Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
“Moon River” has been recorded over five hundred times. Clearly, there’s something universal about the song. It has touched a great number of people, and artists across a diverse range of genres have given it a shot. What is it about this song that causes such a reaction?
The song was originally written for the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Henry Mancini composed the melody, with Johnny Mercer adding lyrics inspired by the moon over a river near his home in Savannah, Georgia. A Paramount Pictures executive tried to remove it due to running time, but Audrey Hepburn insisted it stay in the movie. Good thing, too – “Moon River” won an Oscar for Best Original Song, and Grammies for Record and Song of the Year. Andy Williams performed it at the 1962 Academy Awards, and adopted it as his personal theme song. He sang a portion of it at the beginning of his TV show for almost a decade, widening the already large audience for the song and cementing it as a classic in the American songbook.
In the end, though, exposure can only carry a song so far. There has to be something that audiences connect with emotionally. “Moon River” gives listeners a song in love with the idea of wandering, an optimistic ode to the future and all its possibilities. How many of us have watched the moon on the water and wondered what the future holds? The feeling is universal.
That universality is what leads so many to try their hand at the song. Here are five good ones.
The Killers – Moon River (Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer cover)
The Killers show up with a little bit of an attitude on this performance from the Hollywood Fonda Theatre. The music is moody and introspective, and Brandon Flowers wastes no time making his position known. When he sings “I’m not so sure the world deserves us,” it’s clear he’s adapting the song for his own purposes. He repeats “it’s just around the bend… it’s always just around the bend,” you realize that he’s not a young man watching the water and waiting on his life to begin. He’s already lived hard and been bitten by life, and the bitterness is something he’s already had to get used to living with. It’s a totally different take on the song, and it adds depth to what could be a paint-by-numbers performance in the wrong hands.
Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck – Moon River (Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer cover)
“Moon River” was just as popular in Henry Mancini’s instrumental version as it was with Hepburn’s vocal performance. It’s that spirit, then, that Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck display in their version. Beck begins with a touching, emotive instrumental for the first verse of the song, displaying all the longing to get away and explore the world that Hepburn displays with her wistful vocals in the original. Clapton’s vocal delivery of the second verse is full of wisdom and life lived, more a rumination on past experiences than anything else. Beck’s lead guitar work on the second solo is just as affecting as the first; you can hardly listen to it without seeing the moon sparkling on the rippling waters and longing to go downstream with the broken light.
Josh Ritter – Moon River (Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer cover)
Josh Ritter brings “Moon River” a performance both very much like and unlike Hepburn’s movie performance. He sits down with just his guitar and his voice, just like she did, but the similarities end there. Hepburn is clearly a woman waiting on her life to start when she sings. Ritter sounds more like a veteran of the road, already bouncing along on his way to see the whole wide world. Even his guitar is less plaintive and more satisfied. He’s not where he’s heading yet, but he’s away from home and has already gained some road wisdom. It’s apparent in his voice, which has more than a little touch of a career troubadour’s slyness in it.
Frank Sinatra – Moon River (Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer cover)
Frank Sinatra‘s voice is one of the voices of America; smooth, full, and confident, it’s impossible to ignore. His take on “Moon River” is textbook from beginning to end. He takes his time and lets the song breathe. He sounds like a man both happy with where he is and yearning to be on his way at the same time. Much like Clapton, Sinatra sounds wise in his performance, but unlike Eric, Frank seems to have more miles left in him. Sinatra always seemed to have more energy, more vitality, than almost anyone else in the world. He brings that power to “Moon River,” and it suits the song well. When he tells you “there’s such a lot of world to see,” you know he’s right. It’s right there, all of it, waiting on you to get started chasing it along with him.
Patty Griffin – Moon River (Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer cover)
Patty Griffin’s version of the song is somehow both the the closest of these five versions to Audrey’s and the furthest away. It’s the closest not just for the obvious reason (they’re both women), but because their voices are somewhat similar. You could be forgiven for hearing a snippet of the song and mistaking the two. Upon closer listening, though, it’s apparent that Griffin’s version is much less optimistic than Hepburn’s take. There’s a broken heart hiding inside Patty’s delivery. She’s been stung by life, much like Flowers’s vocal above indicates, but unlike him, there’s no chip on her shoulder. The shimmering guitar work emphasizes her fragile openness to the possibility of more. Her broken heart hasn’t stopped her from seeking love; it’s only made her aware of the hurt waiting in the wide, open world whenever she chooses to leave. It’s a brave statement, then, to know pain waits for your and to be willing to go seeking it anyway.