Feb 082019
 

“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty-odd years.

party doll

“I really don’t remember writing ‘Party Doll,” said Buddy Knox of Happy, Texas. “But I did, out on the farm, behind a haystack.” It was 1948, and Knox was fifteen at the time. Eight years later, he became the first artist of the rock ‘n’ roll era to write his own number one song. It took a lot of people, famous and not, to get it that far.

Knox went to West Texas State University, where he formed a band with two friends, Jimmy Bowen and Don Lanier, and saw both Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison play. They both recommended he take his songs and his friends 90 miles west to Clovis, New Mexico, to record with producer Norman Petty. Knox’s sister and two of her friends sang backup vocals; a more capable bassist replaced Bowen, and since Lanier didn’t have a full kit, he beat on a box stuffed with cotton (a sound that would later appear on the Crickets’ “Not Fade Away”).

The three were content with the acetates of “Party Doll,” but a farmer named Chester Oliver asked to press 1500 copies to sell around town on his own label, Triple-D Records. One copy made it to KZIP in Amarillo, Texas, where DJ Dean Kelley turned it into a regional hit. Lanier’s sister contacted Morris Levy of Roulette Records; he signed them and released the record nationwide. Ed Sullivan had him on his show, exposing “Party Doll” to the whole of the US, and the rest is history.

But the history of “Party Doll” covers was just beginning.

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Jan 042019
 

“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty years.

love is blue covers

For this feature, we use random.org to pick a random number that corresponds to one of (currently) 1,082 number-one hits. I rolled #199, and grew quite excited as I began scrolling through the list. #199 falls in 1968, smack in the Beatles heyday, just following recent chart-toppers like “Penny Lane” and “All You Need Is Love.” Other iconic standards of the era from “Respect” to “Light My Fire” lie right around #199 – and #200 is “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” A golden era for the Hot 100’s pole position.

Well, not entirely. As you might guess from the mustacheoed photo above, #199 bucks the trend a bit. Rather than getting a cutting-edge classic pushing rock and pop music forward, I landed on the easy-listening instrumental “Love Is Blue,” as performed by French conductor Paul Mauriat. It inexplicably topped the carts for five weeks – that’s a week longer than “Dock of the Bay” would! It does make Mauriat the only French lead artist to ever top the Hot 100, which I suppose is something. Continue reading »

Nov 232018
 

“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty years.

madonna music covers

The first Madonna song I remember hearing is “Music.” It topped the charts in September 2000, when I was 13: peak Top 40 radio age. I suppose I must have heard “Like a Prayer” or “Borderline” somewhere before – or her more recent hits “Ray of Light,” the Austin Powers 2 song “Beautiful Stranger,” and, inexplicably, an excruciating “American Pie” cover – but “Music” was the first I registered as a Madonna song.

It offered a lousy introduction to Madonna. From the cloying “Hey Mr. DJ” opening, I hated it. It presented a rhythmic jumble, an obnoxious hook, and lyrics that seemed dumb even to a 13-year old. An actual verse: “Don’t think of yesterday / And I don’t look at the clock / I like to boogie-woogie / Uh. Uh.” (Admittedly, the same complaints could all be made about her much-derided James Bond theme two years later, and I love that song). It took a year or two more before I saw the “Material Girl” music video on some VH1 Best of the 80s countdown and became a fan. Continue reading »

Nov 162018
 

“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty years.

gettin jiggy wit it covers

Will Smith’s 1998 number-one hit “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” would have been perfect for our current era of YouTube covers.

First and foremost, the song was massive. It topped the charts for three weeks and won Smith his second-consecutive Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance. But more specifically, the simple novelty number boasts an instantly-identifiable hook (“Na na na na na na na…”) that would remain recognizable transposed into any genre. Google searches of “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It metal” and “”Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It bluegrass” would likely turn up a dozen options apiece.

But “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” came out in 1997, eight years before YouTube’s founding. Though a massive, inescapable hit – if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t fit this feature – almost no one covered it. We’ll get to the few who did below, but what strikes me most is how this dearth of “Jiggy” covers opens an interesting window into how drastically YouTube has changed the cover-song landscape. Continue reading »

Oct 262018
 

“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty years.

Ben

It says something about Michael Jackson, and I’m not sure what, that his first solo number-one record being a love song to a rat is one of the less strange things about him. Just fourteen years old, Michael was recording solo work at the behest of Motown Records, who wanted to have Jackson 5-related product to sell without necessarily having all five Jacksons. Meanwhile, a movie was coming out that featured young Lee Montgomery performing a sweet song, but the producers wanted a bigger name to rerecord the song for the movie’s theme, and Donny Osmond, the original choice, was on tour with his brothers. That’s how “Ben,” the title track to the sequel to Willard, found its way into Jackson’s hands and onto the airwaves in 1972.

Ben was the tale of an ailing young boy who befriended a rat colony that had been trained to kill in the previous film, led by the dashing young varmint Ben. The critics weren’t kind – Roger Ebert called it “a geek movie” back in the day when that couldn’t be anything but an insult – but the theme song, a gentle oasis amidst the horror that surrounded it, caught the public’s fancy, and they flocked to it like a rat to cheese. “Ben” wound up selling 1.7 million copies in the US alone.
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May 042018
 

“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty years.

despacito covers

The idea behind this new series is that the random-number generator will pull up one random Billboard Hot 100 number-one from 1958 through 2018, the chart’s 60th birthday. For whatever reason, though, so far said generator is only delivering me either super old hits – my last was 1963’s regrettable “Hey Paula” – or very current – a late-period Britney Spears hit. And the trend continues today when we look at covers of one of the most recent hits out there, 2017’s #1 hit “Despacito.”

And not just one of the most recent hits, but one of the biggest. Ever. Last year, “Despacito” last year tied Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” for the most weeks atop the Hot 100 in history. This wasn’t just a number-one hit. This is objectively one of the biggest hits of all time.

So there must be a million covers, right? Not really. Despite being so massive, “Despacito” never caught that wave of semi-ironic indie rock covers that so many pop smashes do. Continue reading »