“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty-odd years.
Unlike most #1 hits we’ve covered so far, Three Dog Night’s 1972 chart-topper “Black and White” is itself a cover. The song, written by Earl Robinson and David Arkin (Alan Arkin’s father), was first recorded by Pete Seeger in 1956. Even in Three Dog Night’s marginally more rockin’ arrangement, it still sounds like a Seeger song, and not exactly a top-tier Seeger song at that. “A child is black, a child is white / A whole world looks upon the sight” sounds like folk music’s “Ebony and Ivory.” The fact that Three Dog Night took this well-meaning trifle to number one shows just how high the band was riding after the previous year’s “Joy to the World.”
Further covers peaked in the year following Three Dog Night’s hit, then plummeted by 1974. The song has rarely been covered since. But that brief window delivered a couple versions better than either Seeger’s or Three Dog Night’s, covers that almost salvage the song from irredeemable corniness.
First, we should jump back to the version that inspired Three Dog Night: Jamaican reggae-pop group Greyhound. Their joyous cover hit the Top Ten in the UK in 1971. Supposedly Three Dog Night heard it on Dutch radio and decided to make it worse (okay, that may not have been their intention). Greyhound bring an energy and fun that give the optimistic lyrics some heart. “Gravitas” is maybe too strong a word for this, but seeing a group of black men from a historically downtrodden country belting the song with such passion lifts the song above any other rendition. Bonus points to singer Danny Smith’s frenetic dancing in this television performance.
Also a must-hear is the 1972 version by a young Singapore singer named Penny Lim. “Singer” might be too generous, but her version, backed by a local reggae group called The Silverstones offers a sort of DIY charm. Despite its folk origins, “Black and White” was quickly becoming a reggae song in ’72, and it never really went back, Three Dog Night notwithstanding. Hard to find much information about Penny Lim, though Discogs shows a number of albums and EPs around this time in both Chinese and English. Maybe a reader from the region can fill us in in the comments.
German composer James Last released over 190 albums in his long career, including a recurring series called Non Stop Dancing in which he worked popular tunes of the day into catchy big-band medleys. The album Non Stop Dancing 1973 combines “Black and White” with two other contemporary hits: Mouth & Macneal’s “Hello-A” and The Dramatics’s “In the Rain.” It offers the rare non-reggae cover to come out after Three Dog Night, albeit a truncated one.
Finally, rapper Biz Markie endearingly warbles the song as the hook of Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s 1990 song “Erase Racism.” It’s not strictly speaking a cover, but “Black and White” covers have been few and far between in recent decades, so we’ll take what we can get.