For some artists we look at for these lists, it seems like every time someone covered one their songs, it turned out pretty good. Leonard Cohen was like that; the quality of the average Cohen cover is fairly high. John Prine, too.
Stevie Wonder is not one of those artists.
It’s not his fault, or the fault of his songs, but his material often gets sucked into the same cocktail-jazz muck that fellow piano man Billy Joel’s does. Nothing wrong with that sort of lounge jazz-pop when done well – and there are a few times on this list when it is – but there’s a lot of mediocrity to wade through. Stevie’s performance and production skills are so sharp that, when placed in lesser hands, his songs can come off as sentimental shlock. All the “Isn’t She Lovely”s alone are so sugary sweet you feel like you’ll get diabetes.
But here’s the good news: Covers of Stevie Wonder’s songs are so ubiquitous that, even when you weed out the bad and the just-okay, you’re still left with plenty of greatness. The fifty below span funk, bluegrass, rock, hip-hop, jam band, jazz, and into galaxies beyond. So here they are, signed, sealed, and delivered to knock you off your feet.
Cover Genres takes a look at cover songs in a very specific musical style.
Musical obsessions are not always as cut and dried as “this is my favorite song/ album/ band/ genre.” Occasionally you will find yourself in uncharted territory, involuntarily drawn to something so specific and esoteric that it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of an actual existing category. Hmmm… I’m making this sound way more dignified than it is. What I’m trying to say is, most dyed-in-the-wool music nerds have what I’m going to call an imaginary friend. By that, I mean that they have an obsession with some weird-ass thing or self-invented category, one that may not be audible to the ears of others, but feels oh so real to them.
I am now going to introduce you to my imaginary friend, my Harvey, my Snuffleupagus, my Drop Dead Fred. It’s a “thing” I’m obsessed with, which, while exceedingly specific and adhering to a strict set of self-invented rules, doesn’t technically exist as an established, formalized entity.
In a nutshell, I have an insatiable fascination with R & B covers of ’70s Soft Rock songs. Specifically, those recorded in the same era as the originals, when the originals themselves were still young, topical, and ubiquitous.
This oddball interest has roots in all the times I spent as a captive backseat passenger in my Mom’s 1972 white Chevy Nova with the sunflower painted on the side (only one word for that car: bitchin’). It was in this magical machine that my musical foundation was established and my taste was, some might say tragically, molded into shape. Meaning I was exposed to a helluva lot of ’70s AM pop radio as a kid. And there were two things being churned out in ample quantities back then that I especially loved:
1. R&B aka Soul Music (the first single I ever bought was by The Spinners, the first LP was by Billy Preston)
2. Soft Rock, primarily the candy-coated version (“Shannon is gone, I heard…”)
For a specific subgenre, “Soft Rock” is a pretty broad descriptor. The term has come to characterize the adult incense burning-cool babysitter sounds of Carole King and James Taylor, as well as the candy-coated, big-chorus-ed corniness of Barry Manilow and the Captain and Tennille. While we tend to draw a distinction between these two types of Soft Rock (the former is “cool,” and the latter… isn’t), back then, to my kid ears, they were the same damn thing, 100% equal in terms of their artistic credibility. They were all served up on the same radio stations, so in my world, Jackson Browne and Helen Reddy were as one. It was all pop music.
My sloppy love for both the Soul and the Soft did not trigger a lightbulb moment where I thought, “hey, I love these two things and I wonder if there are artists who have perhaps married the two.” Lord no. That would have been far too sophisticated a notion to have ever sprouted up in my eight-year-old peanut brain. My fascination with the marriage was a more random pursuit that defined itself over time. I think it may have been triggered by hearing The Four Tops’ incendiary cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talking” on some compilation in the ’80s. I honestly can’t remember. What I do know is that as technology advanced, my pursuit grew more and more fanatical with each passing day.
