Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
I imagine there are more than a few readers for whom George Michael might come under the heading of guilty pleasure. Maybe that’s why it’s taken as long as it has for him to be enrolled, and rightfully, into the Rock & Roll Half Fame. Guilt or no guilt, let’s just pause and admit that he really was one of the most creative interpreters of song we have had, as well as writing a fair old number of quality bangers himself. Yes, some of it may well have been somewhat wispy and ephemeral–most great pop music is–but I defy anyone not to have had a sly, secret bop to “Club Tropicana” in the comfort of their own kitchen.
I could certainly never really admit to loving Wham! at the time, but I sure as hell admired them. Later, as a solo artist, when it seemed Michael was the desire of all our wives and girlfriends, yes, it became a little harder. But, if anything, the quality of his own songs improved exponentially, until it would be only a curmudgeon who could deny his true talent. As his life, and its myriad difficulties, unraveled, that “local color” gave him, in the ridiculous way fame works, a greater credibility, and his untimely death gave even more. Add in the legion stories of his kindness to strangers, and we have all the trappings of a modern legend. Imagine had he lived.
Songs From The Last Century, Michael’s cover album, came out in 1999. He released it at a time when his powers were arguably at his peak, following a run of chart-topping releases, Faith, Listen Without Prejudice (Volume 1) and Older, at least in his homeland. (In the US he had had to be satisfied with numbers 1, 2 and 6, respectively, ultimately very good listings for an artist seen largely as a singles specialist.) By his standards it was a flop, only managing a UK number 2 slot. For some reason, the American market did not take to it all, it getting only as far as a lowly 157, perhaps giving some concern to his management. Not to worry: five years later, Patience returned him to the top spot at home, and 12 in the US.
A mix of classics from the great American songbook and a scattering of more modern fare, SFTLC kicks off with a slow bluesy tinkle through old staple, “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” Unfairly labeled “cocktail blues,” given the piano and luxuriant strings, it is a masterclass in vocal control and is sumptuous. As the brass kicks in, yes, perhaps it gets a bit “Big Spender,” but that takes nothing from Michael’s assured poise at the microphone. (And yes, purists, he does say “Buddy” for the last line.) Perhaps smothered by that arrangement, it takes a moment or two to figure out the next song, given it starts with a similar smoky smolder. By the time you do, and the double bass has knocked away your knees, the realization that it is “Roxanne,” well, it’s worth the entry price alone. It’s a superb arrangement, a tremendous restructuring of the Police tune into a classy, very classy, nightclub setting. Not just a good cover, one of the best covers. Of anything.
Back to a standard, and it is “You’ve Changed.” With upward of 400 versions commercially available, rather than playing safe by replicating the style of, say, Billie Holiday, or Tony Bennett, even Marvin Gaye, to my ears he comes over as a slightly lower-pitched Chet Baker, who never, to my knowledge, released any vocal version. It is glorious. The even older “My Baby Just Cares For Me” follows, all horny razzmatazz and, it’s true, perhaps too tux ‘n’ brilliantine for my taste, however impeccably put together.
“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” takes a brave singer to even attempt it, such the bar set by Roberta Flack. Sure, there have been a shedload of them, but, discounting Johnny Cash’s magisterial end-of-life version, most are as cheesy as hell and eminently disposable. This is neither, and should be played to anyone unconvinced of his vocal merit, definitely on a par with Ms. Flack and, just possibly, even better. From this high water mark, still higher he goes, with a miraculous version of the U2 oddity “Miss Sarajevo.” Expanding on the hint of salsa in the original, this becomes a piece of sublime Latin exotica, the strummed guitar and organ reminiscent of something by Antonio Carlos Jobim himself. Plus there is the bonus, much as I admire the chutzpah of him in the original, of no Pavarotti.
Probably more because of Frank Ifield’s version, I confess the harp-ridden version of “Remember You” is too much for me. True, it is nothing like Ifield’s version, but try as I might, I can’t excise that rendition from my ears, with, perhaps the arrangement designing to do just that, but going too far in the wrong direction. Again, the only thing in its favor is the strong hint of Baker in Michael’s vocal. “Secret Love” nearly falls into the same trap, a whisper away from clicking fingers a-popping, it taking the strength of the melody to carry off the minor key of the chorus. Too many trumpets and too much tinsel.
Moving these two slight lapses to the side of the plate, it is to another challenge that Michael takes full on. Most attribute “Wild Is The Wind” to either the Nina Simone not-quite-original version or to David Bowie’s fabulous scenery-chewing version. Michael plays it straight and sings his socks off, helped by a meticulously smooth arrangement. Which is probably the time to pay credit to Rob Matthes and Torrie Zito, the conductors of the orchestration, and to Elena Barere and Barry Filipetti, the concertmasters, let alone the legion players, even if Michael himself is named as producer. Finally and closing things, almost like a nightcap, a slightly oversweet liqueur, Rodgers and Hart’s “Where Or When'” ends the project on a lesser note, that not mattering a bit, my attention still held by the track before it. But listen on and there is a wonderful instrumental coda, that ultimately seals the record, “It’s Alright With Me,” like the end of the best black and white matinee you have ever seen.
Actually a very clever ploy, with SFTLC aimed at all possible markets, the then-mums and dads, looking snootily down their noses at this permatanned pop singer, his core fans, who would snap up the phone book if he sang and danced his way through it, as well as to all the self-appointed music snobs who had previously deigned all his work as trivial. To some extent, in this endeavor it “failed,” possibly because, as a representative of the last group, it took me, as I said, a few years. It may not be of uniform greatness, but there is sufficient here that is of such high caliber as to set the average well above any upper pass mark.
Songs From The Last Century tracklisting:
- Brother Can You Spare a Dime? (Leo Reisman & His Orchestra cover, 1932)
- Roxanne (The Police cover, 1978)
- You’ve Changed (Harry James & His Orchestra, with Dick Haymes, cover, 1941)
- My Baby Just Cares for Me (Ted Weems & His Orchestra, with Arthur Jarrett, cover, 1930)
- The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face (Bonnie Dobson cover, 1961)
- Miss Sarajevo (U2 cover, as “Passengers”, 1995)
- I Remember You (Jimmy Dorsey & His Orchestra, with Bob Eberly, cover, 1941)
- Secret Love (Doris Day cover, 1953)Ray Heatherton, Mitzi Green
- Wild Is The Wind (Johnny Mathis cover, 1957)
- Where or When / It’s All Right with Me (Ray Heatherton & Mitzi Green cover, 1937)