Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
“Baby Don’t You Do It” was written by the premier Motown songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. As with other Motown songs, it got passed around the stable a bit; originally meant for the Supremes, it wound up going to Marvin Gaye, who had a minor hit with it, and Stevie Wonder and the Isley Brothers recorded it as well. It also got a toehold across the pond, showing up in setlists of the Small Faces and the Who, among others. And let’s not forget other forgotten versions, like those by the Wailers and Barbara Randolph (well worth an exploratory visit to YouTube). In other words, for a song that’s not often mentioned as one of Motown’s greatest hits, it’s made a deep, deep impression.
So while the selections below are far from the only ones out there, it’s nice to single them out to share and compare. Having done so, we can say this:
The Poets cover is good.
The Nicolette Larson cover is better.
The Band cover is best.
The Poets were on the Immediate label, which was both a blessing and a curse; they had the freedom to record some of the label’s strongest material, but the misfortune to be on a label that was constantly in the red and could barely bring its resources to support itself, let alone its artists. It’s too bad, because their cover of “Baby Don’t You Do It” has an urgency, an edgy uncertainty to it that drives the song a little harder, makes it a little more memorable, makes you wish it could have been a minor hit too.
Nicolette Larson is best known for her association with Neil Young, leading to her appearance on Comes a Time and her hit cover of “Lotta Love.” She had other successful collaborations as well – among them, this performance of “Baby Don’t You Do It” with Eagle Bernie Leadon, live in Japan. It’s got funk, it sways, and Larson manages to sound like she’s feeling the pain inherent in the song’s lyrics, but still can’t help having fun.
“On this one song, the Band outdid Motown,” Greil Marcus writes in his classic Mystery Train. “They made most rock ‘n’ roll sound fragile. What the Band did with Gaye’s performance was what white groups usually do with black material: they held to the original arrangement, amplified the beat, turned up the volume, and yelled…. They didn’t worry about worrying a line into an elusive rendering of soul; they simply sang as hard as they could.”
It’s hard to add anything to that, except to say that their performance of “Don’t Do It” (as it was called here) on the live Rock of Ages record, complete with Allen Toussaint’s horn arrangement, became the template for most of the covers that followed.
Which leads me to this – you have GOT to check out Glen Hansard’s version, complete with Hansard dancing with unabashed joy.