Jun 142024

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Take Me to the River

The Talking Heads cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” has a very solid place in the world of cover songs. Also in the world of Cover Me: the site’s founder and editor-in-chief devoted a chapter of his book Cover Me to it, and on our first Q&A post, when the staffers were asked to name their favorite cover song, that was the response from two of them.

But while the Heads version is arguably the definitive one, it’s far from the only one. This is a song that’s been covered by legends from Annie Lennox to Courtney Love. But what’s remarkable is, a decent bar band could make a version just as noteworthy. Allmusic claims that “the song is so good and durable that not even a Muppet could blow it as long as the arrangement is followed.” And they said that before the version by the one and only Big Mouth Billy Bass.

The following five covers have, not just defenders, but those who adamantly claim it’s the very best one. And if Cover Me readers (not to mention big fans of Delbert McClinton and Foghat) take us to task for not calling their favorite the best, we won’t be a bit surprised. After all, they may be right.

Syl Johnson – Take Me to the River (Al Green cover)

Al Green’s label, Hi Records, chose not to release his original as a single; rather, they had Green’s labelmate Syl Johnson record it, using Green’s producer (Willie Mitchell) and most of his musicians (the Hi house band), and made that a single. Johnson got a top ten R&B hit out of it, and Green still insists he prefer Johnson’s faster, gruffer version to his own.

Levon Helm – Take Me to the River (Al Green cover)

The Band’s fans were approaching the acceptance phase of their breakup when Levon Helm released his second solo album, the same year The Last Waltz reached movie theaters. His take on “Take” would be worthy if all it had was Helm’s reedy Arkansas whine. One can’t help but think how much worthier it would have been with his old compatriots around him, instead of the Muscle Shoals musicians joined by Steve Cropper.

Bryan Ferry – Take Me to the River (Al Green cover)

Like Helm, Bryan Ferry released his cover of “Take Me to the River” in 1978, the same year as Talking Heads. “Coincidence or conspiracy?” David Byrne wondered in the liner notes to the Heads collection Sand in the Vaseline. “More money for Mr. Green’s full gospel tabernacle church, I suppose.” Ferry’s contribution to the coffers is as suave as you expect the Roxy Music frontman to be, and a little funkier besides.

Lucinda Williams – Take Me to the River (Al Green cover)

Lu’s Jukebox was a six-volume series that saw Lucinda Williams and her band dealing with Covid-19 by doing live recordings of covers with a common theme. Volume 2 was her Southern soul album, and it saw her giving “Take Me to the River” the slowed tempo of Talking Heads, but with the added attraction of Lucinda sounding as Lucinda as possible, bathing the song in her soul/country/Americana stew.

Kaleida – Take Me to the River (Al Green cover)

Kaleida is not the giant that the previous four artists are. So how did the duo’s cover of “Take Me to the River” garner over six and a half million views? Well, for one thing, their song “Think” made a memorable appearance in the first John Wick movie, and once an artist taps into the zeitgeist, the zeitgeist doesn’t tap out for just anybody. For another, Kaleida give “Take” a very cooling dip into the water, showing that one can find soul just as readily in ice as in fire.

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  One Response to “Five Good Covers: “Take Me to the River” (Al Green)”

Comments (1)
  1. Thanks for the Lucinda Williams version great song great artist great work

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