Apr 072021
 

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

I Can't Help Myself

“Sugarpie, honeybunch” must be the most gloriously unselfconscious opening shot of almost any song I can think of, epitomizing the sheer unstoppable surge of soppiness true love can invoke in even the red bloodiest of macho men. Tagged to a monster of a melody that takes wings from the start, “I Can’t Help Myself” by the Four Tops couldn’t be a stronger declaration of fact; when you hear it, you just know that no-shrinking-violet Levi Stubbs really can’t help himself. It is so well constructed a song: the words, the melody, the never-better arrangement and the transcendent vocals, all add up to Motown at its mid-60s pinnacle. And the credits clearly don’t need any prompting–it could be nobody other than Holland-Dozier-Holland, oozing out of every pore of the vinyl, always vinyl, always 45 rpm.

Brothers Brian and Eddie Holland had been with Motown and Berry Gordy from the start, as both songwriters and performers, ahead of teaming up with Lamont Dozier, who similarly had been writing and performing on the fertile Detroit music scene. As a production and writing team together, they hit pay dirt, responsible for a huge proportion of the label’s output, and arguably the most responsible as anyone for the fame and fortunes of the Tamla Motown brand. The Supremes? Martha and the Vandellas? The Isley Brothers? Yup, they wrote most of their early hits, and a fair few for the Temptations, Junior Walker, Marvin Gaye and more. Plus, of course, the Four Tops, for me the earthiest and most authentic set of voices in the roster. The combination of the strained vocal of Stubbs, the writers deliberately pitching the songs to the top of his range, with the call and response backing vocals of Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Lawrence Payton is remarkable. Add in the exemplary musicianship of the legendary studio house band the Funk Brothers and it becomes unbeatable. Over four decades the recipe and the line-up, at least of the vocal group, didn’t change. And if the Hollands and Lamont didn’t write everything, wherever they were involved, they sure as hell produced and arranged it to sound as if they did.

Hitting the top of the Billboard chart for two weeks in 1965, “I Can’t Help Myself” was the second-biggest seller of the year, in a year of strong competition (you’ll never guess what number one was). How well has it fared since? And with whom? There are a lot of anodyne facsimiles, watering the soul and passion down into pappy would be chart fodder. But a few, just a few, have taken the ball and run.
Continue reading »

Mar 242021
 

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

Lorraine Ellison

“Stay With Me Baby” was written by Jerry Ragovoy, the master of of slow-burn hearts a’rending songs like this. Here he was joined by, oddly, George Weiss, better known for the “Lullaby of Birdland” lyrics and the syrupy evergreen of “(What a) Wonderful World.” Nothing syrupy here, though. Is there a song with more wracked rawness than this almost primal howl of grief, an astonishing masterclass in anguish? The open throat of Lorraine Ellison combines with the freeze-frame build from piano to orchestra, again and again, ramping up the tension from verse to verse. Ellison’s biggest hit by a country mile, (only) #64 in 1966, she actually had a decent enough track record of other recordings, sufficient to fill a brace of best-ofs that contain considerably more than just that that one song, if largely similar fare.

It takes a certain sort of singer to be able to fulfil the commitment of the song, which perhaps is why it gravitates towards those whose life stories are known to contain similar emotions. Sadly, some of these form part of period piece recreations for TV shows, and have little to add or offer to the need of this piece. Which is a shame, as Chris Cornell‘s rendition for Vinyl is a doozy, and would be a definite inclusion, had it added any originality beyond his exquisite vocal. But there are still a few who pack the necessary punch in the gut, yet with additional touches of nuance to stand out from the throng.
Continue reading »

Mar 232021
 

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

Erma Franklin

You would think there would be a ton of good and/or quirky covers of “Piece of My Heart,” it being such an icon of overwrought emoting. But surprisingly (and not a little disappointingly), whilst there are many of them, most are known nearly as well known as the first cover, many making waves in the charts of their particular day. So, fewer hidden nuggets to unearth, but more fond reminders of times mislaid to be gained by revisiting.

“Piece of My Heart” was written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns, both jobbing songwriters with a slew of hits to their credit, individually and collectively. Ragovoy also had a hand in “Stay With Me, Baby,” arguably the other song of a heart breaking in explosive slo-mo. Berns was responsible for, amongst other things, our first glimpse of Van Morrison, performing the early singles of Them, “Here Comes the Night” and “Baby, Please Don’t Go.”

It was Aretha’s little sister, Erma Franklin, who first tried out “Piece of My Heart,” in 1967. (Berns had, unsuccessfully, first offered it to Van, which could have been intriguing.) Her rendition was good, very good even, hitting a credible #62 in the chart. That may well have been that, had it not caught the ears of a certain band beginning to make waves in the Bay Area.
Continue reading »

Mar 082021
 

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

“Wichita Lineman” is a certified classic, a fixture in the great American songbook, full stop. But it is also a work in progress. In a way.

The truth is that Jimmy Webb had every intention of writing a middle section and another verse about his solitary lineman. But Glen Campbell got hold of an early draft, and then recorded his version before Webb even knew about it. Who knows if Webb might have ruined a good thing with further revision; what’s certain is that “Wichita Lineman” is a shining example of the Less is More principle, and we owe Campbell a lot for rushing it out.

Campbell also gets some credit for the song’s creation. A year before “Wichita Lineman” dropped, Campbell scored a major hit with another Jimmy Webb gem, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” So the singer suggested the writer come up with “another song about a place.” Webb resisted the idea initially, but his poetic imagination was more receptive. Inspired by a long drive through the arid flatness of Oklahoma and the sight of a worker on a telephone pole, Webb hatched the song idea, and presented a draft of “Wichita Lineman.” It moved the homesick Campbell to tears, and that was enough for him. It was enough for everyone else, too.

Campbell got his Wrecking Crew buddies together in the studio, and added a baritone guitar solo to create an instrumental section. That, and some string arrangements, added meat to the bones of the song, and off it went. Webb knew nothing about the recording, and assumed Campbell had lost interest. When Webb found out Campbell had cut the track, he told Campbell it wasn’t done yet. Campbell replied, “Well, it’s done now!”

The song launched into the upper reaches of the pop, country, and adult contemporary charts. Soon it was in the hands of a few hundred artists attempting their version, including some of the best vocalists and instrumentalists of its time and ours. The Glen Campbell version may remain the definitive one, but there’s quite a few musicians who nailed it too.
Continue reading »

Mar 022021
 

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

Midnight Train to Georgia covers

If you live and die known for but one song, it better be a good one, and in “Midnight Train to Georgia” Jim Weatherly, who just died last month, wrote one of the best. The song is far and away best known in the iconic version by Gladys Knight. Never forgetting the Pips, for it is they who lift the song from merely great to transcendent. OK, the arrangement is pretty damn fine too, the orchestration and backing exuding all the desolation and disappointment of Amtrak by night. But it wasn’t always that way. Continue reading »

Feb 152021
 

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

"Crowded House" album cover

Crowded House, harking from the land down under, formed in the mid-80s. Their first album, self-titled, took a little bit of time to catch on, but its fourth single, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” became a hit internationally. The band, with a changing line-up, has been making music off and on ever since. Neil Finn has even taken on quite a side project, joining Fleetwood Mac after Lindsey Buckingham’s departure.

The band, in its current form, was supposed to tour in 2020, but the pandemic required a postponement. However, there is a silver lining to the lockdown; a new Crowded House album is being promised this year. Until then, we can revisit this song that started it all. Cover Me’s own Jordan Becker talks about the original tune, and we’ve discussed a cover in the past, but the more covers, the merrier. Here’s five more!
Continue reading »