Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
We were always wanting to come up with the best cheatin’ song, ever. — Dan Penn
Dan Penn, from the musically abundant and fertile lands of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, served as a performer, producer, and songwriter for soul music’s Mecca, FAME Studios. Chips Moman, an accomplished musician and songwriter, owned American Sound studios in Memphis, Tennessee. Moman is known for recording Elvis Presley, along with other legendary greats. Together, they co-wrote a few songs, including “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” for Aretha Franklin.
The initiative for their goal of writing “the best cheatin’ song, ever,” occurred while attending a DJ Convention in Memphis, Tennessee in 1966. During a break in a card game, inspiration struck Penn and Moman, and they needed a place to get it all down. Quentin Claunch of Hi Records agreed to lend his hotel room to the galvanized duo to write the song in, contingent on the agreement that the song would be given to James Carr to sing. Half an hour later, Penn and Moman emerged with a perfectly crafted musical masterpiece called “The Dark End of the Street.” Mission accomplished.
What Penn and Moman modestly classified as a song about cheating is actually a song about the most mentally and physically draining emotion a human can endure… forbidden love. The only emotion that makes eating and sleeping mere inconveniences and simultaneously gives those involved an overwhelming sense of euphoria while fearing for their life.
Besides having a beautiful melody, “The Dark End of the Street” is lyrically brilliant. Penn and Moman’s simple and straightforward words create a vivid landscape of the song’s events, while evoking strong personal emotions and nostalgia.
As one listens to “The Dark End of the Street,” it becomes increasingly evident that the couple is incapable of putting an end to their sacred tryst. This is revealed during the song’s legendary bridge (often utilized by the artist to belt out their most anguish-filled cries), when the singer repeatedly concedes, “They’re gonna find us / They’re gonna find us / They’re gonna find us, one day.”
The last verse paints the most sobering picture of the two conflicted souls having to bury their emotions when they inevitably cross paths in the public eye, with one pleading to the other, “If we should meet / Just walk on by / Oh, darling, please don’t cry.” There is no happy ending at “The Dark End of the Street.”
The universal subject of forbidden love, along with the majesty of James Carr’s original version, affected a whole bunch of people in a whole bunch of different ways. In other words, it messed them all up. Luckily, some of those people were some of the most gifted musicians of our era, who felt compelled to bare their souls and create their own cover versions. Here are five that will surely break your heart.
Aretha Franklin – The Dark End of the Street (James Carr cover)
A slow simmer of angelic gentle vocals, soulful guitar and piano escalates with each verse into a full-on rolling boil of Aretha and her backup singers turning “The Dark End of the Street” into a screaming soul inferno. The inferno eventually gives way to Aretha’s voice fading out as she repeatedly begs to be held. There’s no doubt she’s in pain, but the way she expresses that pain can bring a listener absolute joy.
The Flying Burrito Bros – The Dark End of the Street (James Carr cover)
Gram Parsons and company deliver the most upbeat and instrumentally rich cover of this group. This down-home country-fried soul ballad features a nifty pedal steel guitar, consistent jangly piano, and steady drums throughout, with Parsons’ vocals being the perfect accompaniment.
Elvis Costello – The Dark End of the Street (James Carr cover)
Not the Elvis that Chips Moman recorded, but a brilliant artist nonetheless, Costello brings his one-of-a-kind sound and persona and attacks this song like he wrote it himself.
Percy Sledge – The Dark End of the Street (James Carr cover)
Percy rushed to the studio to record this cover shortly after James Carr’s original version popped. Sledge cooks up a plate of soul food with this hearty and nourishing cover of “Dark End of the Street.”
Lee Hazlewood & Ann-Margret – The Dark End of the Street (James Carr cover)
You know that feeling of waking up after a crazy dream? Lee Hazlewood’s macho baritone contrasting with Ann-Margret’s damsel-in-distress wails, in this groovy rollicking country cover, will have that effect. This cover features Hazlewood defiantly challenging anyone within shouting distance to discover his adultery (“Let ’em find us!”), and the image of Ann-Margret calling Lee Hazlewood “Pretty darlin'” and telling him “Please, please, please don’t ever cry” makes this cover the most fun of the group.
Muscle Shoals is an amazing documentary about a soul music renaissance that took place in Muscle Shoals, Alabama during the late ’60s and ’70s, featuring many of the names mentioned in this article. You can find it at Amazon.