‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
Last week we kicked off our new One Hit Wonders series with ten covers of big 1950s hits, and today we continue it with 20 covers of 1960s smashes.
Some classic songs getting covered in here, in some cases by artists that should have had many more hits just as big. So it goes in pop music. We’ll probably never be able to do a The 40 Best Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs Covers Ever list, though, so we celebrate them here with a few fun reimaginings of their early 1960 chart-topper “Stay.”
This and the ‘50s list will be it for now, but in coming months we’ll continue our tributes to one-hit wonders into the ‘70s, ‘80s, and beyond.
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, for sure — 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” was a big enough chart success to disqualify them.
20. Stevie Wonder – Sunny (Bobby Hebb cover)
Bobby Hebb’s one and only hit arose from two tragedies: the assassination of JFK, followed the next day by the stabbing death of Hebb’s brother. From that darkness came one of the most buoyant hits of the decade. “Sunny” is perhaps the most-covered soul recording ever, with more than 400 covers and counting. For all the sentimentality of its lyrics, the music itself is sophisticated, with a slew of chords, tempo shifts, key modulations, and a few injections of the 007 theme. No surprise it quickly entered the jazz repertoire.
Stevie Wonder’s 1968 recording of the hit is not the joyous romp you might expect. He veers the other way, sings the pain more than the relief, leans on the minor-chord vibe more than the major. This partly-cloudy “Sunny” didn’t chart; it wasn’t even released as a single. Two years later, Stevie came back to the song for a live album, and there the mood is lighter, the energy higher. But it’s Wonder’s studio recording that stands out as a unique translation of the classic. – Tom McDonald
19. A Taste Of Honey – Sukiyaki (Kyu Sakamoto cover)
In 1963, when Janice-Marie Johnson of ‘70s soul-disco duo A Taste Of Honey was nine years old, she fell in love with Kyu Sakamoto’s #1 Japanese language hit “Sukiyaki” after her Mom bought her the 45. In an interview with Rafu Shimpo in 2013, Johnson said that even though she did not speak Japanese, “Sukiyaki” became the lynchpin of her homespun childhood performances. “When I was a girl, I had a makeshift kimono and I would perform ‘Sukiyaki’ in my own talent shows in the backyard, singing it phonetically. I had no idea what I was singing about!”
Fast forward to 1978. That year, Johnson and bandmate Hazel Payne had scored their own million-seller with the self-penned disco banger “Boogie Oogie Oogie”. Their debut album went platinum and they won the Best New Artist Grammy for 1979. That’s when the tide began to turn. Less than a year later, the famous (and misguided) anti-disco backlash was in full force and the genre’s newest sweethearts suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of pop music tastes. The sales of the duo’s second album were disappointing and, just like that, two albums into their seemingly ascendant career, Johnson and Payne had to reassess where they needed to head creatively if they wanted to both survive and thrive.
It was then that Johnson got an idea. A brilliant one. As Linda Ronstadt was hitting big with her string of wondrous covers at the time, why not do one themselves? And how cool would it be to remake Johnson’s beloved “Sukiyaki”? Johnson reached out to the song’s original lyricist Rokusuke Ei, who not only translated the song’s lyrics but offered a few different interpretations of the song’s meaning.
Johnson then headed to the drawing board and re-wrote her own set of lyrics to a slowed-down arrangement of the original tune (which had been penned by Hachidai Nakamura). Johnson magically turned “Sukiyaki” from a wistful but upbeat pop song into a timeless lovelorn ballad. Johnson’s vocal is sublime, as is guest player June Kuramoto’s unspeakably gorgeous koto playing. Johnson’s words are an endless waterfall of heartbreak with tears, rainy days, and sadness all getting namechecks. The love she describes, and still longs for, is over, a point driven home by the whispered “Sayonara” at the end. Forty-plus years have passed and Taste Of Honey’s ingenious reinterpretation of “Sukiyaki” remains an absolute stunner. – Hope Silverman
18. Tim Buckley – Sally Go ‘Round The Roses (The Jaynettes cover)
It could be claimed that Tim Buckley’s take on “Sally, Go ‘Round the Roses” isn’t a cover. In fact, it was; on 1973’s Sefronia, Buckley’s given a sole-author credit. But the roses the Jaynetts sang of in 1963 still won’t tell their secrets. Buckley keeps the song’s mysteries alive, his otherworldly voice alluding to drunken revelry and a lesbian relationship in such a way that you think that maybe roses they can hurt you after all. – Patrick Robbins
17. Smith – Let’s Get Together (The Youngbloods cover)
Late ‘60s rock group Smith has appeared on several of these lists before: Best Girl Group Covers (for their “Baby It’s You”) and Best 1969 Covers (for their “Tell Him No”). Both come from the same killer album, 1969’s A Group Called Smith. As does this Youngbloods cover, recorded only a year or so after the original hit. The obvious comparison point, as it is for Smith’s entire album, is Big Brother and the Holding Company. The Janis Joplin figure, in this case, is singer Gayle McCormick, who can deliver a raspy belt as good as anyone. – Ray Padgett
