After “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Walk On By” is Dionne Warwick’s biggest hit of the ’60s and it’s one of her most iconic songs. The song, written for her by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, is also one of her most covered, with countless versions including hits by Isaac Hayes, Sybil and many others. There are so many covers, it’s hard to imagine a new take on the song.
‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
August 16 has long been a day of infamy in the history of American popular music. It started in 1977 when Elvis Presley, the King of Rock n’ Roll, passed away. Forty-one years later, another member of rock royalty also died: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. Though she was older and her death less of a shock to the cultural landscape, I still remember the exact moment when I heard the news. I was with my family driving home from Sesame Place in Pennsylvania listening to the Beatles channel on SiriusXM. The DJ interrupted to tell us the sad news and in Franklin’s honor played her version of “Let It Be.”
thtIn the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
The Boston-based collective known as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones exploded in popularity in 1997, with the release of its fifth album Let’s Face It. Powered by the decade-defining classic “The Impression That I Get,” the band, with its raucous sound and slick-suit-wearing-punk style, captured a moment in time. This mainstream success came at an odd period in pop music history, at the tail end of the decline of grunge, but just before the global takeover of the Swedish-pop hegemon.
The commercial triumph of Let’s Face It led to the inevitable gripes from long-time fans, who grudgingly purchased the album while complaining that it was not as good as whatever early Bosstones’ record they had bought first. Ironically, the album was not actually a significant stylistic leap forward for the band; the pop-culture landscape had simply shifted.
Talking Heads only ever recorded one cover, and when I talked to David Byrne about it for my book, he seemed to have mixed feelings on the subject. “There’s always a little bit of resistance to recording a cover like that because it’s kind of a crowd pleaser,” he told me. “I’d seen it happen before, where radio DJs who pick what they’re going to play will often pick a cover song… So then a band gets known for covering somebody else’s song as opposed to writing their own material. They have to go through a struggle for years to get identified with their own songs.”
Talking Heads recorded “Take Me to the River,” it became their biggest hit up to that point, and Byrne said: That’s it. No more covers. The band never followed it up with a second.
He’s relaxed the rules a bit more in his solo career, most recently covering Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” on tour (he says he’s bringing the cover to Broadway, too). And clearly he’s been listening to covers. For his DB Radio show on his website, he just compiled a wonderfully eclectic mix of his favorite covers. The theme, he says, is artists doing the unexpected, from Sonic Youth covering The Carpenters to Miley Cyrus covering Nine Inch Nails. And when the song choice itself may not be surprising – Patti Smith covering the Rolling Stones, say – the arrangements are. Here’s what he wrote on his website:
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!
When Scott Walker passed away last month, the pieces written in tribute to his work mentioned the splash he made with the Walker Brothers, the Jacques Brel influence in his first few solo records, and his move into avant-garde music. One era of his was rarely mentioned – the early ’70s, which Walker described as his “wilderness years.” Adrift with little to say, dealing with drug and alcohol issues, pressured by his label to put out product, Walker lapsed into a series of albums that focused on covers of pop songs. The albums sold poorly, the critics were unkind, and Walker was content for them to stay out of print when the CD era arrived.
Here’s the thing – when you have a voice and a talent like Walker’s, you can’t help but lift the songs you sing to a better place. Many’s the person who said they would listen to Scott Walker singing the phone book, and songs from the likes of Burt Bacharach, Gordon Lightfoot, and Bill Withers are already several steps past 202-727-9099.
In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
The story of rock ’n roll is littered with unsung heroes, pioneers, and straight-up madmen, but few—if any—cast as long a shadow as Arthur Taylor Lee, the frontman of the ‘60s Los Angeles band Love. Last Friday, August 3rd, marked 12 years since his passing, but if anything his legend has continued to grow, not diminish, following his death at the age of 61.
Then again, that’s not saying much. For most of his life, Arthur Lee’s renown had nowhere to go but up. Love (the band) was more a theory than a working practice, and outside of a loyal local following in its mid-60s heyday, there were precious few rewards for the band’s labors: A handful of reasonable chart positions and occasional airplay, but little to no financial or critical acclaim, particularly after the essential lineup of the band quit (or were fired by Lee) following their late 1967 album Forever Changes.
After that, Lee spent the next couple of decades issuing a sporadic series of solo albums and half-hearted reboots, none of which garnered—or, frankly, deserved—much attention. So why celebrate him now? What about this troubled, and often troublemaking man deserves our attention?