A recent item in my This Week in Rock History, about the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, set me to thinking about covers.
No, not wheelcovers, or slipcovers, or albums covers. Cover versions of other artists’ material, in some cases successful, as was the case with that Bob Dylan song.
As noted in TWIRH, McGuinn et al’s version was the first Dylan song to top the chart. It should be noted that Mr. Zimmerman never accomplished that feat with his own compositions, although he came close; “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” both made it to No. 2.
“Mr. Tambourine” man was one of many Dylan songs covered successfully by other performers, and one of several that were signature or breakthrough singles for them. That 1965 hit was the Byrds’ first charting single, and the first of two No. 1s; for many rock fans, it was their first exposure to one of the most influential groups of the 1960s.
Another was “All Along the Watchtower,” which Dylan recorded in 1967 and Jim Hendrix covered a year later. Hendrix’s cover was not his first charting single — “Foxy Lady,” “Purple Haze” and “Up from the Skies” had sold in the Hot 100 already, but none had gone higher than No. 65.
“All Along,” though, was Jimi’s highest-charting single effort, peaking at No. 20. In a career unfortunately cut short by his death three years later, it was his only real hit.
Unlike “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which Dylan never released as a single, “All Along” in the original did come out on 45. It was the only single from his John Wesley Harding album (according to Billboard, although the Wikipedia entry for JWH says there was another single issued), but it didn’t chart. Dylan also said he liked Hendrix’s version better.
Which sort of gets me to my point: the difference in success between originals and cover versions. Dylan was covered an insane number of times — I couldn’t even get to the bottom of one list I found online — and as noted above, sometimes other artists’ versions were more commercially successful.
But Dylan also covered the spread, as it were. “Just Like a Woman” charted at No. 33 for its composer; it has been covered numerous times, but the most successful apparently was a No. 101 by Manfred Mann, who two years later would have a No. 10 with Dylan’s “The Mighty Quinn.”
Bob also turned the tables on the Byrds.“Lay Lady Lay” was his third-highest charting single, at No. 7; the Byrds had released a cover version a couple months before Dylan’s came out, but it didn’t make it into the Hot 100.
Laura Nyro didn’t write or record as many songs as Dylan, but like him, other artists often had more success with her work than she did. Her landmark album Eli and the Thirteenth Confession allegedly produced three singles; can’t find evidence that they sold a lick, but they were huge hits as covers (“Eli’s Coming” by Three Dog Night” and “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Sweet Blindness” by the Fifth Dimension.)
But Nyro did better on her second album, New York Tendaberry. “Save the Country” was a No. 27 on the Hot 100; the most successful cover was Thelma Houston’s 1970 version, a No. 74.
Sometimes, what you think are covers, technically aren’t. Was Creedence Clearwater Revival covering Marvin Gaye when they had a No. 43 with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in 1970? Or were they covering Gladys Knight and the Pips, who took it to No. 2 in late 1967?
Nor was Gaye, who had a No. 1 with “I Heard It” 13 months later, covering Gladys et al. Nor were all of the above covering the Miracles (not yet Smokey and), who were the first to record it, although their 1966 version was never released as a single.
The song was written by Barrett Strong — but never recorded “I Heard It” — and Norman Whitfield, a Motown songwriter and producer. So none of the hit versions was a cover of a song recorded by its composer. (Strong had had a big hit with “Money (That’s What I Want” — covered by the Beatles, by the way, but not written by Strong.)
(Gaye’s take, which is without a doubt the best known — No. 80 on Rolling Stone magazine’s “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” — wasn’t even supposed to be released as a single, because of the success of the Gladys and the Pips recording. But it got so much airplay as an album cut that Motown changed plans and put it on a 45.)
Or how about a cover that came out 10 years before the original artists’ single? “With a Little Help from My Friends” was the Beatles’ designated Ringo song on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the Summer of ’67, and a U.S. No. 68 for Joe Cocker a year later.
That was slightly better than the Fab Four version did after Capitol Records issued it as a single in 1978, when it got as far as No. 71. (Cocker’s cover was a No. 1 in the U.K. — the first of three covers of the song that topped the charts on the Other Side of the Pond.)
I could go on — and I tried to, for instance finding that “Runaway” was a No. 1 for co-writer Del Shannon in 1961, but a No. 57 for Bonnie Raitt 16 years later. But so many performers have covered other artists’ songs that my eyes glazed over.
Maybe some blogger can “cover” this post, and improve on it.