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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Jun 042019
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

sugar sugar covers

I used to work in the music department of a chain bookstore. One day a customer came in and asked, “Do you have a copy of the song ‘Sugar, Sugar’?” We did, of course; I took him to the Various Artists section and handed him a copy of Billboard Top Rock ‘n’ Roll Hits: 1969.

“Thanks,” he said. “I have to learn this song for a lip-sync for work.” He grimaced.

“Wait,” I said. “If it doesn’t matter what version you lip-sync to…”

In a twinkling he was holding a Very Best of Wilson Pickett CD, containing Pickett’s classic “Sugar, Sugar” cover. “Yes!” he said, eyes alight. “This has songs on it I’ll actually want to listen to more than once!”

The Wicked Pickett’s version is indeed eternally worthy of relistening, but I don’t want to slight the Archies song. Sung by Ron Dante and backed up by Toni Wine (who turns 72 today!), it’s the perfect AM rock song, the #1 song of 1969, one that Lou Reed once admitted he wished he’d written. It’s been remade for Archie-related live-action TV shows, not once but twice. And it’s raked up a lot of covers – including some by artists you never would have guessed…

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Nov 032017
 

In October, I held the first release event for the Cover Me book at Paste Magazine’s New York studios, featuring performances by Eli Paperboy Reed, Emel Mathlouthi, and Anthony D’Amato (watch them all here!). And this week I held the second, at Phoenix Books in my old hometown of Burlington, Vermont. The concept was similar: rather than a dry book talk, I would combine some conversation with live covers of songs from the book.

Two of my favorite local bands, Swale and Madaila – both of which I’ve posted about here before – stepped up with some amazing performances. And luckily, like at Paste, we’ve got footage. (More amateur-quality footage, admittedly – iPhones at a bookstore rather than multi-cam at Paste’s recording studio – but the performances are every bit as stunning.)

Swale kicked things off with a tender trio take on “Unchained Melody,” the Righteous Brothers hit first recorded as the theme for the now-forgotten 1955 prison move Unchained. Bobby Hatfield left a pretty high bar for a vocalist to hit, but Swale’s Amanda Gustafson easily cleared it while Eric Olsen (guitar) and Tyler Bolles (bass) gave her a stripped-down acoustic backing. Continue reading »

Oct 032017
 
cover me playlist

Today is the day! At long last, Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time is in stores and online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, Powell’s, and many other places (including, hopefully, your local independent bookstore!).

A lot has happened since I first announced the book back in May. The New Yorker published an excerpt about Devo’s meeting with Mick Jagger. I was interviewed on SiriusXM about the Hendrix, Cash, Aretha, Pet Shop Boys, Elvis, and Creedence Clearwater Revival chapters. And most importantly for you reading this, I put together an exclusive bonus mix that blog fans can get when they buy the book (it says “pre-order,” but we’ll say “week-of-release order” counts too).

And I wanted to share one more thing, another blog exclusive: An audio companion to the book. Continue reading »

Aug 282017
 
cover me book

—November update: The book is now out, but if you review it on Amazon or elsewhere, the mixtape can still be yours! Just send proof of review to the email below.—

Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Songs Of All Time comes out October 3. It dives deep into twenty iconic covers, from Elvis’s “Hound Dog” through Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love.” I interviewed artists like David Byrne and Roger Daltrey to get the untold stories behind their greatest covers. You can read all about it here.

Now we’ve got a special bonus for anyone who preorders: a free digital album of other covers of those same songs.

What’s the greatest “Take Me to the River” that’s not by Al Green or the Talking Heads? My favorite “Hurt” untouched by either of those men in black? An “I Will Always Love You” that sounds like the artist has never heard either Dolly Parton or Whitney Houston’s versions? This mix answers all those questions. Continue reading »

May 192017
 
Cover Me

As we’ve noted already, 2017 marks Cover Me’s tenth birthday. We’ll have some more celebratory posts leading up to the actual date this fall, but I’m thrilled to announce one thing that’s on deck for October: the release of my first book, Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time!

Ever since I started this site, friends and readers have suggested that I should write a book about cover songs (surprisingly, a comprehensive book doesn’t really exist). For years, I resisted. “That’s like saying ‘I’m going to write a book about original songs’,” I’d snarkily reply – i.e., that’s a stupid idea. Cover songs seemed too broad a category. There’s no grand unifying theory of cover songs to fit tidily between two book covers; it’s too big and messy and wonderful a tent for that.

Aretha FranklinAfter years of saying no, I finally came up with the solution. I wouldn’t write a book about cover songs – instead, I would write a book about twenty specific cover songs, and through those twenty covers, a broader narrative would emerge.

The story of covers as traced in Cover Me involves artistic triumphs and music-industry shenanigans. It touches on trends in record-making, music videos, and the internet’s impact on music (did you know the first viral song was a cover?). There are beautiful moments of unlikely artists coming together, and some uglier instances of exploitation and racism. Every major change in the music industry since the advent of rock and roll finds some expression in the world of cover songs. Continue reading »