May 052023

‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

best covers of 1950s

As regular readers know, every month we put together a giant list we call Best Covers Ever. We take a household-name artist and count down the best covers of their songs. We’ve done Bob Dylan and Beyoncé and Billy Joel and Bee Gees and Britney Spears and Beach Boys and Bruce Springsteen and Buddy Holly and those are just the B’s.

What do all of those “B” artists have in common? Not much, except for this: They all have a lot of different songs that get covered by a lot of different people.

But there are some artists who will likely never get their own list here. Why not? Maybe they just don’t get covered enough. Or maybe they get covered often — but people mostly just cover a single song. These are the artists we colloquially call One Hit Wonders. And in a special series starting today, we’re celebrating covers of their songs.

“Celebrate” is the key word here. Anyone who considers one-hit wonder a term of derision must be under the mistaken impression that popular music is a meritocracy. Power-pop fans know that Fountains of Wayne have fifty songs as good as or better than “Stacy’s Mom.” Patti Smith never needed “Because the Night” to become a legend. Personally, I’ll go to bat for Chumbawamba’s back catalog any day of the week. The fact that one song landed higher than others on the chart means little in terms of overall artistic merit.

We’re dividing up our one-hit wonder lists by decade, starting with covers of songs that were first hits in the 1950s. We’ll tackle the 1960s on Monday and then, in subsequent months, continue on up to the present.

A quick disclaimer: It’s fun to argue about what constitutes a one-hit wonder. We do it too! But, for these purposes, we just followed Wikipedia, whose list of U.S. one-hit wonders compiles a bunch of newspaper and blog lists in one place. If you have gripes with what songs get included — and there are some legitimate gripes to be had — take it up with Wikipedia. Our goal is to focus more on sharing some killer covers rather than relitigate whether Men Without Hats’ “Pop Goes the World” counts as a big enough chart success to disqualify them.

10. Wild Billy Childish & The Blackhands – Tequila (The Champs cover)

Arguably, the phenomenon of Billy Childish is as odd as that of the Champs. “Tequila” wasn’t even originally the A-side of this 1958 chart topper, it was a throwaway B-side, written by their saxophonist under a pseudonym, he being contracted to another label. But, as these things do, it took off, and has kept the band in hot dinners ever since. A version of the band plays on.

Whilst Billy Childish would love that degree of acclaim, obscurity hasn’t stopped him pumping out record after after record, maybe 100 albums and counting, since he set up shop in around 1979, under a bewildering number of band names and collaborative exercises. All, however, conform largely to a basic template of surf punk and garage roll. “Tequila,” his version, is credited to Wild Billy Childish and the Blackhands, and is right up his street. From 1988, it could have come a decade earlier than the original, with what sounds like strummed banjos and accordion the backing for the necessary honking saxophone. Rudimentary drums thump and disembodied voices shout, almost randomly. Making the Champs seem as sophisticated as the Mahavishnu Orchestra is no small feat, but, you’ll agree, he manages. – Seuras Og

9. Everything But the Girl – Love Is Strange (Mickey & Sylvia cover)

In the dictionary under “tasty licks”… All right, you won’t find “tasty licks” in any dictionary – perhaps because you know them when you hear them. And you sure do hear them in Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange,” a song likely to bring visions of air guitar as memories of Johnny Castle and Baby slinking around one another in Dirty Dancing. Everything But The Girl tone down those thoughts and memories considerably, leaving out the spoken word interlude (you know the one) and giving the song a melancholy air. “Those kisses I will miss” is the only way they can end it. – Patrick Robbins

8. Amy Winehouse – To Know Him Is To Love Him (The Teddy Bears cover)

Whereas the original song’s cadence has a more balanced beat, Amy Winehouse transitions to a more syncopated delivery of the lyrics. That small change transforms the song just enough to take it out of the 1950s and make it more contemporary sounding. Winehouse’s voice is less chipper than the original singer, more unrequited love than happy announcement. The “oh-whoa”s are especially mournful. The doo-wop backup vocals are replaced by a more resonant guitar strum, plucky but still warm. – Sara Stoudt

7. The Beach Boys – Do You Wanna Dance? (Bobby Freeman cover)

“Do You Wanna Dance” is the opening track to the Beach Boys’ 1965 album The Beach Boys Today! and featured the band’s drummer Dennis Wilson on vocals. This cover is exhibit A for Brian Wilson’s attempts to emulate Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” approach to recording. The Beach Boys were backed by the full weight of the LA session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew on the track. One can feel the full power of Wilson’s arrangements every time the song reaches its bombastic chorus. – Curtis Zimmermann

