Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question: What’s your favorite Disney cover?
Unlike happy families, not all cover lovers are alike. Some focus on covers performed in particular styles, while others like diversity. Some like covers that radically reinterpret the original, while others appreciate a faithful homage. There are those of us who are amused by foreign language covers, by TV theme covers, by lounge music versions, or by punked-up reimaginings of classics. And, apparently, there are some who have favorite Disney song covers.
While others immediately reserved their favorites, I utterly drew a blank when this Q&A was announced. Sure, I grew up with the Disney classics, and revisited some of them with my children when they were younger. With them, I watched some of the run of great animated musicals that started in the 1990s with Beauty And The Beast. As someone who appreciates a good musical, but rarely cares to listen to their songs away from the movie, I’ve never really focused on “Disney Covers.” But when our leaders at Cover Me say “jump,” we jump, and I got to work.
I found, in my cover collection, this gem by the Replacements (which has previously been discussed on the site), a cover of “Cruella De Vil,” from One Hundred and One Dalmatians, a film initially released a few months before I was born, but which my kids enjoyed, probably in a VHS version from 1991. In the film, Roger Radcliffe, a songwriter, is inspired to write the insulting song about his wife Anita’s “dearly devoted old schoolmate,” and he begins singing it before Cruella arrives in their house to check up on the Dalmatian puppies she bizarrely intends to turn into a coat. During her discussion with Anita Radcliffe, the song continues as a mostly piano instrumental under the action, with a cutaway to Roger blasting away on the trombone. When Cruella leaves, Roger finishes the song, to be told by Anita, lovingly, that he is an idiot. (Watch it here.)
Although Roger’s speaking voice was supplied by British actor Ben Wright, a hardworking character and voice actor, the song was sung by American Bill Lee, a regular Disney film singer (not the baseball pitcher known as the “Spaceman,” nor the jazz bass player and father of Spike). The song was written by composer Mel Leven, who wrote a number of songs for Disney, and apparently was a tribute to Thelonious Monk’s song “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are.” Leven, by the way, was the original voice of Snoopy and Crackle in Rice Krispies commercials.
The Replacements’ version was originally recorded for Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films, which, for the most part, created medleys of Disney songs by diverse performers. Medley Four, “All Innocent Children Had Better Beware” (from a “Cruella De Vil” lyric) begins with Garth Hudson’s take on “Feed The Birds” from Mary Poppins, then segues into NRBQ’s version of “Whistle While You Work” from Snow White and The Seven Dwarves, which is followed by Betty Carter’s soulful, jazzy rendition of “I’m Wishing,” also from Snow White. The Mats’ typically shambling “Cruella” comes next, cut from the same cloth as Tim’s “Waitress In The Sky,” and avant-garde musicians Bill Frisell and Wayne Horvitz close the medley out with an instrumental “Dumbo And Timothy.” Each piece of the medley is actually pretty good, and I guess it all works together. I’ve read that Disney was not all that happy with some of the interpretations on the album, particularly Tom Waits’ dark, foreboding “Heigh Ho,” and prevented or hindered later releases of the disc.
The Replacements later released the song on a collection of hits and rarities, All for Nothing/Nothing for All, and here it is, in all its ragged glory.
I’m an only child and so is the wife. We never had kids; therefore, no grandkids, nieces, or nephews. I’m practically immune to pop culture bubbling up from Generation Z or whatever letter we’re on now. On top of that, we live rurally and I haven’t even SEEN a trick-or-treater since 1994. Without the internet I would know nothing about your fidget spinners, water bottle flippers, and snow princesses. This situation leaves me with a much narrower Disney reference window than my contemporaries, a window that pretty much closed in the seventies with The Rescuers.
The Jungle Book turns 50 this year. It was my first Disney movie memory. It also contained my first misunderstood lyric: I can still recall wondering where the Cessities were and why the bears would live there. Louis Prima’s playful “I Wan’na Be Like You” was the hippest song from the movie. Prima’s trumpet, his distinctive vocals, and the scat between King Louie and Baloo made the song fun and interesting even without the benefit of the animation. Los Lobos’ version was first released on the 1990 compilation Stay Awake, and later featured on their 2009 release Los Lobos Goes Disney. The New Orleans feel of the original migrates to a Tijuana cantina and Steve Berlin’s saxophone substitutes nicely for Prima’s trumpet. It’s a cover that Los Lobos still occasionally includes in their live shows.
Most little girls dream of being princesses – all taffeta, tulle and twirling in the twilight.
Growing up, I wanted to be a witch.
I actually still kinda do – I look great in black, my cat has yet to murder me, and a broomstick is so much easier to park than a car.
As a woman in her mid-thirties, I make it a point to watch Disney’s Hocus Pocus every Halloween. And every year, I have the same lament – the fact that I can’t be a Sanderson sister.
Though she might be played by the Divine Miss M (Bette Midler, if you’re nasty), Winifred “Winnie” Sanderson puts a helluva spin on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You.” Her cover has become such a fan favorite that Midler has added it to her tour performances, delighting audiences by donning the full Winifred Sanderson costume.
Originally intended to be a bluesy love song, “I Put A Spell On You” changed course under the influence of a feast – the producer brought in ribs, chickens and alcohol and well, the track came out a little weird. It has remained a staple of Halloween playlists ever since – earning a place as #313 of the 500 greatest songs of all time and being banned from radio play for being too outrageous. (We’ve talked about it ourselves.)
