Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Harry Nilsson’s two best-known songs, both of which won Grammys, were cover songs – “Everybody’s Talkin'” came from Fred Neil, and “Without You” was originally Badfinger’s. Meanwhile, his peers knew that as talented a singer as he was, he was an even greater songwriter. For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson, released a year after his 1994 passing, shone a light on nearly two dozen of his compositions and showed the esteem two generations of musicians held him in.
The album has both high points (Aimee Mann’s “One” went on to open the movie Magnolia) and low ones (stay away from Fred Schneider’s “Coconut”). The following, to our ears, contain more examples of the first than the second.
Randy Newman – Remember (Harry Nilsson cover)
Nilsson’s 1970 album Nilsson Sings Newman was the album that introduced Randy Newman to the country. Nearly a quarter century later, Newman set out to return the favor with a Newman Sings Nilsson album; when Nilsson passed, it turned into this tribute album, with Newman’s “Remember” born to be the leadoff track. Newman’s not his usual slyly bitter self here; it may be his tenderest performance, and is a real tribute to the song’s author.
Lavern Baker – Jump Into the Fire (Harry Nilsson cover)
Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire,” anchored by Herbie Flowers’ incredible detuning bass, drives just as hard today as it did forty years ago; it was the perfect choice for the Goodfellas soundtrack. Lavern Baker sieves it through her gospel background; had Henry Hill’s day been scored to this, maybe his paranoia about being watched from above would have given way to celebration.
Steve Forbert – The Moonbeam Song (Harry Nilsson cover)
Steve Forbert got out from under the fatal new-Dylan tag he got slapped with at the start of his career; he’s still a secret kept too well, but he’s seen many a rising artist be considered a new Steve Forbert, and he continues to get kudos for his work. His version of “The Moonbeam Song” captures the natural flow of the original, not so much awestruck as taken with the beauty of the world and its satellites.
Adrian Belew – Me and My Arrow (Harry Nilsson cover)
The Point! was Nilsson’s fable about everything in the world having a point, made into an animated special (starring the voice of Bobby Brady!) and an album; “Me and My Arrow,” the story of a boy and his dog, was arguably the album’s high point. Adrian Belew gets both the groove and the pop feel of the original, bringing them back to ever-vibrant life.
Richard Barone – I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City (Harry Nilsson cover)
Nilsson took a crack at writing a theme for Midnight Cowboy; his effort was rejected in favor of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” and considering the success of the latter, the producers made the right choice. However, it’s fortunate for us that “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” made it into the world; it’s breezy and optimistic, and it conveys a feeling of affection for the city that rang even truer in the days after 9/11. Former Bongo Richard Barone captures the magic of the song and turns it loose again in his cover; we defy listeners to listen to this and not be uplifted.