50. The 5th Dimension – Aquarius / Let The Sunshine In (Hair cover)
Close listeners to the Woodstock soundtrack – or the new 38-CD box set – will have heard this song performed. No, the 5th Dimension weren’t on the bill (though they did appear at the so-called “Black Woodstock” that same summer). Rather, at one point you hear the crowd of 300,000 all belting out “Aquarius / Let The Sunshine In.” They follow the 5th Dimension’s recent chart-topping mashup too, which they group stitched together into one musical-spanning medley. Hair was already a sensation, with the Broadway musical’s soundtrack topping the album charts for 13 weeks in 1969 (no cast album has topped the charts for even one week since). The 5th Dimension both rode and amplified that trend. Unlike the many other hippie-heaven covers of the soundtrack’s songs that were released in 1969, it more or less holds up as an enjoyable pop confection.
49. Vampire’s Sound Incorporation – There’s No Satisfaction (The Rolling Stones cover)
Another hot trend of 1969: instrumental versions. The number of instrumental albums covering Beatles songs alone could fill this list. And honestly, most are perfectly fine, presaging the various Pickin’ On, String Quartet Tribute To, etc. series of recent years. But they exist more or less as background music, with few of the endless guitar/orchestral/sax/flute/percussion/whatever covers of “Hey Jude” leaving a lasting impression. Psych-rock instrumentalists Vampire’s Sound Incorporation stand out with a kooky version of “Satisfaction” that veers between a wide array lead instruments. Plus it’s not strictly instrumental; some vocalists oooo and hey-hey along. The band’s main claim to fame wouldn’t come for another couple decades, when Quentin Tarantino used one of their original songs in Jackie Brown.
48. Al Green – The Letter (Box Tops cover)
Al Green’s “I Want To Hold Your Hand” almost made this list, but what put “The Letter” just a hair over the top for me was, of all things, a mistake Green made. Listen closely as he hits the end of the first verse here. Al is clearly feeling it in the studio, scatting and vamping in and around the actual lyrics. He gets to the line “Got to get back to my baby again.” But he overdoes it, painting himself into a corner. He tries to save himself at the last second – which makes it even worse. The line comes out “Got to get back, get on back, to my baby one more… ‘gain!” It’s the sound of a joyous faceplant, and he couldn’t care less. It’s a great cover throughout, but the fact that Al’s vamping so hard he botches the lyrics – and they kept that in – makes it exceptional.
47. Steve Miller Band – Motherless Children (Blind Willie Johnson cover)
In 1969, several years away from “The Joker” and “Fly Like an Eagle” and general superstardom, San Francisco psych-rock band Steve Miller Band put together this extremely tripped-out cover of blues standard “Motherless Children.” They were nowhere near famous enough yet to play Woodstock, but from the sound of this, they’d have fit right in.
46. Skeeter Davis – Only the Strong Survive (Jerry Butler cover)
A few years back, great UK reissues label Ace Records put out a killer pair of covers compilations: Behind Closed Doors: Where Country Meets Soul and Out Of Left Field: Where Soul Meets Country. The former collected soul greats like James Carr and Ann Peebles tackling a range of country classics. The latter flips the script. A high point comes from 1960s country-pop singer Skeeter Davis – probably best known for “The End of the World” today – tackling Jerry Butler’s Gamble and Huff song “Only the Strong Survive.” Elvis covered it in 1969 too – but Skeeter’s is better.
45. Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash – Careless Love (Traditional cover)
A couple months ago, rumors leaked the Bob Dylan’s team was considering his 1969 Johnny Cash jam sessions for the next in their long line of Bootleg Series collections. It’s hard to know what to make of that idea. On the one hand, eavesdropping on Dylan and Cash just hanging out and jamming is a thrill. On the other, you can do that right now – the sessions leaked in excellent quality ages ago. Plus, while charming, not all of the recordings stand up to repeated listens. It’s pretty much two geniuses just dicking around for a few hours. My favorite track may honestly be the most half-assed of the bunch. The pair casually stroll through the traditional folk song “Careless Love.” They don’t remember many of the lyrics, so they just start making them up, trying to top each other by rhyming different gun caliber numbers. It’s like two children goofing around, and a joy to eavesdrop on.
44. Chet Atkins – Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell cover)
In the late 1960s, guitarist Chet Atkins churned out a series of albums under the Solid Gold moniker, covering chart hits of the preceding year: Solid Gold ’68, Solid Gold ’69, etc. These albums are largely forgettable, submerging Atkins’ always-masterful guitar playing in schlocky easy-listening production. The one standout from Solid Gold ’69 comes in the opening track, his beautiful instrumental cover of “Both Sides Now.” The orchestra still seems unnecessary, but it at least stays relatively subdued, allowing his finger-picking to take the lead.
43. José Feliciano – Day Tripper (The Beatles cover)
Hard to believe we’ve made it this far without a Beatles cover. Don’t worry, though; many more await. Even José Feliciano himself commented on their ubiquity in 1969 before launching into this live recording. “Next, I’d like to do a Beatle tune,” he said. “I think everybody’d doing a lot of those. The Beatles are making a lot of money [laughs]. Actually the Beatles have influenced my career in a lot of ways. I recorded a lot of their material because it’s got a lot of, as we say, meat on it, a lot of backbone.” He went on to perform this jumping “Day Tripper,” thrashing his acoustic guitar for all it was worth.
42. Janis Joplin – Maybe (The Chantels cover)
On her first solo album – and the only one released in her lifetime (the more famous Pearl came out posthumously) – Joplin took some first steps away from Big Brother and the Holding Company’s psychedelia, trying her hand at soul. Of the numerous great covers on I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, “Maybe” stands just a hair above the rest. Her so-called Kozmic Blues Band does a superb job amplifying her voice and goosing her forward, without distracting from the main attraction. On the verses they barely do anything, just a basic rhythm track accentuated with some organ fills while Joplin vamps at top volume. When she and they explode into the chorus, the effect is electric.
41. Led Zeppelin – Dazed and Confused (Jake Holmes cover)
According to Jimmy Page, “Dazed and Confused” isn’t a cover. The best Jake Holmes was able to get, two years after finally suing Page, was an “Inspired by Jake Holmes” credit. In the same way Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” was “inspired by” Bob Dylan. (We posted a feature telling the full story, interviewing some of the key players, earlier this year). Also like Hendrix’s “Watchtower,” the lyrics may be the same, but the new music pushes the song into the stratosphere. In later years, Zeppelin would continue pushing “Dazed and Confused” much further live, sometimes stretching the song past the 20-minute mark. Their recorded “Dazed and Confused,” from their 1969 debut album, really just set the template those live versions would expand upon. You might say those were “Inspired By Led Zeppelin.”
The countdown continues on Page 3!