The topic of cover songs fascinates me, and I have many, many playlists of cover songs of a wide variety of themes.
My playlists of bluegrass covers get way more likes than anything else I have on Spotify.
I’m not entirely sure where these people are coming from and how they find me, but I say, hey, bring it on.
When an artist finds success with a cover of an older song that was a hit, often times: younger listeners may not even be aware that it’s a cover.
While the older folks fold their arms, grimace, and say, “the original was so much better” or “this was totally unnecessary” or “how could anyone not know this was a cover?”
I was a massive Captain and Tennille fan as a kid in the mid-70s. I loved their hit “Shop Around,” completely unaware that it was originally recorded by The Miracles over 25 years prior.
And was equally unaware that it got higher on the charts for Smoky and the gang (#2 compared to #4 for the cover).
These days, the original lives on, while the cover has all but faded away.
But then there are the times when most of the public (I’m talking about “the public” as I know it here in the U.S.), regardless of age, is unaware that a hit song is a cover.
Or… knows it’s a cover… but hasn’t heard the original. Maybe the source material is rather obscure, or came from another country.
Or the cover became so iconic, it just obliterated everything in its path.
Or the original had some limited success in a specific format but didn’t cross over to the masses.
Or people in general just don’t care.
Here are some originals (defined as first release of the song) that have been largely overshadowed by a successful cover, or even a cover of a cover…
…but are more than worthy of being heard themselves.
At the end of the article, I will include a link to a playlist I have created that includes more examples.
Gloria Jones (1964)
Soft Cell (1981)
This is the song that inspired me to write this article. “Tainted Love” became a big hit for the English synth-pop duo Soft Cell in 1981 and I was down for it. My friend Matt told me at the time that it was a cover and that the original recording didn’t sound anything like it, but I never heard it for myself until the advent of streaming, when I sought out the Gloria Jones’ original. It was the B-side of a quickly forgotten single that never charted.
The guys in Soft Cell would have been familiar with the song, due to the early 70s Northern Soul club phenomenon in the U.K.
People sought out obscure R&B records from the U.S. that had an upbeat tempo, suitable for the rather athletic style of dancing that was popular in that scene.
After I became completely hooked on the original, with its husky swagger and punchy, Motown-esque delivery, I was doubly blown away by Jones’ significantly grittier 1976 redux.
By the end of the song, she’s doing the tortured shrieking thing, and I’m getting chills. I highly endorse both of her versions.
Red Red Wine
Neil Diamond (1967)
Around 8 years ago, I was celebrating a certain milestone birthday. I decided that the theme of my party would be the color red, just because I like it. The food and drinks were all red. Everyone was told to wear red. (My mom wore purple; my sister made her change.) There was red candy everywhere and a trivia game where all the answers had something to do with red.
And of course, there were songs playing that had “red” in the title, many of which were suggested by friends and family after I had asked for input on Facebook. While researching songs, I discovered that “Red Red Wine” was originally written and recorded by Neil Diamond.
The utter sadness in his voice and the tempo of the song stopped me in my tracks. It was of course nothing like the version I knew from UB40, which I genuinely liked.
I was to learn a few years later that it was a cover of a cover by Jamaican artist Tony Tribe.
While the reggae beat gives the song a catchy pick-me-up, there is something to be said for the stark, tragic beauty of Neil’s original. It now haunts me.
Big Mama Thornton (1953)
Elvis Presley (1956)
I remember reading an article years ago about Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, the legendary songwriting team who wrote many early R&B and rock and roll hits.
One of them talked about how they had originally written “Hound Dog” for Big Mama Thornton. They were going for something that would match her snarling, howling blues style and her persona as a brassy, tough-as-nails woman that you didn’t want to cross.
Big Mama did well with the song – it was #1 on the R&B charts for 7 weeks.
But it would be eclipsed by Elvis’ cover, which topped the pop chart for 11 weeks and sold over 10 million copies.
It was his most commercially successful single.
I like Presley’s version of “Hound Dog,” but that’s pretty much akin to saying I like 7-Up. It’s so ubiquitous that it has become just basic after all these years, though it’s not completely to blame.
Big Mama’s original, on the other hand, captures what the song was intended to be at its heart and hits you right in the face. From the moment she wails the titular line, you know somebody is in deep trouble.
Bette Davis Eyes
Jackie DeShannon (1975)
Kim Carnes (1981)
When author Tom Breihan informed us in his The Number Ones write-up that Kim Carnes’ 1981 #1 hit was a cover, this was news to me. And I imagine to many other readers.
Singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon had two giant hits in the 60s with “What the World Needs Now” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” But by 1975, she had all but disappeared from the charts and this was not even released as a single. We can all be forgiven for not having heard it or even knowing of its existence.
Written by DeShannon and Donna Weiss, in its original form, “Bette Davis Eyes” was a jazzy honky-tonk ditty, similar to the feel of Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”.
It’s quite fun and worth hearing, even just for the shock value of how incredibly different it sounds from the famous cover.
And what the world needs now is: more Jackie DeShannon. So give it a spin.
