Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
In 1965, the Isley Brothers were looking for a bigger label to help them grow, and found it in Tamla/Motown. The then-trio of O’Kelly, Rudolph and Ronald Isley sang this Holland/Dozier/Holland composition, Ronald on lead vocals, with Motown’s crack Funk Brothers session team on the instrumental heft. As with so many of the songs from Motown on the 60s, it is a masterclass of construction, from the opening propulsive percussion and the piano riff that immediately identifies it. The orchestra swoops in and the brothers start to emote, before Ronald pipes up with the lead vocal. The xylophone is a magical addition, a catalytic converter that seems to spark and stimulate the responses of Rudolph and Kelly. Magnificent, even as a honking sax plays a baritone solo, a song that has continued to resonate over the subsequent years.
“This Old Heart Of Mine” was first a hit in 1966, and was the Isley Brothers’ biggest Motown success, reaching (only!) number 12 on the Billboard chart that year. In the UK it fared worse, reaching number 47, and then better, hitting the number 2 slot on a 1968 re-release. It seems odd that Motown let them go shortly thereafter. Berry Gordy, who’s been known to make a mistake or two, told them that “It’s Your Thing” was not the kind of music he wanted them recording. But irreconcilable differences don’t always spell “The End.” Cue the brothers setting up their own label, and history!
So what other artists had old hearts that were weak for the song? Listen and learn…
Boyzone – This Old Heart Of Mine (The Isley Brothers cover)
Well, this is a first from me, possibly a first for this site: a shout and mention for Boyzone, Dublin’s answer to Take That. But their “This Old Heart of Mine” is a good one, belying the fact that this boyband was so clearly a savvy business decision made by a canny management team. Slowed and smoothed in the string-laden arrangement, the yearning vocals are by none other than Ronan Keating. Slated at the time, as was its all-Motown parent album, From Dublin To Detroit, damned as being mere karaoke. I think that harsh, at least for this song, and it is a surprisingly decent rendition.
John Holt – This Old Heart Of Mine (The Isley Brothers cover)
Now this one is clever, having me ferret back and forth through the web, lest it be a different song altogether. For barely a hint of the original melody remains, with John Holt, a consummate master of the reggae cover version, surpassing himself here, rendering it almost entirely new. The ambience and the statement, however, remain the same. Holt was an amazingly prodigious Jamaican singer, active from 1963 until his death in 2014. He initially seemed a smoother and “safer” interpreter, hence his crossover success, if later adopting dreads and regaining home ground and support.
Richard McGraw – This Old Heart of Mine (The Isley Brothers cover)
Altogether bizarre, this blend of strings and an almost Randy Newman-esque vocal delivery goes into orbit with a children’s choir, begging the question as to quite what was going on in the mind of McGraw. So odd as to be worthy of some crazy merit, who actually is/was Richard McGraw? From a self-released digital release on Bandcamp in 2012, called Popular Music, it seems he is from Jacksonville, Florida, it being but one of a handful of his releases that have gained unlikely plaudits. Check out his Bandcamp page. Popular Music also sees McGraw covering Leonard Cohen, Lady Gaga and The Dead Kennedys. Which is, at the very least, eclectic!
Liz Simmons – This Old Heart Of Mine (The Isley Brothers cover)
Sometimes, just sometimes, a mandolin and banjo cover hits the charm spot just perfectly. Liz Simmons’ cover marks one of those times, in no small part down to the overall strength of the song. The presumably double-tracked vocals slot along side the lead with a perfect delicate coo, that shifts no small part from the angsty stutters of Rudolph and Kelly. It comes from an intriguing 2021 release by Simmons, called Poets, whereby the onetime Low Lily vocalist from Vermont found herself in the production hands of Kate Rusby’s melodeon player, Nick Cooke, in Yorkshire, England. It is a beguiling release, with this being but one of the highlights.
Heron – This Old Heart Of Mine (The Isley Brothers cover)
Whilst we are on the mellower side, let’s end with this feisty folk-pop version by UK band Heron, which merges some soulful tropes with quasi-ragtime piano and a pleasantly skittering arrangement. Heron didn’t last long in their initial iteration, but delivered a pair of albums in the 1970s, this coming from the second, Twice As Nice & Half the Price, which included a few covers such as this, the gimmick being that it was a double for the price of a single album. Sadly, there was probably only enough killer for one disc, which meant it sank, despite the presence of a fair number of guest artists, culled from the then current UK acoustic blues scene. The piano here came from band member Gerald T. Moore, who went later on to form G.T. Moore and the Reggae Guitars, who were moderately successful on the support band circuit of late 70s/early 80s London.
As ever, my Top Five is flexible–it has to be, so as to include the song in the eye of its beholder/songwriter, Lamont Dozier. He slows it right down, it becoming an elegiac and moody bluesy ballad, showing off the yearning desperation inherent in the lyrics. If Ron, Rudy and O’Kelly were quietly confident of winning back their love, Dozier oozes a sense of pessimistic hope. (It comes from a 2004 album, Reflections of Lamont Dozier, in which a revisits a veritable treasure trove of his hits for so many others in the Motown stable.)