6. Goose – Sleep Walk [2021/12/31 Chicago, IL] (Santo & Johnny cover)

The late-great Philadelphia oldies DJ Jerry Blavat often said that, in the ‘50s, teens would use songs to express emotions they could not quite put into words. Santo & Johnny managed to capture the essence of heartbreak without any words on their 1959 instrumental smash “Sleep Walk.” One can almost hear the guitar weeping. On New Year’s Eve 2021, Goose closed their first set with the track. It both tugged on the heart strings and got the heart pumping. Rick Mitarotonda’s guitar emulated the sadness of the original, while the rest of the band kept raising the intensity, step by step, octave by octave, until the emotions spilled out into the raucous crowd. – Curtis Zimmermann

5. Creedence Clearwater Revival – Susie Q (Dale Hawkins cover)

CCR’s cover of Dale Hawkins 1957 hit has taken the place as the definitive version. The swampy pace, walking bass, and John Fogerty’s iconic voice are hard to beat for recognizability. With the exception of Fogerty cutting loose on the final verse and the blistering guitar noodling, though, there’s not much here that wasn’t in the original. All the original elements are amplified by CCR: the song is twice the length and about 3/4 the speed but there’s a slow bassline, percussion mixed way up front, electric bluesy rhythm guitar and Hawkins’ vocals are quite similar to Fogerty. It’s a shame that the original from the 1950s is largely overshadowed as it deserves its place next to the better-known cover. – Mike Misch

4. Death Cab for Cutie – Earth Angel (The Penguins cover)

The pleading, longing voice of Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard pairs perfectly with this iconic slow-dance song from the Penguins. The addition of the guitars adds some weight but this still feels like it could have come from some alternate timeline, under-the-sea dance from the ’50s. The spacey reverb adds a bit of a haunted tone but not overtly spooky, making a familiar but not quite on-the-nose cover. – Mike Misch

3. Michael Jackson – Rockin’ Robin (Bobby Day cover)

In 1972, Michael Jackson scored a solo hit with his cover of Bobby Day’s 1958 smash “Rockin’ Robin.” While it’s difficult to write about Jackson’s youth without thinking about his troubled life, listening to the track now is like peering at a snapshot of just how talented he was. A young teen at the time, Jackson delivers a virtuosic performance. From the jazzy opening moments with “Tweedle-lee-dee-dee-dee” to the different vocal textures on the verse and chorus, Jackson’s voice soars throughout. He delivers a finger-snapping, foot-stomping performance that helped introduce Day’s lone hit to future generations. – Curtis Zimmermann

2. Ramones – Do You Wanna Dance (Bobby Freeman cover)

These days, with the help of Google, Spotify or Bandcamp, it’s easy to find punk rock covers of pretty much any major hit song. In the 1970s, it was more of a novelty. The Ramones practically invented the concept, regularly including covers on their albums. They recorded this cover for the 1977 album Rocket to Russia. The Ramones played “Do You Wanna Dance” as a lightning-fast, three-chord cover with enough energy to burn a hole through any dance floor. – Curtis Zimmermann

1. Tom Waits – Sea of Love (Phil Phillips cover)

I’ve written about Tom Waits’ take on “Sea of Love” before, and I’ll stand by my words: the song really is “reinvented and rejuvenated by a man who truly sang in his chains by the ‘Sea.’” The way Waits sings it, the titular sea of love is not a place one invites one’s pet to. It’s a dangerous place, likely as not to pull you down into its depths, choking off whatever romantic cliches you might have been planning to say. But there’s something that keeps drawing you back – both to the sea and to Waits’ singing about it. – Patrick Robbins

Check out more installments in our monthly “Best Covers Ever” series, including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, ABBA, Neil Young, and more.

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  2 Responses to “The Best Covers of 1950s One Hit Wonders”

Comments (2)
  1. The Penguins themselves quote/cover Earth Angel in the Zappa Song Memories of el Monte.

  2. That was fun. Thanks.

    How had I not heard the Ramones’ take on Do You Wanna Dance?

    Wish I had never heard the Beach Boys’ take.

    For my money, the definitive take:

    RIP Mr. Dave

    Maybe consider a Lindley Tribute. His albums are, of course, littered with covers, each given the wonderfully inimitable Lindley touch.

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