1976-Walter Jackson – Someone Saved My Life Tonight (Elton John cover 1975)
“Damn, this is freakin’ terrible.” That was my first reaction upon hearing Walter Jackson’s cover of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” Now to be fair, this is a hard song to cover. While its lyrics offer a compelling cavalcade of imagery, it’s nearly impossible to make sense of them without knowing the story behind their inspiration. That story describes a tumultuous event so specific to Elton John’s life that it’s nearly non-transferable. That doesn’t stop Walter, though; he does his best to relate to its idiosyncratic, fantastical tale and delivers a comically cocksure performance. Listen to how he overemotes on the lines he sort of understands (and hey, don’t we all? Walter is us). You can literally feel his effort and the amount of energy he is expending (“dammit“).
Now for the twist ending. I love this thing, right down to Walter’s improv in the coda about ODing on coke. It is truly batshit. It took a while but all I can say is bless you, Walter Jackson, bless you.
1976-Randy Crawford – I’m Easy (Keith Carradine cover 1975)
Keith Carradine was a genuine heartthrob in the mid-’70s. Upon seeing his star turn in the film Nashville, my own mother – an adult woman, with children – declared him to be “hot.” This was not a selling point for me. In fact, I would characterize it as a counter-selling point. In 1975 “I’m Easy,” his acoustic ballad from the movie’s soundtrack, was not only a Top 20 pop hit but won both an Academy Award and Golden Globe as Best Original Song. As for me, I thought it totally sucked. I remember thinking “this Keith Carradine guy can’t sing for shit” (please note: this was the emotional assessment of a foul-mouthed child).
I’ve grown more magnanimous in my old age, but while I now think the Carradine version is pretty fine, I’d still rather listen to someone who can really sing wrap their cords around it, someone like the brilliant and underrated Randy Crawford. Her 1976 cover has sort of a ’70s TV show theme song vibe and brims with that same sort of comforting hummable summery sweetness. The legendary Hugh McCracken decorates the proceedings with a whole lotta sugary harmonica as Randy trills like an angel around him. So yeah, forgive me Keith, but you never had a chance.
1978-The Dramatics – Do What You Want, Be What You Are (Daryl Hall & John Oates cover 1976)
“Do What You Want, Be What You Are” is a wickedly timestamped (“payin’ dues in earth shoes”), slow-burnin’, spaced-out, and superfine soul ballad from Daryl Hall & John Oates’s 1976 album Bigger Than Both Of Us. It was the first single released from the LP and only rose as high as the back end of the U.S. and UK Top 40 charts (no cause for concern, everyone, the next one was “Rich Girl”). So it’s not the most obvious cover choice. Which is part of why I adore The Dramatics’ 1978 version so much… that and the fact that it is so staggeringly good. The group extends the length of the original from four minutes to nearly eight, making for something twice as desperate, world-weary, and ’70s NYC sleazy-beautiful.
1978-Pointer Sisters – Dirty Work (Steely Dan cover 1972)
While the Pointer Sisters are best known for their sugary pop-soul hits like “I’m So Excited” and “He’s So Shy,” they were not averse to a little (soft) rocking from time to time. Their 1978 album Energy was home to the sister’s beloved megahit version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire,” and it also featured covers of songs by renowned softies like Loggins & Messina and The Doobie Brothers. But the most intriguing and maybe polarizing track on the LP is the sister’s run-through of “Dirty Work” by Steely Dan. It’s faithful in its arrangement and suitably laid back in execution. It is also something of a paradox for me in that while I don’t care for the piercing shrillness of the vocals, I am also oddly fascinated with them, finding them both utterly grating and unspeakably compelling. I should add that the last minute of this cover is actually really cool, with its stops and starts, increased volume, and grimy guitar. So if you’re up for it, please come paradox with me.
1978-Latimore – Tonight’s The Night (Gonna Be Alright) (Rod Stewart cover 1976)
With all due respect to “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” and “Maggie May,” no song in the Rod Stewart catalog captures his comically brazen horniness better than that lusty #1 from 1975, “Tonight’s The Night.” But as straightforward as the message was in the self-penned track (“spread your wings and…”), the overall vibe was relaxed enough for it not to sound too predatory or scary. At least not until 1978, when singer-pianist-loverman-extraordinaire Latimore got a hold of it. Though he’s essentially a cult figure at this point, from 1974 to 1986 he was a bit of a star, landing over a dozen songs in the Billboard R & B charts. The vocal he delivers on his 1978 cover is positively sinister. It is downright lascivious. It is filthy dirty. And if all that wasn’t alarming enough, he is not alone in his mission to seduce you girl, oh no–he has brought along a drooling wingman in the form of a guitar that can only be described as disgusting. Right, so “kick off your shoes and sit right down,” people… if you dare.
