Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Today marks the 108th anniversary of Billie Holiday’s birth. Her significance as a singer needs no elaboration from me; her songs speak for themselves, just as they have spoken to the souls of millions. “Strange Fruit” is considered her signature work, but a good argument has been made that “God Bless the Child” is of equal significance, with the added fillip of a sense of hope.
Born from an argument over money Holiday had with her mother, the song still has the zest of anger lain across it. But it also shows the way out; hard work, it’s implied, will bear its own fruit, both material and spiritual. The hope may not be powerfully warm, nor even all that self-evident, but it’s there, and it can help to lift you out and up.
With more than five hundred covers produced and released over the years, it’s impossible to single out only five as being among the best. That’s why you’ll find six featured here, and believe me, it could have been sixty. We hope these half-dozen bring you all that Mama may have and Papa may have.
Harry Belafonte – God Bless the Child (Billie Holiday cover)
Harry Belafonte recorded “God Bless the Child” in 1958, making it one of the few covers Holiday could have heard before her premature death (Sam Cooke’s is another). I’d like to think she got to listen to it, and that she got no small pleasure out of it. Belafonte takes a jazz-blues approach, his singing as easy as sitting back in a platform rocker.
Aretha Franklin – God Bless the Child (Billie Holiday cover)
Aretha Franklin recorded “God Bless the Child” in 1962, when she was in her wilderness years with Columbia Records. They knew they had a great talent, but never quite got a handle on how to use it. But Franklin, all of twenty years old, had plenty of confidence in herself when she took on the song. Doubt it? Notice how she sings the words at the end: “I’ve got my own.”
Blood, Sweat & Tears – God Bless the Child (Billie Holiday cover)
Blood, Sweat & Tears’ self-titled second album had three top-five singles in “Spinning Wheel,” “And When I Die,” and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” (the latter two are covers, by the way). It also featured a cover of “God Bless the Child” that expanded the song’s audience into the rock ‘n’ roll world. It adds horns and force without subtracting a thing.
Diana Ross – God Bless the Child (Billie Holiday cover)
We would be a hundred percent remiss to exclude Diana Ross’s cover. It was Ross who played Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, winding up with an Oscar nomination. In the words of one modern-day critic, “This is a brilliant, lived-in interpretation in which she, much like Anthony Hopkins did in NIXON, treads the ground of a well-known figure and by force of her own specific talent and fire lays claim the figure without having to turn in a shallow, Oscar-calibrated impersonation.” With her interpretation of the song, Ross stands proudly alongside Holiday rather than within her, and that does them both justice.
José James – God Bless the Child (Billie Holiday cover)
José James has done his part to haul jazz into the 21st century, adding elements of hip-hop, soul, funk, and more to his recordings. He’s also a fine student, releasing a tribute to Bill Withers and, in 2015, one to Billie Holiday called Yesterday I Had the Blues. His “God Bless the Child” manages to showcase the beauty of the song rather than the singer, even though James’ vocal is gorgeous.
Bettye LaVette – God Bless the Child (Billie Holiday cover)
We here at Cover Me have made no secret of our love for the covers of Bettye LaVette. The soul singer was a good four decades into her career before she started receiving all the accolades she’d long deserved, and she hasn’t slowed down in the two decades since. Sometimes it’s best to let the artist speak for herself, and that’s certainly the case with LaVette’s “God Bless the Child.” So I’ll just step back, and you can press play and close your eyes.