Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
In 1939, MGM was trying to edit The Wizard of Oz down from its near two-hour length, and one of the prime candidates for cutting was the song “Over the Rainbow.” The powers that be felt it slowed the picture down, went over the heads of the target audience of children, and was not a song suited for “a little girl singing in a barnyard.” Three-quarters of a century later, it was being sung by Pink at the Academy Awards ceremony. In between it had become Judy Garland’s signature song and was named the greatest movie song of all time by the American Film Institute.
It’s had hundreds if not thousands of covers over the last 75 years. Patti Labelle and the Demensions both took it into the top 20 in the sixties, though in wholly different ways. Jerry Lee Lewis took it into the top ten of the country charts in 1980 (watch the Killer kill it in this live version). Katharine McPhee crushed it on American Idol, then took it higher in the Hot 100 than it had ever been before. But if we had to pick only three covers of “Over the Rainbow”?
The Israel Kamakawiwo’ole cover is good.
The Aretha Franklin cover is better.
The Eva Cassidy cover is the best.
To paraphrase the famous Elvis album title, 100,000,000 YouTube viewers can’t be wrong. The ukulele-based medley of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole gives the song(s) a simple delicacy, drifting and floating like lanterns on the ocean. It’s also been used half to death in film and TV. Let’s keep that other half alive.
Aretha Franklin really broke out in 1967, when Atlantic Records released I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You and four top-ten singles. She’d been working and recording for Columbia Records for the previous six years, but while they knew they had a tremendous talent, they could never quite find the ideal release for it, steering her more toward tame pop than a Queen of Soul deserved. But talent will out, as it did when a teenaged Franklin recorded “Over the Rainbow” for her first Columbia album Aretha. We’re all glad the dreams that she dared to dream really did come true.
What Eva Cassidy did to “Over the Rainbow” may be considered unforgivable by Judy Garland fans – she made it her own. From the very first note, higher than Garland’s, she reconstructs the song entirely, making it what allmusic.com calls “stunning” and “surely one of the great recordings in popular music of the time.” Her phrasing of the “me/Some” segue into the final verse is enough to give Cassidy superheroine status in the music world. She died far too young at 33, but as the saying goes, it’s not how she died that matters, but how she lived, and she never lived as powerfully as she did on “Over the Rainbow.”
Watch Judy Garland bring herself and millions more to tears with this live version from 1955.