May 132020
 

Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.

Radka Toneff

Up until a few years ago, I had no idea who Radka Toneff was. I stumbled upon her only because I was doing what what all Cover Me nerds do in their spare moments: looking for cover versions of their favorite songs (in my own case it’s to add a little spice to my specific-song-themed-playlist situation because I’m a deluxe version nerd). Continue reading »

Jan 312020
 

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

Donny Hathaway covers

At the conclusion of Amy Winehouse’s posthumously released version of “A Song for You,” there’s a particularly revealing and heartbreaking snippet of dialogue. “Marvin Gaye (was), great,” Amy emphatically states, “but Donny Hathaway like…he couldn’t contain himself, he had something in him, you know.” It’s heartbreaking to hear for myriad reasons, but it’s also, hands down, the most beautifully spot-on description of Donny Hathaway’s transcendent gift. He was in possession of an extraordinary voice that, like Aretha’s, could easily evoke tears in the most hardened of souls, even if the song itself was expressing a seemingly uplifting sentiment. He didn’t so much sing as simply feel out loud.

By the end of 1973, Donny Hathaway had recorded three solo studio albums, a duet album with Roberta Flack, and a movie soundtrack, as well as a live album widely acknowledged as one of the greatest ever made. He’d become the recipient of considerable critical acclaim, money, overwhelming attention…and pressure, much of which was self-created. He was a musical perfectionist of the extreme, complex, and occasionally insufferable Brian Wilson variety, both in the studio and onstage. And he was surprisingly insecure about the quality of his voice (a fact we standard issue humans might find hard to comprehend), so much so that in the latter years of his career he’d taken to telling colleagues that if he did any more recording, he no longer wanted to sing but just wanted to play piano.

Donny had been diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1971, and as time progressed, sadly, so did the disease. He also suffered from depression. By 1974 his mental health issues had become so severe that studio work and live performances became increasingly difficult to arrange and follow through with. He did what he could, when he was able, but for all intents and purposes, his career as a singular headlining and touring artist was over. As a result, from 1974 to 1979, his recorded output was minimal, consisting of two tracks with Roberta Flack in 1979 and a dozen or so solo songs, the latter of which didn’t see light of day until the release of the 2013 Rhino box set Never My Love. He ultimately died by suicide on January 13th, 1979 in New York City.

Donny Hathaway was one of the greatest singers to ever walk the planet, and his excursions into the world of covers remain to this day a master class in how it’s done.
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Jul 122018
 

In Pick Five, great artists pick five cover songs that matter to them.

jon cleary covers

Six years ago on a visit to New Orleans, I traveled to the legendary Tipitina’s club for a Professor Longhair tribute show. I know most of the headliners, at least loosely: Dr. John of course, plus Meters bassist George Porter Jr. and Marsalis clan patriarch Ellis. The one guy I’d never heard of, though, blew me away. His name was Jon Cleary, and I appeared to be the only person in the room ignorant of his work.

Cleary is a New Orleans icon, a boogie-woogie piano savant following in the Dr. John and Allen Toussaint tradition (he’s played with both). NPR has called him “pure New Orleans,” while Southern Living wrote that “the pianist’’s name is synonymous with his city.” He’s got a new album Dyna-Mite out this week, Crescent City funk at its finest. Here’s the title track:

To celebrate the new album, Jon Cleary told us about his five favorite cover songs. His selections travel the world, but keep coming back to New Orleans. Just like Cleary himself. Continue reading »

Jun 182018
 

In Pick Five, great artists pick five cover songs that matter to them.

fantastic negrito cover songs

In the year 2000, the musician known as Fantastic Negrito almost died. A car accident put him in a three-week coma before requiring months of brutal physical therapy. When he finally got out of the hospital, permanent damage to his guitar-playing hand forced him to retire from music. He eventually moved to Oakland and became an urban farmer growing vegetables and, as his new bio artfully puts it, “other, more profitable, green matter.”

A lot has happened since then. He eventually returned to music, and quickly achieved the sort of milestones he never did the first time around. He won the first-ever NPR Tiny Desk Contest in 2015, earned a longtime champion and mentor in Chris Cornell, and, just last year, won his first Grammy award, for Best Contemporary Blues Album. But the accident’s after-effects linger in his mind on new album Please Don’t Be Dead, which features a real photo from his hospital stay as its cover. Watch the music video for single “The Duffler”: Continue reading »

Jul 012016
 

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

imagine

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, Lennon’s first solo album, got many rave reviews and deserved them all, but there are people who aren’t comfortable witnessing someone baring his soul, and Lennon wanted to reach them too. So he made sure his next album, Imagine, sweetened his message, even as he kept it intact. “Plastic Ono with chocolate coating,” he later called it. By lightening his touch and assuring the songs landed in his fans’ hearts rather than crashing into them, Lennon was rewarded with a commercial success, not to mention the title track that came to be his signature song.
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Oct 252014
 

In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.

Were Ray Charles alive, he’d turn 84 today. Not a ridiculous conceit – Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, and Clint Eastwood all did the same earlier this year. Which only goes to show that it’s still hard sometimes to come to grips with a world without Ray. But it would be much, much harder to live in a world without his music.
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