen’s 1973 debut single and turned it into their own.  The biggest change was to take out a couple of Springsteen’s wordier verses (CRM: “Springsteen crammed as many words as possible into his version, shooting for prime Dylan but sounding like an English literature undergrad who just swallowed a thesaurus.”) and, to CRM’s ears, “Made it unequivocally better.”

     Deep Purple certainly made their mark when the Machine Head (1972) album burst onto the scene but they were not totally unknown at the time.  Inspired by Vanilla Fudge’s dramatic rendering of The Supremes’ Motown hit, You Keep Me Hanging On, they decided to give Billy Joe Royal’s Hush (1967) a similar treatment.  Purple keyboard player Jon Lord had toured with Vanilla Fudge when he was a member of The Flower Pot Men and seeing his Fudge counterpart (Mark Stein) coax grinding chords out of his Hammond organ live made a big impression.   Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore had seen potential in the song when he heard it soon after Royal released Hush in 1967.  To make it a Deep Purple track, Blackmore reasoned, “[They only needed] a tougher, bolder arrangement.”  Recording at London’s Pye studio in the spring of 1968, they were prepared to get Hush down on tape for their debut album, Shades of Deep Purple.  Having neglected to score a copy of Royal’s record, they leaned on Purple’s bass player at the time (Rod Simper) to call a friend of his who had been singing the song in his own band.  Rod Freeman obliged and, with guitar in hand, wrote down the chords and music for them.  Purple wanted their lead single to be The Beatles’ Help! but the record company opted for Hush instead.  It was a wise choice and the single contributed to their breaking out on American radio. 

     Long time Purple bassist Roger Glover adds his spin on how their early roots as a jamming band evolved in part due to the success of Hush:  “The essence of the band was always great musicians.  You had Jon on one side and Ritchie on the other.  Then Gillan and I came from a pop band, which was a good thing because you have this naivety balanced with virtuosity.  To me, that was the key to what the Deep Purple sound was.  And still is.”  It only took a cover of Hush to show everyone what they had to offer.  No doubt the success of Hush paved the way for the wider fame they experienced when Machine Head made them one of the biggest bands in the world in 1972.

     Argent guitarist/vocalist Russ Ballard wrote the song God Gave Rock And Roll To You in 1973.  It was first recorded by Argent, but it was inspired by his mother.  Ballard recalled having panic attacks during a difficult US tour, “possibly,” he says, “as a result of working too hard.”  He also recalls his deeply religious mother giving him some sage advice when they returned to the U.K.  Ballard’s mum would say to him, “God gave us this, and God gave us that” in the nine months after the tour and his anxiety waned.  This was the phrase Ballard had in his head when he sat down at the piano and wrote the song.  As performed by Argent, it was a sunny, optimistic song that reached the UK Top 20.  Two decades later, KISS would tweak the song’s arrangement and lyrics (‘You gotta put your faith in loud guitars’ never appeared in Argent’s version) when they recorded it for the soundtrack of the movie Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.  

     God Gave… was still a celebration of the blood, sweat, and tears it takes to make it big and Ballard didn’t mind the tweaks to his song:  “They got the tempo right, and their guitar solo was better.  Looking back now, I realize that Argent didn’t always pay enough attention to the details of the arrangement.  I had no objection [to KISS fiddling with his song] because without them, the song would have been stuck away on a shelf just gathering dust, but now it was part of a massive, high-profile movie soundtrack.  Plus, I didn’t have to give away too much of the publishing.”   Ballard hopes to get out and tour again after the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns of the last two years,  He has used the time well, recording a new album he hopes to release before too long.

     There are artists and bands who have forged careers singing songs written by others.  Linda Ronstadt, Joe Cocker, Vanilla Fudge, and Three Dog Night come to mind.  In the case of Three Dog Night, they managed 21 consecutive Top 40 hits, three of them reaching #;  11 and 18 of their  songs reached the Top 10 and Top 20, respectively.  The Los Angeles based band rounded up the best tunes by mostly undiscovered new songwriters of the late 1960s and put their own stamp on them.  Songwriters like Harry Nilsson, Elton John, Laura Nyro, Paul Williams, and Hoyt Axton are but a few of the names that have graced the labels on Three Dog Night’s parade of hits.  While songs like Nilsson’s One and Nyro’s Eli’s Coming were seen as sure hits when recorded, the same can not be said of their 1970 release, Randy Newman’s Mamma Told Me Not To Come.

     The first recording of Mamma was done by Eric Burdon in 1967.  Released on Burdon’s 1966 solo album, Eric Is Here, CRM describes Burdon as, “…bellowing out an unmemorable version.” Newman himself took a crack at it on his 12 Songs LP in 1970 but he played the lyrics pretty close to the vest.  The song was, as described by CRM, “the tale of a straight-laced stiff who has ended up at a dissolute soiree he can’t wait to get away from.  [Newman] laid down his own nervy, piano-centered version.”  One of TDN’s trio of vocalists, Cory Wells, had heard Newman’s track but had little luck getting the rest of the band on board:  “They kept turning it down, saying ‘No, it’s not a hit, it’s not a hit.’” All it took to make it a hit was to have Three Dog Night turn the arrangement on its ear.