16. Jackson Browne – Stay (Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs cover)
When I first heard Jackson Browne’s version of “Stay” in high school, I knew it was a cover. But I had no idea who did the original. Nor, until this project, did I ever think to find out. Turns out, the original, in classic doo-wop style, was released by Maurice Williams and The Zodiacs in 1960 (although it had originally been written in 1953, when Williams was 15). At all of 1:36, it is still the shortest song ever to hit the top of the US charts. In retrospect, I probably was thinking of the Four Seasons’ cover when I “recognized” Browne’s version, which segues seamlessly from the “life on the road” song “The Load Out” before paying tribute to the style of Williams’ original, with great backup singer Rosemary Butler adding soulful vocals, and the late David Lindley contributing a memorable falsetto. – Jordan Becker
15. Yat-Kha – In A Gadda Da Vida (Iron Butterfly cover)
Tuvan throat singing meets heavy metal? That was the pitch behind Yat-Kha, an offshoot of the more traditional Tuvan group Huun-Huur Tu. They’ve recorded a shocking number of albums, including an all-covers set in 2005. You might not think “In A Gadda Da Vida” would work without any organ. But with throat-singing and traditional instruments, it still sounds great. – Ray Padgett
14. The Go-Go’s – Cool Jerk (The Capitols cover)
I didn’t think that I knew this song at first, but within the first few seconds, I realized that I definitely had. (Home Alone 2 fans might have a similar reaction.) The Go-Go’s keep that same revealing guitar riff, but kick the tempo up a notch, leading to a mix of the original’s groovy funk and edgy punk. It’s clear why they picked this song to cover; the energy fits the band’s spunky roots. The Go-Go’s go all in, not shying away from the talking to (bordering on taunting) the crowd part. – Sara Stoudt
13. The Stranglers – 96 Tears (? and the Mysterians cover)
In a sense, ? and the Mysterians only needed to score one hit, this being enough to make a huge impact in 1966 and practically invent a new sound. Call it garage rock. Call it even punk rock. Call it an almighty organ-driven thing like you’ve never heard before. It’s no wonder the Stranglers, famed for keyboard classics like “No More Heroes” and “Golden Brown,” claimed it for their own in 1990.
The British rock band were hugely faithful to the Michigan group’s US #1 hit of old, too, and reveled in its revengeful and twisted lyrics that had plenty in common with the Stones’ “Under My Thumb.” Principally, Dave Greenfield nailed the defining keyboard riff, extraordinary talent that he was. But that’s not to say Hugh Cornwell didn’t substitute ?’s Jaggerish vocals for his own distinctive brand of self-harmonized anger, while the band sped the song up and added horns and a big drum sound. So while it could be said that the Stranglers were running low on fresh ideas at this late stage in their career (with Cornwell about to quit the group), they put out an inspired cover to rank alongside their versions of the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night” and Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By.” – Adam Mason
12. Butcher Babies – They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa! (Napoleon XIV cover)
Napoleon XIV’s Dr. Demento-favorite novelty hit “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” is about a man going insane. But, being a comedy song, it’s presented in a funny way. Metal band Butcher Babies looked at those lyrics and thought, these are actually pretty dark. Let’s make the music match. Though, as you can tell in the horror-movie music video, they’ve got a sense of humor about it too. – Ray Padgett
11. The Dickies – Eve of Destruction (Barry McGuire cover)
Take Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” a lumbering protest song that was outdated within months of its release. Then put it in a dune buggy going ninety and send it through a grease fire. That’s what the Dickies did with their cover, a sped-up rush through a land of dangers that never felt so fun. They even drop a cheerful F-bomb along the way. If this is what the day before the apocalypse is going to sound like, you can tell me over and over and over again, my friend. – Patrick Robbins
10. U2 – Everlasting Love (Robert Knight cover)
The version of “Everlasting Love” that most resonates with a person mostly depends on where and when they grew up. For late ’60s radio listeners in the U.S., it was the Top Ten organ-fueled soul-pop version by Robert Knight. While that version got as high as number 40 on the UK pop chart, the song didn’t truly penetrate UK listeners’ consciousness until the sweet bubble-gummy version by the group Love Affair arrived and shot to #1 there in 1968. In 1973, a new generation was introduced to the song via Carl Carlton’s disco candy-licious cover that rose to the #6 spot on the U.S. pop chart (this is the first “Love” my own kid ears were exposed to). There are others still who met the song via the fun, ridiculously overwrought 1978 duet version by Rex Smith and Rachel Sweet that penetrated the Top 40 in both countries. German singer Sandra’s 1987 cover was a major hit throughout Europe. And on and on it went. In the decades that followed, everyone from Gloria Estefan to Jamie Cullum to the cast of the freakin’ BBC TV show Casualty cut versions of the song that hit the charts. All of which is to say, “Everlasting Love” has been the recipient of a whole lot of actual everlasting love.
