Cover Genres takes a look at cover songs in a very specific musical style.
Back in 2022, right here on Cover Me, I wrote a confessional essay titled Soul In The Middle Of The Road. It was all about my weird, scarily specific obsession with R&B covers of soft rock songs from the ’70s and early ’80s that were recorded during that same era. Well, here’s where I confess to you that it wasn’t quite the whole story. My affliction actually runs a bit deeper than I first described. In addition to my soft-soul craving, I have a side obsession with R&B covers of classic, dirty, Dad-approved late ’60s ‘n’ ’70s-era ROCK songs recorded during those same years. Yes, you guessed it: it’s sequel time! Welcome to
Exorcist II: The Heretic The Rock Of Soul, an over-the-top sister piece to that original essay.
Before we start, I need to lay out a particular parameter regarding the songs included in this love letter/essay. There are multitudes of fine soul-ified covers of songs by Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles. Everyone from Aretha to Stevie Wonder to Otis Redding has recorded something from at least one of their songbooks, as have a myriad of incredible others.
We’re not gonna talk about those.
Instead, we’re gonna be adventurous mofos. The fact is, at this stage of humanity, none of us need to hear another cover of “Let It Be,” good, bad, or otherwise (don’t freakin’ pretend like you do). Besides, it’s way more fun to look past the well-trod songbooks of rock’s behemoths and dig a little deeper. All of which is to say, we’re gonna get weird and occasionally obscure here. In a few cases, you may not be familiar with the originals. I know I wasn’t when I first heard several of these covers. So as an added bonus, I’m going to include links to some of the lesser-known tracks just so you can check them out and potentially be even more blown away by the reinterpretations (Hope says hopefully).
Okay, are you ready to hear some fine, old-school late ’60s and ’70s FM radio nuggets by wonderfully sludgy stalwarts/stallions/stadium stalkers like Cream, Free, and Mr. Springsteen get transformed into mighty ‘n’ righteous clouds of joy (and shimmery beautiful tears)? Then let’s get crackin’ (chronologically).
1969-Rotary Connection-We’re Going Wrong (Cream cover)
Prior to her all-too-brief ’70s solo success, the late Minnie Riperton (looking supremely cool in the pic above) was part of the cinematic, psychedelic rock-soul band Rotary Connection. The band’s six official studio albums are rife with treats. There’s the famously funky yet regal anthem “I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun.” There’s the gloriously eccentric Xmas-themed LP Peace where Santa gets stoned from smoking a sprig of mistletoe (true). And spread across the discography are thirteen (count ’em) searingly cool covers.
“We’re Going Wrong” appeared on Cream’s legendary Disraeli Gears album (1967). Lead singer/ bass man Jack Bruce composed the song and delivers a yearningly lovely ‘n’ soulful vocal. The musical backdrop provided by his two bandmates, on the other hand, is a posturing, pounding, peacocking party. Eric Clapton shreds shrilly. Ginger Baker drums relentlessly (understatement). Of course, that stuff’s kind of the point because this is Cream were are talking about here, and in-your-face virtuosity is what they were famous and beloved for.
The Rotary C’s 1969 cover of “We’re Going Wrong” is a lushly orchestrated rainstorm filled to the brim with the magnificent, multi-octave Minnie, Minnie, Minnie. Once she unleashes that legendary Riperton high note at the back end of the chorus, the song rockets straight into the stratosphere. It’s an eerie, epic beauty.
Hypocrite’s Corner!: Okay, I know said this would be a “No Stones-zone” but it’d be so wrong not to mention the Rotary C’s cover of “Salt Of The Earth,” as it is positively heavenly (hear here).
1969-The Staple Singers-Wednesday In Your Garden (The Guess Who cover)
First off, I have to acknowledge that the original version of “A Wednesday In Your Garden” by The Guess Who is smokin’ hot (hear here). It featured on their 1969 album Wheatfield Soul, which was also home to the radio classic “These Eyes,” and remains a stunner, thanks in no small part to Burton Cummings’s acrobatic, ass-kicking vocal. This staggering version by The Staple Singers from that same year was produced by Stax legend Steve Cropper. It is not better than the original, but Lord, it’s close…which is to say Mavis Staples freakin’ crushes it. Stand back in awe as she casually kicks it up a notch on the second verse (“You’re much too tall!”). Hot. P.S. Wanna give a shout-out to the 1973 version by underrated soul man Ronnie Dyson as it is also an absolute joy, listen here.