Jesus is Just Alright
The Art Reynolds Singers (1966)
The Doobie Brothers (1972)
Art Reynolds recorded his composition “Jesus is Just Alright” with members of his Gospel choir.
Gene Parsons, the drummer for The Byrds happened to be in the studio and heard it.
He eventually convinced his own band to record a cover of the song in 1969.
A few years later, the Doobie Brothers’ 1972 recording became the most widely known. Many church folk were critical of it, saying that Jesus shouldn’t be reduced to someone that was “just alright” – in other words, “just okay, I guess”.
What they failed to understand was that the song was written by a devout Gospel musician who was trying to incorporate the vernacular of the day to express his love for Jesus, despite what others may think of him.
Unfortunately, Art Reynolds’ original version is not on Spotify, but I’ve included it in the link above. Have a listen – it’s great.
Istanbul (Not Constantinople)
The Four Lads (1953)
They Might Be Giants (1990)
In the early 90s, I worked as a temp in the environmental claims file room for an insurance company for about a year, alongside a high school student named Andy.
We were allowed to play our own music in the file room.
One day, Andy brought in a cassette tape someone had made for him of an album that he said was called They Might Be Giants by a band named Flood.
Of course, he had it reversed, but neither of us were worse for the wear. There were so many great songs on that album; one that stood out was “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”. It fit in so well with the band’s quirky songwriting that it was quite a long time before I learned that it was a cover.
A Canadian vocal group named The Four Lads recorded the original, which was written on the 500th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.
It’s a clever, well-crafted song and the lads’ jaunty, snappy delivery seals the deal on a quaint snapshot of what post-Big Band era/pre-rock and roll pop music sounded like in the early 50s.
It went Top Ten in the U.S. While the cover didn’t chart, They Might Be Giants’ cult status, along with close to 40 years between the two releases could mean that enough people know the cover more so than the original to warrant its inclusion on this list.
Oh heck. I just wanted to talk about it.
Pass The Kouchie / Pass The Dutchie
The Mighty Diamonds (1981)
Musical Youth (1982)
If there is any doubt as to what this song is about, the sound of someone inhaling a certain substance right at the start should make it rather clear.
“Pass the Kouchie” was based on a 1969 reggae instrumental by Sound Dimensions called “Full Up.”
Upon its release in Jamaica, the government immediately banned it from airplay for its endorsement of illegal cannabis. It didn’t stop the song from becoming popular, both in its homeland and abroad.
It was reportedly well-known globally in Caribbean communities, but it’s not certain that it reached very far beyond that.
I heard it just once on a Chicago radio station upon its release, and never forgot it. (People from Chicago would likely assume that radio station was WXRT, and they’d be right.)
A year later, a revised version of the song was released in the UK, sung by a bunch of kids, with the drug references removed and the song transformed into an ode to the Dutch oven. “Pass the Dutchie” by Musical Youth went #1 in the U.K., and #10 in the U.S.
I don’t smoke pot, but the original is kind of irresistible, and gives off all sorts of chill vibes. There is a reason why it found its audience, despite the efforts to suppress it.
The Clique (1969)
I would have never guessed that the well-known R.E.M. version of this song from 1986 was a cover.
Let alone a cover of a late 60s B-side by a band out of Texas, whose success on the charts was brief and limited. The original won’t threaten to dethrone R.E.M. anytime soon. But it’s a nice slice of sunshine pop.
Love Is the Answer
England Dan and John Ford Coley (1979)
Todd Rundgren’s composition was first released by his band Utopia, but it failed to chart.
Two years later, a cover of the song by England Dan and John Ford Coley went to number10 on the Billboard Hot 100, and peaked at #1 on the AC chart.
The Utopia version has an earnest power to it, particularly on the bridge where Todd really lets loose on the Gospel call and response.
It’s pretty darn moving. And it has slowly gained a fandom of its own over the years
Oye Cómo Va
Tito Puente y su Orquesta (1962)
My younger sister Elise made a mixtape of Tito Puente’s music for me back in the early 90s.
And I became a fan for life. The fact that I wasn’t previously very familiar with his music is no indicator of his stature in the Latin jazz scene. Anyone with “El Rey” included in their nickname needs no further verification.
That said, Santana’s cover of “Oye Cómo Va” reached a much wider audience, and Tito had the royalty checks to prove it.
As a child, I heard the Santana version frequently. My brother Greg and my father both owned the Abraxas album – a fact that horrified Greg.
Having the same record as your dad? Not good.
Years later, I learned that the song was a cover of a Tito Puente song when I found an old 45 of the song which said “T. Puente” underneath the title.
If you haven’t heard the original, I highly encourage you to listen to it.
If it does nothing but serve as a gateway drug to the rest of Tito’s catalog and/or gets you dancing the cha-cha, no matter how badly… then my work here is done.
And finally, as promised: here is a playlist with even more.
All of which I think are worth a listen. Knowing this savvy crowd, you may already know all or most of these originals.
But I invite you to check it out and see if there are any that surprise you, or that you knew about but hadn’t heard.
Let the author know that you liked their article with a “Green Thumb” Upvote!