It’s not difficult to see why so many artists have fallen under the song’s syrupy sweet spell. Despite the lyrical pleading and begging, with its melodic Motown-esque urgency, and insanely singalong-able chorus, “Everlasting Love” is completely, utterly ecstatic, perfect for screaming along to wherever you are. Its opening bars are practically a welcome mat.
This brings us to U2’s 1989 cover. in which all of the aforementioned. elements are turned up to 11.
Put aside whatever feelings you may have about U2 (positive or negative, we all have ’em) and listen if you will to this cover as a freestanding entity. It is both a frantic acoustic belter and a thundering anthem… and it is positively thrilling. Between The Edge’s fevered strumming and Bono’s beautifully bombastic vocalizing, they have somehow managed to both glorify the original and put their own stadium-sized stamp on it. This love will last forever! – Hope Silverman
9. Elbow – Something In The Air (Thunderclap Newman cover)
When this Thunderclap Newman classic came out I was still in short trousers, but old enough to realize it was more than just a throwaway pop song. It just made me so joyful to be alive, as it emerged from, usually, a tinny transistor radio. It still does.
There have been a few covers, few passing muster. When Elbow, that most serious of that run of ’90s Manchester bands, elected to cover it, I was skeptical. How could they possibly hope to grasp the same sense of excitement, let alone even begin the capture the all-out weirdness of the piano in the middle eight? Made for/by War Child, the charity behind many a surprising cover version, in conjunction with the New Musical Express, they approached at a slightly different angle than Speedy Keen et al. Guy Garvey’s voice comes out at the same pitch, but it feels more lament than celebration. With a slightly psychedelic feel, redolent of the Beatles in and around Yellow Submarine, it is a brave and worthy successor. – Seuras Og
8. The Hollies – Stay (Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs cover)
The Hollies were one of the biggest rock bands in England in the 1960s. Like their Fab Four counterparts, these lads recorded numerous cover songs. One of their early hits was a cover of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ “Stay,” which they released on their 1964 debut Stay With the Hollies. The band delivers it as a short, high energy rock n’ roll tune that feels like it would have driven the crowds wild in clubs throughout England. – Curtis Zimmermann
7. Dropkick Murphys – Dirty Water (The Standells cover)
I was first introduced to this song in a great 1979 cover by The Inmates, who sung about the dirty Thames in London, and had no clue that it was originally released in 1965 by The Standells and was about the Charles River and Boston. A couple decades further on, the Dropkick Murphys covered it, which makes sense, because they are also a Boston band and sing the original lyrics. It’s a stirring song, if a backhanded compliment to the city of their affection, and thus has been adopted as a victory anthem by many of Boston’s sports teams. In fact, the Dropkick Murphys performed the song at the parades celebrating the Red Sox World Series victories in 2013 and 2018. The Standells’ version, though, appeared in the soundtrack to the movie Fever Pitch, an Americanized adaptation (cover?) of Nick Hornby’s book, which substituted the fans of the Red Sox for the original’s Arsenal supporters. But the Dropkick Murphys’ version of another Sox-related song. “Tessie,” also appeared in the film. – Jordan Becker
6. Valerie Carter – O-o-h Child (Five Stairsteps cover)
Full hand-on-heart disclosure: this is one of my favorite covers of all time, done by one of my favorite singers of all time, and features in one of my favorite movies of all time. The 1979 film Over The Edge captured suburban teen ennui and rebellion so realistically that it became a genuine cultural touchstone (emphasis on the “cult”), especially for us early ’80s cable TV-watching, dirtbag/burnout/freak/latchkey Gen X-ers.
The tension between the kids and the adult authority escalates over the course of the film, leading to a violent and deadly confrontation. The closing scene shows the aftermath with the kids who were caught and arrested for their part in the mayhem, being taken away on a school bus, and heading to a juvie-reform school-type place known as “The Hill.” The sun is going down, streaming through the bus’s windows onto their faces, and though it’s by no means a happy ending, the scene is imbued with hope. And that’s solely down to the song soundtracking it; Valerie Carter‘s stunning, slow-burning cover of The Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child.”
