1970- The Four Tops – Everybody’s Talkin’ (Fred Neil cover 1966)
If you know anything about The Four Tops, you will know that lead singer-behemoth Levi Stubbs never did “subtle” or “delicate” because he couldn’t, what with the ever-churning hurricane living inside him. This is one of those cover-of-a-cover situations, the Tops version taking its cues from Harry Nilsson’s Grammy and Oscar-winning 1969 hit version as opposed to the starker original by Fred Neil. The song has been covered by everyone from The Mills Brothers (!) to Liza Minnelli (!!) to Leonard Nimoy(!!!), but no existing cover approaches the sublime beauty of the Nilsson version the way The Tops’ 1970 version does. The song is as wistful and wanting as ever, but Levi’s next-level cry-singing injects it with a heretofore unseen emotional power. The group also takes a clever lyrical liberty, turning up the tear-jerking by singing Nilsson’s trademark whoas as whys. It is heartbreakingly perfect.
1970-The Friends Of Distinction – It Don’t Matter To Me (Bread cover 1969)
Ah, Bread. From 1970-76, the four-man band, led by melodic savant David Gates, scored ten Top 20 pop hits with their seriously pleasant brand of Soft Rock. It was the kind of sound even the most conservative of ’70s moms could get down with. Yet the songs were so tuneful, memorable, and everywhere that the cool kids weren’t averse to digging them (admit it, you love “Guitar Man”). The Friends of Distinction, who were essentially a groovier, weirder version of the 5th Dimension, covered “It Don’t Matter To Me” in 1970, and theirs is as summer breezy, big-time beautiful as a passive-aggressive song about accepting a partner’s wishes to play the field can possibly be.
1970- Arthur Alexander – Glory Road (Neil Diamond cover 1969)
“Wearin’ my high boots, got all my worldlies here in a sack”…what a great opening line. “Glory Road” is equal parts sweet and bitter about the pursuit of fame and fortune. It began life as a deep cut on Neil Diamond’s 1969 album Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show and so romantically encapsulated his troubador-ic journey that his multi-disc 1992 box set was named for it.
Arthur Alexander was better known for his songwriting skills than his actual recording career, his compositions having been covered by legends like The Beatles, Stones, and Dylan. But Arthur himself recorded some gems, among them this wonderful, wistful countrypolitan-flavored cover of “Glory Road.” He kicks up the vocal level several welcome notches from the original and reshapes it into a genuinely fabulous, emotional Glen Campbell-esque epic.
1970-Cassietta George – Everything Is Beautiful (Ray Stevens cover 1970)
I have to start this entry with a quote from the bio for Cassietta George in the 1995 book The Golden Age of Gospel by Horace Clarence Boyer because it is just so hilarious and beautiful: “Short in stature and slight of build, Cassietta George astounded audiences with her thin but clear and huge voice.” That is a catnip description–I mean, how could you not want to hear her after that? And Boyer had it right; what she lacks in soulful vibrato, she makes up for in volume and conviction. Cassietta knew how to project. Her version of Ray Stevens’s goofy country-fied anthem of empathy, and former #1 pop hit, sounds like a late ’60s Motown track, albeit one with a seriously strange arrangement. While it is not great, it is endearingly weird, mostly because of how Cassietta abandons the melody for the song’s last minute to focus on screamingly shredding and stomping the chorus into the dirt as hard as she can. Everything is beautiful in its own way.
1970-Carla Thomas – Country Road (James Taylor cover 1970)
In 2013, a wondrous CD was released. It was called Sweet Sweetheart: The American Studio Sessions and More, and featured previously unissued music Carla Thomas recorded back in 1970 with legendary producer Chips Moman (btw, that’s her daisy-gazing in the pic at the top of this piece). It is home to a bunch of stunning covers, and if you don’t already have it, I think you should go buy a copy immediately, as it is basically the soul equivalent of Dusty In Memphis (yes, it’s that good). The album opens with this absolutely smokin’ version of James Taylor’s “Country Road,” which very nearly eclipses the sweet and shaggy original. With Carla at the helm, the protagonist morphs from a wistful ‘n’ rambling boy troubadour to an empowered and assertive tomboy, following her wanderlust and searching for the spirit. I should note that Merry Clayton also did a supremely fine cover of this song, but it isn’t quite the joy Carla’s is. (Fear not–we’ll be getting Merry here very shortly.)
