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.
Because I decided to fight for what was rightfully and legally mine, a full album that I recorded was never released. I’m not being paid, nor have I ever been paid, as an artist for “Sea of Love.” I never received justice and to this day have not received justice. – Phil Phillips
The author of “Sea of Love,” John Phillip Batiste (he Anglicized it for the benefit of non-French-speaking DJs), got more pain than joy from his big hit. Written to woo a girl he didn’t wind up with, co-credited to a record store owner who Phillips claims had no hand in writing it, the original “Sea of Love” went to number one in 1959, but only earned its author $6800. His album was permanently shelved after the label got in a dispute with the record store owner, and Phillips was unable to get out from under his five-year contract; by 1964, Beatlemania had hit and Phillips’ time in the spotlight was over.
“Sea of Love,” on the other hand, was just beginning to shine.
After its time atop the Billboard charts, the wistful ballad found favor in multiple venues, reaching the charts in versions by Marty Wilde, Del Shannon, and the Honeydrippers (to singer Robert Plant’s chagrin – he wanted to be thought of as a rocker, not a crooner), and it also found favor from artists ranging from the Guess Who to Iggy Pop. Which is good news to Phil Phillips, 90 years old and kicking as of this writing, because he’s getting (co-)writer’s royalties for every cover of the song and every appearance it makes in films. Also, he lost the girl he wrote it for, but had seven kids by the girl he found. So, happy endings all around.
Of course, good as the song is and good as its singers are, some version are fated to be milk, while others are destined to be cream. Here are three that have risen to the top…
The TeeTones version is good.
The Cat Power version is better.
And the Tom Waits version is best.
Kraken rum featured “Sea of Love” in a commercial, combining the original’s instrumental track with the voices of the TeeTones. Unsettling as the commercial is (does it make you want to drink?), it got a lot of people excited about the taste of the song and wanting the whole thing; the TeeTones obliged by recording this full a cappella version. Learn more about the masters of doowop soul here.
Cat Power’s “Sea of Love” closed her 2000 release The Covers Record, paring down the original both lyrically (no middle eight here) and musically (one autoharp, sounding like the person holding it has just started her third lesson). The album has always had its rabid fans, but it wasn’t until Juno used the song that it exploded into the national consciousness.
The 1989 movie Sea of Love was first noted as a comeback vehicle for Al Pacino (he’d made no movies in the previous four years), and later noted for an early appearance by Samuel L. Jackson – so early, in fact, that he was identified in the credits only as “Black Guy.” One of the best things about the movie was its getting Tom Waits to record a cover of “Sea of Love” for it. Waits delivered in a big way – rather than stripping away a few words, as Cat Power did, he added a few, so the singer is now confessing not just to coming to the sea of love, but to drowning in it. Add Waits’ famous vocalizings and the gentle cacophony of the instrumentation, and you have a song reinvented and rejuvenated by a man who truly sang in his chains by the “Sea.”
The original “Sea of Love” can be found on Amazon.