The Hocus Pocus cover is unlikely to fuel any outrage, but it does reiterate Midler’s legendary reputation as an entertainer. She starts off slow, stirring the cauldron and using her character’s buckteeth to gnaw the hell out of the scenery. With a dangerous glint in her eyes, she recounts the plot (“It’s been 300 years down to the day/Now, the witch is back and there’s hell to pay”) before launching into a raucous barn-burner of a cover, bubbling with brass and sass. Sanderson Sisters Sarah Jessica Parker (Sarah) and Kathy Najimy (Mary) provide back-up vocals that alternately shimmer, coo and sound like wind whistling through bare trees. The set ends with call-and-response spell casting and Midler’s soaring vocals enchanting a townful of parents, leaving their children essentially defenseless. (Huh. Maybe there is something to the idea that pop is the devil’s music after all.)
Keep your castles and your carpets, your princesses and your pirates. When I want Disney magic, I’ll seek out the Sandersons – a trio of sassy, scary sisters who put the “boo” in Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.
Totally unashamedly, I again submit a song from (Little) Jimmy Scott to a Cover Me question. I am not going to go into his fascinating back story yet again (although I commend the curious among you to go google). “When You Wish Upon a Star” is actually a fabulous song, period, needing not the Disney accolade to excuse or expand it. And it has been covered extensively, from every ’40s/’50s jazzer worth their salt, through Stevie Wonder, Linda Ronstadt and Billy Joel. Indeed, its status as a standard has meant that when, say, Rod Stewart visited the Great American Songbook, he included it. As did Michelle Shocked.
Jimmy Scott has a unique way with delivery, trampling over the expected, accentuating and pausing all over the place, anywhere than if it were being spoken. And I love it.
P.S. Just missing the frame was this recent appearance: Mercury Rev, playing in the UK with orchestra the Northern Sinfonia. Better sound quality and it might have beaten Little Jimmy!! But it certainly underwrites the ongoing legacy of the song.
It’s a loaded question, so prepare to get the baggage.
Is it a favorite because we loved the song as a kid? Maybe we were secretly terrified and the modern interpretation captures the underlying sentiment? (Listen to what horror composer/pianist Myuuji did in this creepypasta version of “It’s A Small World After All,” for instance.) Or, maybe there was an erotic undertone that our adult self responds to… well, differently. (Siouxsie and the Banshees’ sultry “Trust In Me” from The Jungle Book will make you forget about Kaa’s tempting of Mowgli if you haven’t already.)
A complex question such as this might take an entire album to answer – and in fact it was addressed heroically in 1988’s Stay Awake, produced by Hal Willner. The New York Times‘ review said Willner “has created a psychologically ambiguous soundtrack for grownups of music that was created for children.”
Stumble into this goldmine and you’ll find 21 tracks from an all-star cast, including the elsewhere-mentioned Tom Waits, Los Lobos, and The Replacements; along with Natalie Merchant and Michael Stipe, Bonnie Raitt, Suzanne Vega, Aaron Neville, Buster Poindexter, Sinead O’Connor, Harry Nilsson, James Taylor, and more. The artists take you on life’s emotional wild ride, with all of its highs and lows. You can find the album on Amazon and eBay, and much of it is on YouTube.
But if I had to pick just one, I’d go with the album’s well-produced closer. Ringo Starr and Herb Albert leave us with the lovable Beatle’s hopeful, quavering vocals and Herb’s smooth trumpet on “When You Wish Upon A Star.”
“Baby Mine,” originally featured in Dumbo, is not a tear-jerking song. The tears flow freely, and don’t need a single tug from their ducts. Go ahead and watch that clip of an unjustly imprisoned Mrs. Jumbo caressing her little pachyderm and see for yourself. It may not be the saddest moment in Disney (that would be Bambi’s “Mother?… Mother?”), but it’s the best-scored of the saddest moments.
Bonnie Raitt does a nice version on Stay Awake, but that album’s already gotten plenty of love in this edition of Q&A. Besides, I’m far more taken with a version by Justin Hayford. He’s a cabaret singer based in Chicago, whose specialty is dredging up forgotten songs by the writers of the Great American Songbook – Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and more – and giving them simple, piano-based performances where the song’s far more important than the singer or the instrumentation. To Hayford, no polishing is necessary to reveal what gems these songs are.
His version of “Baby Mine” is from 2004’s Look Who’s Been Dreaming, a collection of no-longer-lost songs from movies of the ’30s and ’40s. It’s far less lush than the original, which only serves to make the lyrics stand out that much more.
On a personal note, I’m expecting a baby of my own in December, my first. I will of course be making a Baby’s First Mix, and while Fleetwood Mac’s “Beautiful Child” and Jonathan Richman’s “Not Yet Three” will be guaranteed slots, the closing number is absolutely one hundred percent going to be Justin Hayford’s “Baby Mine.”
There’s a lot of cover versions of Disney’s classic “I Wan’na Be like You (The Monkey Song)” from The Jungle Book. We’ll not go into the hangers-on (NO THANK YOU, Smash Mouth), but in my mind there’s no better version — including the original that Louis Prima recorded for the original cartoon — than Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s version from their third album (those of a certain age may also remember its appearance on the Swingers soundtrack). Most likely their cover was inspired by Los Lobos, recorded a decade before, which sped up the tempo and really turned it into a party song. BBVD doesn’t disappoint, as this live version shows, and it’s their full 10-piece band sound, half of it horns, that elevates it above all others.
“Whistle while you work,” sang Snow White. That’s easy to do if you’ve enlisted an army of forest critters to do your chores for you. Toiling in the mines offers less to whistle about.
In Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, though, the seven dwarves seem inexplicably cheerful about what looks like back-breaking labor. Who could sing amidst such drudgery? Don’t they worry about respiratory damage? Their names would end up being Coughy, Raspy, and Sickly.
On his cover of “Heigh Ho,” Tom Waits worries for them (he already sings like has black lung anyway). It’s almost unrecognizable as the chirpy Disney song, sounding more like a song from Eraserhead with its industrial lurch and mournful horns. Less fun perhaps, but far more accurate.
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