Tom McDonald

I grew up and got schooled in New England, hitch-hiked on a whim to pre-Grunge-era Seattle, never left. Took to designing software for authors and publishers. Raised two kids and quite a few chickens on a island in Puget Sound. Taught myself guitar and banjo and formed a covers band. I help run a map store; here’s an issue of our newsletter. I favor British tv comedies and novels by Cormac McCarthy.

Jan 232024

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

Misty covers

Popular song titles end up as film titles often enough–“Singin’ in the Rain,” “Dazed and Confused,” “American Pie,” “[I] Walk the Line.” But how many songs are referenced by a film title? Only one: Erroll Garner’s 1954 hit “Misty.” The film Play Misty for Me, Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut from 1971, calls it out.

The film follows a jazz radio DJ who spins “mellow groove” for his listeners each evening. One night someone calls in a simple request: “Play ‘Misty’ for me.” The next evening she calls again. “Play ‘Misty’ for me,” she repeats, and hangs up. This psychological suspense thriller hinges–or unhinges–on this repetition.

A hundred good versions of “Misty” were in circulation by 1971, but the caller doesn’t say which one she wants to hear. And the DJ doesn’t ask. (I get it: the film must advance its plot and not get mired in detail, but as a music lover I’m disappointed, and still just curious: What was her jam?) The DJ puts on the instrumental by the Erroll Garner Trio–the original “Misty” recording.

The song was original in both senses of the word: being the first, and being wholly unique. Garner himself was an original: a self-taught prodigy with a style all his own, who could not read or write music notation, but whose unorthodox creations were some of the era’s crowning achievements, both artistically and commercially.

Garner’s instrumental plays a few times during the film, both as part of the action, and as part of the score. In the world of “Play Misty for Me,” there are no covers of “Misty,” and no lyrics.

Moviegoers mostly knew the words anyway, through popular versions by the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Johnny Mathis. But audiences may have been clueless about the substance of the lyrics. “Misty” was the “Every Breath You Take” of its day: it passed as a love ballad or torch song, but it invited a darker reading, with each verse hinting at a serious emotional disturbance, a fatal attraction. Screenwriter Jo Heims had the song’s double-edged meaning in mind, and wove her story around its tale of obsession. As with the radio caller’s request, you hear it once and it’s anodyne; hear it again and something feels wrong.
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Nov 142023

Cover Genres takes a look at cover songs in a very specific musical style.

We begin with a bow to Seuras Og and his genre-expansive post earlier this year about banjo covers. We can’t leave the banjo hanging–or getting the last word, either. So: Let us now praise the mandolin.
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Jul 052023

One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.

Progressive rock band Yes was at the top of its game in 1974 when their keyboardist Rick Wakeman abruptly departed. The band invited an obscure pioneer of electronic music, Vangelis, to replace him. Vangelis shunned the offer, preferring to stay home and compose film scores. Or maybe certain members of Yes shunned Vangelis–accounts differ. In either case, the synth maven hit it off with Yes co-founder, singer, and lyricist Jon Anderson. They collaborated intermittently in the following years, finally forming Jon and Vangelis in 1980.

By the time the second Jon and Vangelis album dropped in 1981–The Friends of Mr Cairo–their individual fortunes had reversed. Vangelis was having a breakout year. He had a smash hit in “Chariots of Fire,” a selection from his sweeping, grandiose full-length score for the film of the same name. The song swept through popular culture, and the film itself went on to win Academy awards for Best Picture and Best Music. By then Vangelis was already at work on the Blade Runner soundtrack. If he noticed that the new Jon and Vangelis album barely sold, and the release of its single “State of Independence” fell flat, it probably didn’t worry him.
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Jun 022023

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

If you don’t know Jorma, you don’t know Jack. — T-shirt saying

If you know Jorma Kaukonen at all, it’s as the lead guitarist of the iconic Jefferson Airplane, or perhaps as leader of Hot Tuna, the psychedelic blues-rock Airplane spin-off. In either case, you do know Jack–Jack Casady, bass player in the Airplane and Hot Tuna. But maybe you know Jorma strictly as a solo artist, with a dozen or so albums to his name. In which case you know Jorma, but you still don’t know Jack.
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Mar 172023

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

Low covers

Today we place Low in the spotlight, even if the Duluth-based band has already occupied the spotlight in recent months, and for the worst of reasons: Low’s co-founder Mimi Parker passed away in November 2022, age 55. The tributes and memorials that poured out to Mimi took many beautiful forms, all of them disbelieving and heartbroken. As we sample the amazing music that she and her husband Alan Sparhawk (Low’s other co-founder and the band’s primary songwriter) gave us in their 30-year run as a band, we’ll look at covers by Low and covers of Low, and pay our respects to Mimi along the way.
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Jan 132023

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

Hundreds of covers of “A Taste of Honey” exist, but only a few people will recognize it if you hum a few bars. The folks who recognize it may not be able to name the tune, and no one will be able to name its composer.

It was Robert William Scott. He wrote the piece initially as an instrumental, a motif for the 1960 Broadway production of A Taste of Honey, the notorious British play. Bobby Scott was known mostly as a pianist, singer, and producer, but he did have another songwriting win with “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” a modest hit for The Hollies in 1969.

Luckily for Bobby Scott, someone had the idea to put words to his tune, so that they could get rising star Tony Bennett to record it. Enter Ric Marlow, a struggling singer/actor/writer/fabric salesman, who turned in a poetic lyric that clicked with the music. With that, a hit was born, though it took the public a few years to realize it.
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