1970-Little Milton Campbell-I’m Tired (Savoy Brown cover)
If there’s one thing we nerds at Cover Me headquarters love, it is theft. What Little Milton Campbell does with bluesy and eternally rocking band Savoy Brown’s 1969 evergreen nugget “I’m Tired” is positively criminal. Campbell completely unmoors the song from its engaging heartfelt British blues-iness and slams it face-first into the Mississippi mud with a glorious, outrageous vengeance. Once I heard this version, the Savoy B original, which I genuinely liked, ceased to exist (hear it here, also sorry Savoy, I suck). Campbell’s cover is a cacophonous wonder, all horns, strings, big-fat-hi-hat, dirty guitar, with the man himself wailing in a most magnificently assertive manner. It’s busy. It’s booming. It’s brilliant.
1970-Carla Thomas- Heavy Load (Free cover)
I’ve gushed about Carla Thomas’s 2013 CD of previously unissued recordings from 1970—Sweet Sweetheart: The American Studio Sessions and More—so often within the Cover Me confines that I’m starting to annoy myself at this point. I apologize for being such a soul-nag, but Sweet Sweetheart is basically the R&B equivalent of Dusty In Memphis, and I dreamily believe that if it had been released as an album back in the day, it’d be regarded as a genuine cult classic today. So go buy it. Carla’s cover of Free’s handsomely sludgy, piano-led hymnal “Heavy Load” is one of the disc’s true highlights (hear the original here). It is a long way from the lovelorn, infectious soul she’d been kicking out in the ’60s, meaning it is seriously heavy in vibe and delivery (no pun intended!). The Thomas version was produced by Chips Moman, whose credits include Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds” as well as Carla’s first hit “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes).” He also co-wrote Aretha’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” (damn) and James Carr’s “Dark End of the Street” (double damn) amongst a myriad of other evergreen wonders. Put simply, the Carla ‘n’ Chips cover of “Heavy Load” f*cking rocks. Nasty-beautiful guitar. Mournful strings. Slow burnin’ organ. Thrilling arrangement. Steamrolling vocal. Fiery. Fabulous.
1970-Four Tops-A Simple Game (The Moody Blues cover)
What were the production teams on European TV variety shows smokin’and snortin’ in the early seventies? It had to be something really freakin’ good because there is an unmistakable undercurrent of weirdness in nearly every musical performance clip from that specific time and place. From the visual effects, to the camera angles to the bizarre intros, they are all hilariously eccentric. Even this seemingly simple video of The Four Tops performing on a 1971 episode of something called the De Mounties Show is coated with an understated peculiarity (P.S. De Mounties were a comedic duo from Amsterdam consisting of two old blokes delivering “folksy” humor). In this striking video, we see The Tops being “dropped off” in a vintage vehicle to an unfinished-looking Dutch TV studio (weird). They then lip-synch their cover of The Moody Blues song “A Simple Game” (weird choice, explanation in a minute). The group is sporting tight, bell-bottomed burgundy jumpsuits and wide-collar shirts (okay, that part is not weird as this was filmed in the sartorially swinging year of 1972, but it’s important to acknowledge the effort they made to look both “hot” and “cool”).
But back to the song choice for a second, which is weird. “A Simple Game” first appeared as a B-Side to the Moodys’ 1968 single “Ride My See Saw” and was sung not by their usual lead vocalist, Justin Hayward, but by keyboardist Mike Pinder (who also composed it). Thus it’s an off-the-wall song to cover. Weirder still is that despite the song’s seeming obscurity, The Four Tops version from 1971 was released as an actual single in the UK and was a massive hit, getting as high as #3 (!) in the pop chart. The topper is that it featured lead vocalist Levi Stubbs trading verses with bandmate Lawrence Payton which, based on the Tops tradition, didn’t happen very often (and as such, is weird).
Anyway, let us now marvel at the ability of the group to somehow turn a slab of ’60s rock psychedelia into an urgent and desperate Tops anthem. Levi, Lawrence, Duke, and Obie give “A Simple Game,” gotta say it, balls.
1972-Ben E. King-Only You Know and I Know (Dave Mason cover)
Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright” was a very popular cover choice with soul artists in the ’70s. Everyone from Gladys Knight and the Pips to Isaac Hayes to The Jackson 5 had a go at recording it. Even our aforementioned interpretive hero Little Milton took a swing. Dave Mason composed and sang lead on the Traffic version which remains one of their best-known and most popular songs. There are some cool covers of that track to be sure. But you know what’s better than all of those “Feelin’ Alright” covers put together? Ben E. King’s version of Mason’s 1970 post-Traffic solo track “Only You Know And I Know.”
