That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
Nina Simone will be posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this weekend. To anyone counting, that is 24 years after the Animals were inducted. And they wouldn’t have had one of their most enduring hits without her.
Though Animals frontman Eric Burdon is a fine songwriter in his own right, he didn’t write the majority of the band’s biggest 1960s hits. “We Gotta Get out of This Place” was written by the iconic Brill Building duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and originally intended for the Righteous Brothers. “It’s My Life” also came out of the Brill stables, written for the band by lesser-known duo of Roger Atkins and Carl D’Errico. And “House of the Rising Sun” was a traditional cover Burdon learned off of Bob Dylan’s first record.
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” though, may boast the most surprising origin story of all. The song was written expressly for Nina Simone’s 1964 album Broadway-Blues-Ballads by Bennie Benjamin, Sol Marcus, and Horace Ott (credited under his wife’s name Gloria Caldwell). The album was pitched as lighter fare following her classic Civil Rights-influenced In Concert album earlier that year. But, in that context, it just ended up seeming underwhelming; AllMusic still calls it “one of Simone’s weaker mid-’60s albums.” The album’s single – “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” backed with “A Monster” – failed to chart entirely.
Thankfully, many today have rediscovered her powerful performance. And one key reason is a band that did hear it it back then: The Animals. They were always scouting for new material and came along Simone’s recording. They sped it up, added a proto-Doors organ riff (which Bruce Springsteen admitted to stealing for “Badlands”), and Burdon’s hearty soul belting. It became a huge hit both in America and the U.K.
The group were understandably thrilled, and no doubt the song’s three writers didn’t mind the royalty checks. The only person not happy about it was the song’s first performer (who would not directly benefit financially from the hit cover). As Eric Burdon recalled upon Simone’s 2003 death:
Nina Simone is an original and she will always be a favourite of mine but she is a terrifying lady. She was uptight that I had recorded her song, and, when Linda Eastman introduced me to her, she said, “Oh, you’re the white honky that stole my song.” I said, “I am, but what about the songs that you recorded that were written in Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana by guys who are incarcerated for life?” She stopped right there and said, “Sit down, what would you like to drink?”
They became genuine friends, bonding over their shared propensity to keep detailed journals. In several interviews Burdon tells the story of Simone borrowing one of his for months, finally saying upon its return: “You are a music historian.” Sometimes live these days, Burdon performs a slowed-down version closer to Simone’s original in tribute. In 2013, he teamed up with Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis to record a new version that splits the difference between The Animals and Nina.
Since then, the song has been covered endlessly, by everyone from Joe Cocker to Lana Del Rey. Here are some of the best:
Alabina – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
The band Alabina is really a world-music supergroup of sorts, with massively popular Israeli singer Ishtar backed by Spanish Roma band Los Niños de Sara. They translate “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” into Spanish. More importantly, they translate the music too.
Elvis Costello – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
Costello doesn’t veer too far from the Animals’ musical template here. What sells it is the passion in his voice. The oddly-lit 1986 music video is a joy as well.
Jess Williamson – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
This version comes the closest to Simone’s, slow and haunted, with some creepy spaghetti-western guitar twang underpinning Williamson’s cracking voice. She told Aquarium Drunkard:
Singing is a special sort of instrument different from all others because it is the instrument that incorporates language. A rare and talented vocalist can say so much more than the word itself when singing. Nina Simone’s vocals on her version of this song elevate the lyrics beyond poetry, beyond song, beyond story. Listen to the way she sings ‘don’t let me be misunderstood’. It’s like she is crying. A good friend recently shared this poem with me called Sonnet by Graham Foust. It is only one line and it says, ‘I sing as if I’m eating what I’m singing with a knife’. Nina Simone sings Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood with an effortless strength that seems to come from a place within her soul that she is very familiar with accessing and we, the listener, are blown away by just a glimpse of the power she has. The rest is just for her. This is my humble attempt to cover her masterpiece. I am a lesser and a different kind of vocalist, singing this song like I’m eating it with a knife.
Joe Cocker – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
Cocker recorded “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” twice. A 1996 reggae-inflected version is misguided, but he nailed it the first time round, on his classic 1969 debut With a Little Help from My Friends.
Lana Del Rey – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
Stereogum put it well: “Lana Del Rey’s [then-]new album, Honeymoon, closes with her interpretation of the song, which in hindsight feels like an inevitable inclusion in her career. It was just a matter of time until it occurred.”
The Moody Blues – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
We had to include this one, because the Moody Blues are also being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this weekend. You might assume that in 1968 they’d be borrowing the Animals template – I did – but in fact they really make it their own, slowing it back down to near-Simone speed and adding a hefty dose of flute.
Red Band – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
We’ve featured these Israeli puppets before. The model is the Muppets. And, like the Muppets, the music goes way beyond the puppets-singing gimmick. This would be a great cover even without the felt furballs.
Santa Esmeralda – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
I discovered this epic extended disco cover via its inclusion on Quentin Tarantino’s fantastic Kill Bill soundtrack, but in fact it was a big hit thirty years prior. If you get one version of the song other than Simone’s and the Animals’, this is the one.