1971- Harry Belafonte – Circle ‘Round The Sun (James Taylor cover 1968)
Gonna stretch the parameters of this piece slightly, as Harry is more of an easy-listening kind of guy than a soul one, but this cover is so handsome there was no way it could be excluded (it’s also one of JT’s truly underrated deep cuts). Gotta give extra points for the reverential nod to “Wichita Lineman” in the swirling strings near the end. It is both a clever and heart-squeezingly sweet touch.
1971-Eugene Pitt & The Jyve Fyve – Come Down In Time (Elton John cover 1970)
The Jive Five first came to fame way back in 1961 with the #3 hit “My True Story.” The late ’60s saw the group pivot from their trademark doo-wop sound to more R & B-ish stylings. Along with the sonic change, they also “modernized” their name to something a little more ’70s hip (sort of) and began calling themselves Eugene Pitt and The Jyve Fyve. And what better way to compliment the new “with-it” moniker than to record a version of a song by the hottest, most happening up-and-coming young pop star of the time, Elton John. While Elton never released “Come Down In Time” as a single, it remains one of the most beloved deep cuts in his whole discography. In their cover, Eugene and the Jyves inject the dreamy ballad with a whole lot of fire, reshaping it into an intensely urgent, horn-fueled beast full of emphatic wailing. It is freakin’ fabulous.
1971- Aretha Franklin – Make It With You (Bread cover 1970)
Sure, “Make It With You” was Bread’s first Top Ten hit and has been streamed over 100 million times to date. Sure, it features one of the best uses of a double entendre in a pop song, maybe ever (David Gates was one seriously witty mofo). But maybe the coolest thing about the song is that producer Jerry Wexler and Aretha Franklin chose it to be part of The Queen’s setlist for her legendary Fillmore West shows in early 1971. Highlights from the shows were ultimately edited into an album Aretha Live at Fillmore West, which is where this version of “Make It With You” originally appeared. It is simultaneously laid back and passionate, and not only does it feature some funny spoken-word bits (“ham hocks”), but it also offers up a snippet of the rarely heard Aretha rasp around the 2:54 minute mark, which basically makes it a gift to humanity.
1971-Isley Brothers – Fire And Rain (James Taylor cover 1970)
I have talked about this cover so many times, including here and here, that at this point I should get a tattoo that says Fire and Rain by The Isley Brothers FOREVER. It is the best cover of “Fire and Rain” ever recorded. It makes me feel all hyperbolic inside.
The brothers’ version begins with a haunting, almost funereal intro and a line from the as-yet-unheard chorus being eerily chanted in the background as Ronald Isley’s voice echoes over the top. Things churn ominously for an entire minute and a half, and then BOOM, like a train suddenly emerging from a dark tunnel into bright daylight, Ronald belts out “I always thought!” and the song is revealed in its familiar form. It’s stunning. So yes please, fire up that needle.
1971- The Nite-Liters – We’ve Only Just Begun (The Carpenters cover 1970)
The cover of the Carpenters’ megahit “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Nite-Liters (later known as New Birth) is kind of cheeky. It is odd. It is somewhat bizarre. It is not so much a whole song as it is an extended coda. The group doesn’t even bother singing whole verses, choosing instead to go all-in on the chorus, then filling in the space around it with horn blasts and a capital “T” twanging guitar. They sound like a freewheeling, small-town high school marching band in 1971 trying to excite the crowd with their funky modernity. And frankly, that is the kind of thing I want to be a part of–hand me that baton.