1972 Ruth Brown – I Feel The Earth Move (Carole King cover 1971)
Yes, it’s Tapestry time (you knew it was coming). First on the ledger is R & B legend Ruth Brown’s 1972 take on “I Feel The Earth Move.” When it came to covers, Ruth generally stuck with jazz or R & B standards. But while this song may appear to be outside of her comfort zone, she makes herself at home and preambles the living hell out of it. In Ruth’s hands, “Earth” is no longer a poptastic, lusty tribute to a magical lover, but rather a smoky blues ballad about how frustrated she is with herself.
1972-Jackson Five – Doctor My Eyes (Jackson Browne cover 1972)
If I had to pick a few songs that epitomized and embodied the ’70s AM radio Soft Rock sound for a curious space alien (besides freakin’ “Love Will Keep Us Together,” of course), Jackson Browne’s joyful reflection on emotional numbness “Doctor, My Eyes” would definitely be one of them. If a can of Tab™ or a wood-paneled Rec Room were songs, they would sound like “Doctor, My Eyes.” The Jackson 5’s 1972 cover, a Top 10 hit in the UK, is arranged as a duet between Michael and Jermaine and inadvertently lays bare the vocal divide between the former and his brother (sorry Jermaine, but… yeah). Still, it’s a pretty fun and faithful run-through, and it’s also home to an entertainingly frantic string arrangement that doesn’t want you to forget that it’s there (yeah strings relax, we can hear you, jeez).
1972-Donny Hathaway – You’ve Got A Friend/Live version (Carole King cover 1971)
Donny Hathaway’s live cover of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” is the sound of stars aligning in real-time. Here we have a Soft Rock song so ubiquitous at the time that everybody knew it regardless of their age, gender, or race, being performed in a small club (L.A.’s Troubadour) by a genius artist who is gifted and intuitive enough to both lead the audience and let them run wild. The crowd’s energy is palpable from the start and their heated shrieks of recognition when Donny hits those initial piano chords are right up there with those of the standard-bearers of loved-up screaming, the Beatle-maniacs. Truth be told, this cover should be credited to “Donny Hathaway and the Troubadour Audience.” Once he arrives at the first chorus, he pretty much hands over his mike and lets them take over the song, belting the chorus in unison while he embellishes, and backs them up the rest of the way. It’s unbelievably moving. Chills, tears, chills.
1974 Lou Bond – That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be (Carly Simon cover 1971)
Back in 2010, the supreme musical rescue team at the Light In The Attic label reissued the self-titled 1974 album by Lou Bond. It doesn’t adhere to one particular sound, so we’ll just call it orchestral-acoustic-folk-soul. The album features a handful of exquisite covers, including this fascinating and bizarrely beautiful version of Carly Simon’s 1971 debut single and Top 10 U.S. hit, “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be.” The song is a tangled web of misery starring unhappy parents, miserable friends, and muddled thoughts regarding her own relationship and future, all wrapped in a hauntingly gorgeous melody. Lou serves up a seriously sweet vocal performance in his version, gliding back and forth from his straightforward “man-voice” to a fragile falsetto with ease. And while the song’s tone is still mournful and questioning, he ad-libs all kinds of joy over the outro, beseeching his girl to stick with him and describing how they could “settle down and have about 13 kids, I don’t care what we name ’em.” Cletus and Brandine forever .
1974-Mary McCreary – Levon (Elton John cover 1971)
Mary McCreary was part of the gospel group The Heavenly Tones, sang backup for Sly and The Family Stone, and was a member of the soul group Little Sister. She departed from the latter to embark on a solo career, releasing two albums in quick succession, including 1974’s superfine Jezebel. Now as Mary was married to Elton John’s friend and inspiration Leon Russell around that time, it probably isn’t all that surprising that she chose to cover a song by the former. What is surprising is how she eschewed the obvious and most popular choice (“Your Song”) and went for one of the most eccentric tracks in the John discography. Despite the name, “Levon” isn’t really about anyone or anything specific. When asked years later, lyricist Bernie Taupin said that despite rumors to the contrary, the title had not been meant as a nod to Levon Helm of The Band (so there) and that he didn’t actually remember what the hell was in his head when he wrote it. Anyway, let’s not waste any more time trying to decipher “Levon.” Instead, let’s just bask in Mary’s forthright, kickass vocal, her piano playing, and the genuinely fabulous gospel-ish arrangement that surrounds her because really, that is all that matters.