     CMR described how TDN reinvented the song:  “The key was to keep the original’s spindly musical skeleton, but pack on the muscle, turning it into an enthusiastically funky bar-room blast.  Where Randy Newman sounded like he was really regretting coming to the party, Three Dog Night most definitely did not.  When Newman sang, ‘I’ve seen so many things I ain’t never seen before,’ he meant it.  When Wells sang it, he was practically rubbing his hands with glee.  Newman’s ironic commentary on LA’s hedonistic party scene was turned into one of the party anthems of the 1970s.”

     Mamma proved to be the first of TDN’s trio of No. 1 hits, but Newman himself was said to have been a bit miffed by this sort of scruffy bunch from L.A. and their arrangement of his song.  That is, at least until the royalties started rolling in.  Wells, who passed away in 2017, told the tale of picking up the phone one day.  It was Newman, who said, “I just want to thank you for putting my kids through college” before he hung up (Newman denies it happened but Wells stuck to his version until his death).

     The origins of the song Black Betty are unknown so the credit line simply says ‘traditional’.  The first recorded version, however, dates back to 1933 thanks to noted ethnomusicologists Alan and John Lomax.  In their quest to record authentic American music, the Lomax boys traveled across the United States collecting an immense catalog of music that now resides in the Library of Congress.  The a-capella version of Black Betty they recorded in 1933 was provided by 63 year-old career criminal James ‘Iron Head’ Baker.  The field recording was made at the Central State Farm in Texas, an institution that ‘employed’ its inmates producing cotton and sugarcane.  Baker was a rough, tough character from the streets of Dallas and his rendering of the tune matches his reputation.  Lead Belly’s (Huddie Ledbetter) 1939 recording may be more widely known, but he does not quite match Baker’s eerie moan.  None-the-less, it was Lead Belly’s version that caught Bill Bartlett’s ear in the late 1970s.

     Bartlett was a sometime member of The Lemon Pipers (one hit wonders known for the 1968 psychedelic pop song Green Tambourine).  He rearranged Black Betty, added a choppy, southern flavored riff, and two extra verses and recorded the track with his band Starstruck.  This Black Betty didn’t take off nationally, but the regional buzz it caused brought it to the attention of Jerry Kasenetz and Jeffry Katz of Super K Productions.  They put together a band called Ram Jam around Bartlett and re-released it as a single in 1977.  If one has seen the video for this Black Betty, Bartlett wants everyone to know the Ram Jam band shown did not cut this song:  “It was  Starstruck.”  The Ram Jam re-release was a significantly edited and rearranged version of Bartlett’s original recording, but his statement about who recorded the track is true. 

     With so much history, one eternal question remains;  Who or what was Black Betty?  Historians have made a case that ‘Betty’ might have been a reference to, “ a bottle of whisky, a devious woman, a police car, or the bullwhip that bit at the worker’s backs.”  Bartlett has his own interpretation:  “My version is about Bettie Page.  She’s not a black girl, she’s a pin-up queen from the fifties.  She was the tops.  She was my inspiration for writing the last two verses.  I don’t know what Lead Belly was writing about.  That’s up to anybody to guess.  But music can be whatever you want it to be about.  As long as you’re having a good experience listening to the music, I don’t care what you think it is about.”  The Ram Jam release reached No. 18 on the US charts and the Top Ten in both the UK and Australia.  It has also been used in many movies.

     The final segment of the CRM Covers edition takes an extended look at covers of Bob Dylan’s songs, especially Jimi Hendrix’s take on All Along The Watchtower.  With a catalog as deep as Dylan’s it stands to reason there are numerous bands and artists who were attracted to covering his songs.  Peter, Paul and Mary latched on to Blowing In The Wind within three weeks of Dylan releasing his original version.  The Byrds, inspired by George Harrison sporting a twelve-string Rickenbacker electric guitar, turned Bob’s Mr. Tambourine Man into a mega hit long before the record-buying youth of America knew who Dylan was.  By the time Guns ‘N’ Roses got around to Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (1991), it had already been given a reggae treatment by Eric Clapton (1975).  The odds of the G’N’R version topping both Dylan’s and Clapton’s seems almost unimaginable, but it does.  

     Dylan liked Hendrix’s arrangement of All Along The Watchtower so much he began performing the song in a similar manner (as Hendrix) later in his career.  For my part, I actually prefer another Watchtower cover – the one on Savage Grace’s eponymous first album released in 1970.  It may not have charted but the Savage Grace arrangement marked the first time I heard All Along The Watchtower performed live.  SG turned it into one of their showpiece concert numbers featuring their eighteen year-old bass player, Al Jacquez.  Maybe Al will perform an acoustic version  during his solo gig at the Ontonagon Theater for the Performing Arts this summer.

     We have but scratched the surface on the topic of cover songs.  Not wanting to make this a ‘three parter’, we will set it aside for now.  With that said, I will explain how I accidently wrote ‘part three’ a while back when we take up the topic again in the near future.

Top Piece Video:  Speaking of Hendrix and All Along the Watchtower – here is the version from Isle of Wight