1979-Millie Jackson – Just When I Needed You Most (Randy VanWarmer cover 1979)
What’s that – you want to hear a perfectly fine soft rock song get its ass kicked all over the playground? Have I got a cover for you! Millie Jackson bullies and shakes “Just When I Needed You Most,” Randy VanWarmer’s pathetically gorgeous top 5 hit from 1979, to its helpless rag doll core. Her vocal is so violent that even the inclusion of one of her signature comedic raps can’t staunch the flow of fear or keep the roof from flying off the house. Millie, you are scaring me, please don’t stop.
1980-Merry Clayton – Wasted Time (Eagles cover 1976)
While Merry Clayton never achieved the superstardom she deserved, her vocalizing on the Stones’ seminal “Gimme Shelter” has surely cemented her legend for future generations. The handful of solo albums Merry released in the ’70s featured a fair number of covers, including several by Soft Rock patron saint James Taylor’s (as mentioned earlier, her version of “Country Road” is superfine). But this slightly syrupy, string-laden, over-the-top take on the Eagles “Wasted Time” takes the cake. The strings threaten to swallow her up whole at several points, but by the song’s last minute, she has neutralized the orchestral forces and sung them straight back down the hill from whence they came. By the way, one of my abiding Soul-Soft Rock fantasies has been to hear Merry covering the entire Hotel California album. I can only hope that the album came to fruition over on Earth 2 at some point…in which case, I’m jealous.
1980-Viola Wills – If You Could Read My Mind (Gordon Lightfoot cover 1970)
You knew that we were going to poke our heads into the discotheque for at least one cover. Well, here it is! While Viola Wills landed a few songs in the Billboard Dance Charts over the course of her career, she was more of a cult diva, whose records received most of their airplay within the gay dance clubs of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Her version of Gordon Lightfoot’s evergreen classic was her biggest hit, peaking at #2 on the Billboard Dance chart in 1980. If you are a Gord-lord or purist, you may not like the idea of this emotive ballad being discofied and horned-up. But hopefully, this video of Viola assertively lip-synching and grooving will change your mind because frankly, it is life.
1981-S.O.S. Band – Unborn Child (Seals & Crofts 1974)
There are some genuinely sweet and handsome songs in the Seals & Crofts catalog one could cover, like “Diamond Girl,” “Get Closer,” or the seminal “Summer Breeze”(which both the Isleys and The Main Ingredient did fine soul-ified versions of). All are exceptionally melodic and memorable. But in 1981 the S.O.S. Band, wondrous purveyors of supremely lush soul, chose instead to record a version of S & C’s insidious anti-abortion anthem “Unborn Child” from the duo’s 1974 album of the same name. S.O.S. further glorified the song by rewarding it with the closing spot on their 1981 album Too. Okay, I have some serious problems with the lyrical content of “Unborn Child” and its hamfisted lecturing (as well as the timing and manner S & C first served it up in, which I wrote a bit about it here if you wanna rant with me). But I’ll listen to S.O.S. lead vocalist Mary Davis sing literally anything, even a song as unquestionably shudder-inducing as “Unborn Child.” Lyrics aside, the tune is majestic, the string arrangement is gorgeous, and Davis freakin’ owns it.
1981-Ruby Wilson – Bluer Than Blue (Michael Johnson cover 1978)
Singer Ruby Wilson was a bit of a legend within the Memphis music scene, so beloved that she came to be known as “The Queen of Beale Street.” Her 1981 debut album featured a cover of a genuine soft rock classic, one of those “songs you know but didn’t know you knew until now”, the illustrious “Bluer Than Blue.” Written by thoroughbred songwriter Randy Goodrum, the tune was a top 20 U.S. pop hit for Michael Johnson in 1978 and on the radio roughly 24 hours a day (or at least it seemed that way to me back then). Its chorus was the aural equivalent of a barnacle, the kind of thing you’d find yourself absentmindedly singing to yourself before you realized what was happening (tell me I’m not alone). I cannot put into words how much I love Ruby’s vocal on her version of “Bluer.” She totally gives herself over to this seemingly soft thing and sings it with such complete conviction that it becomes a completely different song. Even though I’ve listened to it a million times, I continue to be moved every time I hear it, enraptured by the way Ruby’s emotion escalates as the song progresses. What a beauty.
I know there are probably a finite number of ’70s era Soft-Soul covers that exist in the universe. Still, I live in hope that there are still a few left to discover, songs that have somehow fallen between the cracks, that haven’t yet found their way to YouTube, or onto a deluxe reissue. Or perhaps there are transcendently wondrous covers waiting for me on privately pressed obscurities buried in that dusty thrift shop by my Mom’s house. Either way, the search continues, with joy.
And I just wanna say, to all of you with crazy musical obsessions no one understands, we here at Cover Me see you. Nerd on and never stop.
Hey Wilson, take us on outta here …