1974-Tavares – She’s Gone (Daryl Hall & John Oates cover 1973)
“She’s Gone” by Daryl Hall & John Oates was first released as a single in 1973. It didn’t do all that well, stalling at #60 on the U.S. pop chart. A year later, five Rhode Island brothers known to the world by their surname, Tavares, recorded their own version. And what the holy hell, it ended up going to #1 on the R&B Singles chart. While the H & O version was resurrected and re-released a couple of years later and did ultimately achieve great success, you have to give a nod of thanks to Tavares, not only for exposing the song, but for affirming and sealing the true soul credentials of both H & O and “She’s Gone” in one fell swoop. The group’s cover is impeccable, both exceptionally faithful to the original and ever so slightly quirky (love hasn’t taken a plain old toll on Chubby Tavares but “her dirty toll”). Tavares’s version is not better than H & O’s, rather it is a brother to it, just two wonderfully worn toothbrushes sitting beside each other in the stand.
1974- Euson – Better Days (Graham Nash cover 1971)
Julio Bernardo Euson covered a ton of soft rock songs throughout the ’70s. His version of Graham Nash’s handsome and beloved lament “Better Days” might just be (look out, hot take coming) better than the original. Where Nash was vocally strident, Euson is smooth. While Nash screams and keens, Euson calms and embraces. His 1974 cover forsakes the acoustic rock-sax backdrop of Nash’s original and redecorates with washes of mournful piano, weeping guitar, and lush strings. Put simply, he makes the song cry (and all of us people too).
1974- Lea Roberts – Laughter In The Rain (Neil Sedaka cover 1974)
The story behind Lea Roberts’s cover of Neil Sedaka’s 1975 # 1 soft rock classic is a bit convoluted, and there are a couple of different versions. Basically, Lea’s version of the Sedaka-penned track was released as a single before his. It ended up peaking at #20 on the R & B chart. Now as the song was earmarked to be the lead single off Sedaka’s then-forthcoming album in the U.S, he and Elton John, whose Rocket label Sedaka was signed to, convinced MCA records to rush-release his version, out of fear that Lea’s might torpedo the sales potential of his recording on what they anticipated would be his big comeback album (spoiler: it was). And get this–Sedaka actually loved Lea’s version. Anyway, his version of “Laughter” came out a month after hers and shot to #1 on the U.S. pop chart. As for Lea, her “reverse” cover has been relegated to the cult classic bin, beloved by old school soul nerds and unavailable on any of the streaming services as of this writing…which is a damn shame because she tears it up. If you like what Yola has been doing over the past couple of years, Lea’s “Laughter” will be right up your alley.
1975-John Edwards – Tin Man (America cover 1974)
No band captured the earth shoe-wearing, shag-carpeted ’70s vibe better than America, an outdoorsy trio of white boys armed with acoustic guitars and unforgettable hooks who could sing about golden-haired ladies and wide-open spaces like nobody’s business. Back in the ’70s, you couldn’t swing a cat at an AM radio wave without hitting an America song. They are essentially The Beatles of Soft Rock™. As it happens, Sir George Martin produced five consecutive studio albums for them and played that piano lick on “Tin Man,” so yeah, they really are.
Before his stint as lead singer for the legendary Spinners, which began in 1977, John Edwards had been pursuing a solo career, releasing two albums and landing a solid handful of singles in the U.S. R & B charts. His recording of America’s greatest song (according to me) is a considerably funkier affair than the original (horns, strings, big drums!), but it retains the gorgeous windblown sweetness of the original.
1975-Odia Coates – Showdown (Electric Light Orchestra cover 1973)
In 2019 Uncut magazine dedicated one of its stand-alone special editions to the world of Soft Rock. I was surprised to see ELO mentioned on the cover. Then I realized that maybe they were perceived a bit differently in the UK than they were in the U.S. Truth be told, ELO did always kind of straddle that line between Rock and Soft Rock (as did the Eagles and Hall & Oates), serving up as many slick ballads and disco-fied pop songs as they did rockers. So here they are in this Soft Rock piece. If this is offensive to you, please refer back to the last full paragraph of the introduction at the top of this essay.
Odia Coates was best known for being Paul Anka’s duet partner on the infamous #1 nightmare from 1974, “(You’re) Having My Baby”… but please don’t hold that against her. Instead, listen to her kick up the tempo and apply some slinky late night in the city flavor to ELO’s “Showdown”; you’ll forgive her her trespasses as she delivers us from evil.