The Five Stairsteps were a family group featuring five of the six kids in the Burke family, and while they enjoyed great success in the R&B charts (11 songs landed in the top 20), “O-o-h Child” was their lone pop crossover hit. With its urgently sunny horns and hopeful core message, the song remains the ideal soul salve for anyone having a hard time and needing a quick injection of hope in their heart.
While most of Valerie Carter’s career was spent singing backup for people like James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Christopher Cross throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, she did record two promising solo albums during that time. Her first and best, Just a Stone’s Throw Away, featured her version of “O-o-h Child” as its lead track. Unlike the original, the mood in Carter’s is not one of horn-fueled urgency but of tentative consolation. The song unfolds slowly with Carter’s warm and soaring voice gradually ascending before busting through the clouds in the gloriously climactic last verse. The vibe is very ‘70s Southern California sundown and features a breezy and swoon-worthy guitar solo in the bridge. By the way, Jackson Browne wrote a song about Carter in 1980 which pretty much sums it up and says it all: it’s called “That Girl Could Sing.” Let “O-o-h Child” serve as eternal confirmation of that. – Hope Silverman
5. Pentangle – Sally Go ‘Round The Roses (The Jaynetts cover)
Like many ‘60s girl groups, the Jaynettes was the band name created to release a song crafted in the studio. Abner Spector’s production is masterful, and he wasn’t even related to a better-known producer with the same last name. He layered the vocals of, supposedly, up to twenty vocalists, and used studio effects to create the song’s distinctive sound. For a girl group song, released in 1963, the arrangement is unusual: sad, and foreboding, yet also more folky than you’d expect, and even a bit psychedelic. And while it is ostensibly about basic pop-song romantic betrayal, the lyrics are vague enough to support interpretations of closeted lesbianism, mental illness, drug use, and other nefarious matters.
It’s therefore unsurprising that Grace Slick loved the song and performed it regularly with the Great Society. But we’re going to discuss an even better cover, released in 1969 by Pentangle, a British folk-rock band of virtuosi often grouped with Fairport Convention, but which got even less notice on this side of the Atlantic. Their version, released in 1969, is highlighted by Danny Thompson’s double bass, and the beautiful vocals of John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee, and turns it fully into a folk song, but with some jazz and psychedelia at its edges. – Jordan Becker
4. Selebrities – Monster Mash (Bobby “Boris” Pickett cover)
For Halloween back in 2011, Brooklyn post-punk band Selebrities delivered a “Monster Mash” cover that sounds like Joy Division meets The Cure. With a side of My Bloody Valentine shoegaze to boot. They skip the Boris Karloff voice, turning this into an extremely cool jam that works even if you’re not paying attention to the silly lyrics. – Ray Padgett
3. Aretha Franklin – 96 Tears (? and the Mysterians cover)
This is another song I thought I didn’t know until I heard the opening. The electronic piano (or maybe it’s an organ?) line is distinctive. Aretha Franklin not only maintains the original’s attitude but elevates it, rounding out the sound with a more in-your-face percussion, drama-inducing horns, and the support of strong background vocalists. Franklin makes it clear she is not one to cross, and we’re on her side, agreeing that revenge will definitely be sweet. – Sara Stoudt
2. Human Sexual Response – Cool Jerk (The Capitols cover)
Human Sexual Response should have been bigger than they were. We loved them at my college radio station, WPRB, in the ’80s—their music was fun, edgy and interesting, Think of a blend of Talking Heads, Devo, B-52s, and fellow Boston-area band Mission of Burma (but not really like any one of them), often with sexually related lyrics, befitting a band named after the famous Masters and Johnson book. But after only two albums, they called it quits. The original 1966 version of “Cool Jerk,” by The Capitols, is a Detroit soul rave featuring the Funk Brothers, the legendary Motown house band backing the vocalists. Human Sexual Response’s cover sounds very Devo-like: a rocking song with yelping vocals. – Jordan Becker
1. Pearl Jam – Last Kiss (J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers cover)
Who would have thought that Pearl Jam’s highest charting song would be a cover of a 1964 cover of Wayne Cochran’s 1962 single “Last Kiss”? Evidently, lead singer Eddie Vedder found a copy of the 1964 record by one-hit wonders J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers in an antique mall and convinced the band to record a cover. The song stood out on mainstream and alt-rock radio alike when it was released in 1998, plaintive, sad, and clearly harkening back to the ‘50s and ‘60s. Vedder’s voice is distinctive and powerful and he uses it to great effect on this tearjerker of a track. Where Cochran’s original rockabilly was a bit sparse, and Wilson’s feels a bit overwrought, Pearl Jam found a sweet spot with this simple version of a catchy tune. – Mike Misch