Sep 172019

Go back to the beginning…

20. Jerry Reed – Blue Moon of Kentucky (Bill Monroe cover)

Nashville guitarist Jerry Reed, who popped up at #26 backing Joan Baez, released a killer covers record in 1969. A concept record of sorts, Jerry Reed Explores Guitar Country covered traditional songs in non-traditional ways. He’d change up rhythms and melodies, or bring in conga and jazz guitar on these fold folk standbys. Best of the bunch is the bluegrass staple “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” which gets a funky new acoustic groove. The album was produced by Chet Atkins, who also appeared on this list already (#44).

19. B.B. King – The Thrill Is Gone (Roy Hawkins cover)

Another one for the “Did you even know this was a cover?” file. In fact, the song existed for nearly two decades for B.B. King got to it. Originally written by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell, Hawkins’ 1951 recording barely even featured guitar, led instead by piano and saxophone. Hawkins’ single enjoyed modest success, hitting number six on Billboard R&B charts. Not bad, but it pales next to what happened when King got to it. King slowed it down and made his guitar Lucille his duet partner. It remains one of the most iconic blues songs ever.

18. Leslie West – This Wheel’s on Fire (The Band cover)

Leslie West’s psych-blues band Mountain have been back in the news of late, having performed only their third show under that name at Woodstock. Confusingly, a month before, Leslie West released a solo album titled Mountain. Because it features most of the same band members, people think of it as the first Mountain album. That means it contains maybe the greatest song Mountain ever recorded. Their sludgy roar through Bob Dylan and The Band’s “This Wheel’s on Fire” practically invents doom metal.

17. Smith – Tell Him No (The Zombies cover)

Smith’s 1969 debut A Group Called Smith is one of those little-remembered gems some vinyl reissue label should snap up. It boasts wonderful psychedelic soul covers of everyone from Bo Diddley (“Who Do You Love”) to The Rolling Stones (“Last Time,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together”). The mostly-covers band saw some success during their short run, scoring a chart hit with “Baby, It’s You” and landing a cover of “The Weight” on the Easy Rider soundtrack after the producers couldn’t secure the original. Sadly, a follow-up album in 1970 with original songs was less successful, and the lowercase-B band quickly disbanded. Their best cover by a hair is this Zombies tune, which swerves from a light groove on the verses to a huge Janis-level soul belt, courtesy of frontwoman Gayle McCormick, on the choruses.

16. Phil Flowers & The Flower Shop – Like a Rolling Stone (Bob Dylan cover)

I’ve always argued “Like a Rolling Stone” is the toughest Dylan song to cover, because it’s the rare Dylan song where his original recording is pretty much unimpeachable. But soul singer Phil Flowers found a way in. He opens with the best tongue-roll this side of Billy Stewart and keep the energy at 11 with a heaping help of swagger, hollering and scatting and yelping over a killer band, complete with horn section. [Note: There’s a 9-minute version of this too, but all the extra soloing adds little. Keep it tight with this single edit.]

15. Joe Cocker – With a Little Help from My Friends (The Beatles cover)

Cocker’s Woodstock performance got all sorts of well-deserved acclaim this summer (it was #2 on our list). But take note: the original recording, released just a few months earlier on the album of the same name, manages almost as much energy without the 300,000 people cheering him on. I wrote about this one in my book. The song’s engineer Tony Visconti – then a young man not yet famous for his work with David Bowie and others – told me how producer Denny Cordell made Cocker sing the song with his head titled way back to get the requisite grit as his vocal chords got shredded. Bonus fun fact: Jimmy Page, in his last days as a journeyman session guy, plays guitar.

14. Otis Spann – Ain’t Nobody’s Business (Anna Meyers with the Original Memphis Five cover)

Fleetwood Mac’s 1969 album Then Play On doesn’t include any covers, but they snuck onto this list anyway. Peter Green, Danny Kirwan, and John McVie – everyone but Mick Fleetwood – back Spann on this album. Green’s guitar never shone as brightly as it did backing bluesman like Spann (if you’ve never heard Memphis Slim’s Blue Memphis, rectify that immediately). But the star, of course, is Spann, who delivers this song like his life depends on it – one of the best blues vocal performances of all time, in my opinion – and adds in some hot piano solos.

13. Nina Simone – I Think It’s Going to Rain Today (Randy Newman cover)

Speaking of piano, “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” edged out Simone’s other excellent covers that yer (“Suzanne,” “Turn Turn Turn,” multiple Bee Gees and Bob Dylan songs) due to its simplicity. She released two albums in 1969. All those others I mentioned came from the second, To Love Somebody, an enjoyable album but one with a very heavy-handed production. The first, though, is described by its simple title: Nina Simone and Piano. That’s all you really need with a song like this.

12. Leonard Cohen – The Partisan (Anna Marly / Hy Zaret cover)

So thoroughly does “The Partisan” sound like a Leonard Cover song that I suspect few Songs from a Room listeners these days even realize it isn’t. Unless, that is, those listeners live in France. Written as “La Complainte du partisan,” the song originated as an anti-fascist anthem there towards the end of World War II. Hy Zaret, the lyricist behind “Unchained Melody,” wrote English lyrics in 1944, sanding down some of the more overt Nazi references. Appropriately for a man from Montreal, Cohen blends the two versions, leaning on Zaret’s translation before switching back to the original French.

11. Aretha Franklin – Gentle on My Mind (Glen Campbell cover)

“Wichita Lineman” got covered as much as any non-Beatles song in 1969, but the year’s best Glen Campbell cover – maybe tied with “By the Time We Get to Phoenix,” by Isaac Hayes, who we’ll get to shortly – actually tacked a slightly older hit. By 1969, Aretha Franklin was a couple years into her legendary Atlantic run, and could do no wrong. With “Gentle on My Mind,” she took Campbell’s John Hartford-penned country hit from two years prior and turned it into a jumping, joyous soul workout.

The countdown completes on Page 6!

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