The song was first covered by Delaney & Bonnie in 1971 and got as high as #20 on the Billboard pop chart (hear here). Their version, starring bongos, acoustic guitar, and gleefully goofy organ, remains serious singalong fun. But clear the way and make room for Ben, who has somehow managed to kick up the energy level several hundred notches with his captivatin’, fist-wavin’, and motivatin’ vocal. Put Ben’s sentimental signature tune “Stand By Me” to the side for three minutes and fourteen seconds (or if you are me, forever). Press play on “Only You Know and I Know” and bear witness to some real King-sized vocal strutting.
1973-Claudia Lennear-Two Trains (Little Feat cover)
Claudia Lennear was there, y’all. She was a member of Ike and Tina Turner’s esteemed Ikettes and part of Leon Russell’s band. She sang on both Joe Cocker’s fabled Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour and at George Harrison’s legendary Concert For Bangladesh at MSG in 1971. And while seriously talented in her own right, she was also a bit of a muse for a couple of marginally famous musician guys.
Claudia met Mick Jagger when Ike & Tina were opening for the Stones, and the two maintained an on/off relationship for a couple of years. In the 2014 doc 20 Feet to Stardom Mick refers to her, with oddly endearing lechery, as “the really hot one of the Ikettes.” She was the inspiration for “Brown Sugar” and David Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul.” So yeah, let’s just say Claudia has rock ‘n’ roll-seen it all.
Her one solo album Phew! was released in 1973 and over the years has become a low-key cult classic. That same year, she also released a free-standing single: a cover of Little Feat’s groovy-funky-soulful New Orleans-flavored “Two Trains.” The track featured on Little Feat’s classic 1973 LP Dixie Chicken (hear it here) and was written by the band’s legendary kingpin Lowell George (who later re-recorded it for his own solo LP in’79). Claudia’s “Two Trains” has a distinctly Doobie Brothers flavor, which is not surprising as it was produced by Ted Templeman, the man behind every one of the band’s albums from 1971-1983. It’s a slick, summery, and upbeat affair, and Claudia’s rasp is fab.
1973-Latimore-(Be Yourself) Be Real (Al Kooper cover)
1973-Latimore- Jolie (Al Kooper cover)
Al Kooper was a great producer, musician, and songwriter. He played on and participated in what feels like a million classics, including Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” the Stones’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” His solo albums are full of hidden gems. But (sigh) like legendary “Wichita Lineman” composer Jimmy Webb, listening to Al sing his own compositions can be a challenge, meaning his pipes are not always up to the task. Kooper songs are their best selves when belted out by those more vocally blessed–like, for example, Latimore.
I wrote about singer-pianist-loverman-extraordinaire (Benny) Latimore in part one of this essay (again, here) and consider him to be an underrated, charismatic interpretive giant. His self-titled 1973 debut album features two whole Kooper covers: Affirmation anthem “(Be Yourself) Be Real” and infatuation celebration “Jolie.” They are both freakin’ brilliant and stomp all over the genuinely charming but not quite kick-ass originals (hear Al’s versions here and here).
Now for the cover-song-nerd version of a twist ending: Al Kooper and Latimore were friends and it was the former who suggested the latter record the two songs. Not only that, Kooper produced, arranged and played keys on both tracks. Oh, if only they’d done a whole album of Kooper tunes (that sound you hear is me wistfully sighing), but hey, at least we’ve got these swoon-inducing, electrifying beauties.
1977-Linda Lewis-My Friend The Sun (Family cover)
UK singer-songwriter Linda Lewis released six studio albums in the ’70s. In addition, she sang backup for the likes of David Bowie (on the Aladdin Sane LP), Cat Stevens and our pal, Al freakin’ Kooper. But perhaps her most momentous meeting came in 1972, when she first brushed shoulders with Family.
Led by one-of-a-kind vocalist Roger Chapman, proggy-folksters Family released seven studio albums during their brief lifespan (1968-1973), all of which landed in the UK top 20, with three of those ascending to the top ten. Linda’s second solo album, 1972’s self-composed, warm, and beautiful Lark was produced by the band’s guitarist and her future husband (!) Jim Cregan. Sidebar: The album sounds like Minnie Riperton singing Joni Mitchell/Rickie Lee Jones songs with a smidge of Laura Nyro-esque quirk, and I highly recommend it.
