Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
What makes the original artist of a cover? Does it depend on which you heard first? Me, I doubt even I could pretend my initial exposure to “Baby Please Don’t Go” was the original I held dearest and first to my heart. I’ll go further: I bet, that for many, the first notes of “Baby Please Don’t Go” they ever heard came from the whip-thin guitar of Billy Harrison (unless the rumors are true and it was actually session veteran Jimmy Page). He was part of Belfast’s finest, Them, with none other than Mr. Grumpyguts himself, Van Morrison, in moodily magnificent vocal form even then.
But no, Them’s take wasn’t the original, that being the domain of good old trad. arr., responsible for any number of ancient ditties that have transformed and transmogrified over the ages, across oceans and genres. But for the purposes of this piece, Them’s take is my original, even if their version was drawn from the twin wells of Big Joe Williams, the first recorded iteration, in 1935, and John Lee Hooker‘s 1949 version, which lopped the “please” off the title.
Thomas Truax – Baby Please Don’t Go (Traditional cover)
Starting relatively straight, Thomas Truax’s cover of “Baby Please Don’t Go” goes rapidly and progressively off-piste, as is his usual modus operandi. The giveaway might be the title of the album from which it comes, Songs From The Films Of David Lynch, showing his to be a mind unconcerned with sticking much to the mainstream. The guitar, fuzzed up to the max, strays initially little from the template offered by Harrison/Page, with his vocal just this side of deranged. The echoes and reverb become progressively more intrusive, the vocal more certifiable, the mood very much of the asylum, and Truax the imprisoned stalker. Jaw’s harp adds further outré timbres and, as handclaps come in, you look for a way out. Gloriously odd, one to get rid of unwelcome guests at a dinner party with. True is a genuine eccentric, who also invents and builds his own mechanical instruments.
Cowboy Junkies – Baby Please Don’t Go (Traditional cover)
The Cowboy Junkies’ cover of “Baby Please Don’t Go” is so stripped back as to be near naked. Barely amplified guitar skitters around in the foreground, with Margo Timmins moaning somewhere distant, maybe in an upstairs bathroom. Whether her brother is trying to match his playing to her wailing is never fully realized, much as he never quite does, the whole an eerie moment from the time the Junkies were just another blues band from Toronto. Or rather, not just any blues band, a bust from the Mounties (for noise) having had them rethink the plot. Instead of 11, they realised they could provide greater power with the amps turned down way low, a lesson they have rarely strayed from. Whites Off Earth Now, their 1986 debut, is much like this, all covers bar one, mostly drawn from the history or blues and rock.
BeauSoleil – Baby Please Don’t Go (Traditional cover)
With more swing than a leaky boat marooned on the levée, BeauSoleil give a barefoot kick to the bones of “Baby,” cooking up a gumbo of fiddle and atonal Cajun-style vocals. The guitar tries to offer convention, but the zydeco hues win out. BeauSoleil was, maybe is, the main vehicle for Michel Doucet, a fiddler from Lafayette, and his love for mixing the musics of Louisiana with influences culled from elsewhere: folk, rock, country and Tex-Mex, always heavy on the hot sauce. He has also worked in a number of other settings, the more orthodox Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band and the even more disorderly Cajun Brew, whose eponymous 1988 record I heartily endorse, featuring, as it does, added Sonny Landreth and Richard Thompson.
The Blues Band – Baby Please Don’t Go (Traditional cover)
Big band blues can carry quite a heft, the swing inherent in this “Baby” cover both enjoyable and bouncy. What really keeps this performance interesting is the burble of bass and guitar beneath it, giving the whole a syncopated lift. The Blues Band were a blues institution in Britain until literally last year, when they finally broke up. Not bad for a pick-up band for Paul Jones in the late ’70s, his days as a Manfred Mann singer/solo popstar behind him. Hooking up with guitarist Dave Kelly and the remains of McGuinness Flint, they became standard bearers of that genre, his mastery of blues harmonica quite astounding. Paul Jones contemporaneously became the UK’s elder statesman of the blues, with his long-running Radio Two program. This comes from 1999’s Brassed Up, the brass provided by big league jazzers like Alan Skidmore and Guy Barker, collectively as the Onslaught Orchestra.
Doc and Richard Watson – Honey Please Don’t Go, aka Turn The Lamps Down Low (Traditional cover)
If big is good, so too can small be better. Doc Watson was always a master of less is much, much more, his guitar and down home porch vocals able to breathe a cozy comfort into any old tune, somehow never getting even close to corny. How always a mystery, the idea of an old white fella and his guitar, looking a tad like Pa Walton, carrying off such power from his performances, sometimes a surprise even to himself. Remarkable, really.
“Baby Please Don’t Go” was a song he returned to, many times over the years. This one comes in tandem with his grandson Richard, from an album called Third Generation Blues, and it is a doozy, with similarly likeable versions of old chestnuts like “House Of The Rising Sun” and “Summertime.” Please don’t fret that it seems to be entitled “Turn The Lamps Down Low,” it’s still the same song, the title varying as to which pressing you own. The best damned blind guitarist who looked like your Dad, and one of the best anyway, period.
John Lee Hooker & Van Morrison – Baby Please Don’t Go (Traditional cover)
That’s five, or a few more sneaked in between the lines, but I am going to go full circle to close, bringing back the inspiration behind and the front end of Them’s version, John Lee Hooker and Van Morrison, a duet performance that has me feeling just quite who the more nervous one was. And it ain’t ol’ John Lee, even if it sees a return of his p’s and q’s! 1992 was the year.