40. Billy Preston – She Belongs to Me (Bob Dylan cover)
The first of several Dylan covers on this list, Preston’s “She Belongs to Me” follows a then-popular template: Take a rock song by Dylan or the Beatles and soul the hell out of it. It was a formula because it worked, and you’ll see a number of other takes on that approach on this list. Preston’s succeeds with a winning arrangement, funky harpsichord rhythms expanding into huge choral backing lines. As with every one of this type of cover, though, it lives and dies on the vocals, and Preston delivers passion and, well, soul.
39. Merle Haggard – Nobody Knows But Me (Jimmie Rodgers cover)
Merle Haggard released two albums in 1969. One was mostly covers. The second was all covers – and a double album, no less, paying tribute to the “singing brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers. He called it Same Train, A Different Time and tackled everything from Rodgers’ oft-covered yodels to deeper cuts. It proved hard to pick a single highlight – the whole album works beautifully, and is best heard as a piece – but the New Orleans horns on “Nobody Knows But Me” makes the song stand out even amidst so many other heartfelt homages to one of Merle’s heroes.
38. Tom Jones – I’m a Fool to Want You (Frank Sinatra cover)
The “Selected discography” on the Tom Jones Wikipedia page skips right from 1968 from 1999’s comeback Reload. But he never went away, churning out albums at a steady rate even during those decades when the hits dried up. The first of those Wikipedia-skipped album is 1969’s This Is Tom Jones, a soundtrack to his TV variety show of the same name. It features mediocre covers of many of the year’s oft-covered songs, from “Hey Jude” to “Wichita Lineman.” But the unequivocal high point is his powerful cover of one of the seven songs Frank Sinatra himself co-wrote, his 1951 single “I’m a Fool to Want You.” He gets to unleash his full Tom Jones bellow with an arrangement that earns it.
37. The Four Tops – Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles cover)
Head Top Levi Stubbs earns his reputation with a swinging and sassy performance – but, as with so many vocal group songs, the so-called “backing” singers steal the spotlight. A wonderful Motown production released just as the Four Tops’ run of hits had started to wind down, their “Eleanor Rigby” boasts what sounds like a full orchestra blaring at full volume alongside some light funk touches. It brings an energy and excitement without entirely abandoning the lyric’s melancholy core.
36. Solomon Burke – Proud Mary (Creedence Clearwater Revival cover)
Ike and Tina Turner were not the first to hear “Proud Mary” as a soul song. Two years before they got to it, Solomon Burke gave it a dry run. He even included his own spoken word intro. Burke loved the Creedence original that same year, but called it a very white record that needed to be reinterpreted for a black audience. His cover was a minor hit – nowhere near Ike and Tina’s chart dominance, but paving the way. According to Burke, he didn’t just inspire Ike and Tina; he’s the one who told them to do it. “The greatest thing I ever did was tell Ike Turner, ‘Hey man, you should get on this record,'” Burke recalled in 2002. “‘I think you and Tina could tear this thing up.'” John Fogerty himself approved: “Two thousand miles away this man had crawled right up inside my head to learn what ‘Proud Mary’ was all about. Sure, it’s great when someone sings your song, but when he understands it, you listen like it was the first time.”
35. Ike & Tina Turner – I Know (Barbara George cover)
Ike and Tina may not have gotten to “Proud Mary” yet, but they were churning out their own killer covers in 1969. The pair’s bluesy album The Hunter included a number of contenders with the pair tackling Albert King (the title track), Bobby Bland (“I Smell Trouble”), and more. Squeaking out the edge is the album’s shortest track, a storming versions of Barbara George’s 1961 debut single “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More)” that closes the record. The band is smoking, sure, but it’s Tina’s show beginning to end.
34. Shocking Blue – Boll Weevil (Traditional cover)
Dutch rock band Shocking Blue remains best known today for their song “Venus,” which topped the charts twice: first their own version in 1969, then Bananarama’s poppy cover in 1981. Their original was appended to 1969 album At Home, which also included “Love Buzz,” the song Nirvana would later cover as their debut single. Before either of those, though, the album kicks off with their swinging ’60s version of traditional blues song “Boll Weevil.” One wonders if Jack White knew this version before the White Stripes covered it.
33. Country Joe McDonald – Pastures of Plenty (Woody Guthrie cover)
Like Merle Haggard’s Jimmie Rodgers tribute album (#39), Country Joe McDonald’s tribute Thinking of Woody Guthrie may be best heard as a whole. But if one is forced to pick a highlight, his plaintive but peppy “Pastures of Plenty” will serve. Like The Byrds covering those early Dylan songs, it gives the song a folk-rocking, foot-tapping beat without sacrificing the message.
32. The Who – Eyesight to the Blind (Sonny Boy Williamson cover)
It takes a certain amount of A/B listening to even hear the overlap between Sonny Boy Williamson’s song and The Who’s cover. That’s because Pete Townshend rewrote the music from scratch for Tommy – and on some pressings, he even changed the title, to “The Hawker.” Eric Clapton guests on the film version from 1975, bringing the song back to its blues roots.
31. Pentangle – The Cuckoo (Traditional cover)
In the credits for Pentangle’s album Basket of Light, Wikipedia writes “All tracks written by Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Danny Thompson, Terry Cox and Jacqui McShee, except as noted.” Standard boilerplate you see a lot – except in this case, that “as noted” comprises most of the tracks. British baroque-folk band Pentangle drew on all sorts of traditional sources for their songs, as Basket of Light offers numerous contenders for a list like this. Their version of the traditional and oft-covered English folk song “The Cuckoo” can’t be bettered, though, with McShee delivering a gorgeous vocal performance over the band’s ornate acoustic guitars.