By the time she recorded her first and only Family cover in 1977, she and Cregan were married and he’d officially joined Rod Stewart’s band. “My Friend The Sun” is a rustic sweetheart of a song, simple, reassuring, and tuneful (hear the original here) and one of the absolute most beloved tunes in the Family discography (a million-plus Spotify streams and counting!). Linda’s version is faithful but exudes a genuine brightness not heard in the original (check out that seriously summery harmonica action). The vocal is girlish and honeyed. The song itself is exquisitely gentle. But don’t be lulled into complacency, for “My Friend The Sun” is one seriously sticky tune and difficult to extricate from your brain once it’s been introduced into your physical ecosystem. Which is to say, it’s a complete and utter earworm.
1978-Tina Turner-Fire Down Below (Bob Seger cover)
Once upon a time (1979), there was a magical place called Luna Park (actually, it was a manic Italian variety show that lasted for eight episodes). On each episode, host Pippo Baudo would offer an incantation full of drama and rolling R’s. “Tina Turrrner…Tina Turrrner…Tina Turrrner!” he would bellow. And in pure proto-Beetlejuice style, just like that, Tina herself would come shimmying out along with the show’s enthusiastic dance troupe and perform a song. Yes, folks, welcome to another gloriously, unhinged European music show!
This cover of Bob Seger’s chugging, swaggering “Fire Down Below” was originally released in 1978 and features a Tina vocal that can best be described as f*cking relentless. Mick Jagger once said that performing onstage with Tina was like being in the “hottest place on earth.” (Dammit. I mentioned The Stones again after saying I wouldn’t. This essay is now officially a drinking game.) Anyway, he was right. Even in the presence of this bonkers stage set with its mini-rollercoaster/dancer-taxi, Pippo’s horrible beige zip-up sweater, and the requirement of having to lip-sync, Tina still manages to chew every piece of the magnificently garish scenery and freakin’ burn the place down.
1978-Bar-Kays-Mean Mistreater (Grand Funk Railroad cover)
Grand Funk Railroad’s 1970 deep cut “Mean Mistreater” is bitter. It is sinister. It is a bluesy ballad about lost love, more likely to encourage a slow simmering anger than trigger cathartic tears. But if you strip away its passive-aggressive, emotionally threatening content, you will find a supremely engaging and moody melody living underneath. The original is home to a stunning Mark Farner vocal, but the thing that’s always caught my ear is the comically insistent drumming of “competent” Don Brewer (for context watch this). Once they arrive, they upend the song in a way that isn’t entirely pleasant (hear the song here).
Enter the Bar-Kays, a group most famous for being Otis Redding’s backing band in the late sixties. Tragically, four members of the group died in the same plane crash that took Redding. Somehow, amazingly, the surviving members soldiered on. Bassist James Alexander and (initially) trumpet player Ben Cauley recruited new members and, between 1972 and 1989, the band went on to land a staggering seventeen songs in the top 20 of the Billboard R&B charts. Their cover of “Mean Mistreater” (recorded in ’75, released in ’78) is nothing less than a complete makeover. In The Bar-Kays’ hands, the mostly handsome, intermittently cacophonous sludge-ball is transformed into a badass, slow-burnin’ soul ballad. Lowdown horns punctuating. Piano twinkling. Bass (subtly) booming. Harmonies happening. The arrangement is so, so fabulous. As far as the lead vocal, let’s just say Larry Dodson brings it.
Just like the ’70s era Soul covers of Soft Rock songs I also endlessly covet, I know there are probably a finite number of Soul covers of songs by hairy old Rock bands of the era left to discover. I’ve drained a good portion of the pond at this point. But knowing there’s even one out there that I haven’t connected with is enough reason to keep looking. So the search for soul-rock diamonds continues with hope and joy! Got recommendations or personal faves? Tell me about ’em in the comments, I’m all ears.
P.S. Eagle-eyed soul nerds will notice that I didn’t mention The Pointer Sisters’ two fabulous albums of rock covers, Eternity and Priority, that were released in the late ’70s. There is so much to say about those two records that their story can’t be confined to just a couple of paragraphs within this piece… which is why they’ve earned a special appreciation essay solely devoted to them, which is coming soon!!! (Editor’s note: And here it is!)