Once I could get at discographies with the touch of a button, the nerd assembly line kicked into high gear. Stores were scavenged for Soul-ified Soft Rock treasures. Mixtapes were assembled, followed by mix-CDs, finally culminating in an immense iTunes playlist I pathetically titled, yup, Soul in the Middle of the Road, that grew to feature hundreds of songs. They ran the gamut from transcendent (some rivaling or surpassing the originals in terms of beauty) to horrible (oh man) to just straight-up bizarre (you’ll see).
As alluded to earlier, my main interest is in covers that were recorded during the same era as the originals, in or on the edges of the ’70s. These covers offer a direct nod to the ubiquity of the originals and capture the spirit of that swingin’ era in a way that is impossible for a latter-day cover to achieve (to me, anyway).
I now humbly offer you 30 of the finest, weirdest, and “what the holy hell was that” soul-infused covers of classics and beloved deep cuts from the sweet ‘n’ vast Soft Rock canon. Now I’m sure some of the artists I’m about to mention would bristle at having one of their works characterized as “Soft Rock,” but hey rock star, you made a Soft Rock song, so you know, that’s onyou (also thank you, you sexy thing). At the end of the day, they should all feel grateful and flattered to have had their sweetest sounds so soulfully celebrated.
As for me, I hear love in every one of the covers that follow and genuinely hope you can too. Take it away, Tops…
Andrew VanWyngarden – Dance Monkey (Tones and I cover)
One of the biggest one-hit wonders of the last few years, pop singer Tones and I’s “Dance Monkey” emerged out of seeming nowhere to top charts across the world last year. In her home country of Australia, it is the longest chart-topper ever, breaking a record held by Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”! Despite its ubiquity, however, major covers have been sparse (perhaps because many people find the song, you know, annoying). Never one to shy away from putting off his audience, though, MGMT frontman Andrew VanWyngarden gave it a trippy psychedelic-folk cover as part of a radio station fundraising challenge.Continue reading »
These days George Benson is primarily remembered for his soft-soul hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Two of these songs — “Give Me the Night” and “Turn Your Love Around” — have ended up on Yacht Rock playlists in recent years. But there are multiple chapters to Benson’s career. The singer/songwriter and virtuoso guitarist’s debut album came out in early 1964, just a few months after the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. In addition to his many solo records, he has played with the likes of Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder.Continue reading »
Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.
Up until a few years ago, I had no idea who Radka Toneff was. I stumbled upon her only because I was doing what what all Cover Me nerds do in their spare moments: looking for cover versions of their favorite songs (in my own case it’s to add a little spice to my specific-song-themed-playlist situation because I’m a deluxe version nerd).Continue reading »
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!
At the conclusion of Amy Winehouse’s posthumously released version of “A Song for You,” there’s a particularly revealing and heartbreaking snippet of dialogue. “Marvin Gaye (was), great,” Amy emphatically states, “but Donny Hathaway like…he couldn’t contain himself, he had something in him, you know.” It’s heartbreaking to hear for myriad reasons, but it’s also, hands down, the most beautifully spot-on description of Donny Hathaway’s transcendent gift. He was in possession of an extraordinary voice that, like Aretha’s, could easily evoke tears in the most hardened of souls, even if the song itself was expressing a seemingly uplifting sentiment. He didn’t so much sing as simply feel out loud.
By the end of 1973, Donny Hathaway had recorded three solo studio albums, a duet album with Roberta Flack, and a movie soundtrack, as well as a live album widely acknowledged as one of the greatest ever made. He’d become the recipient of considerable critical acclaim, money, overwhelming attention…and pressure, much of which was self-created. He was a musical perfectionist of the extreme, complex, and occasionally insufferable Brian Wilson variety, both in the studio and onstage. And he was surprisingly insecure about the quality of his voice (a fact we standard issue humans might find hard to comprehend), so much so that in the latter years of his career he’d taken to telling colleagues that if he did any more recording, he no longer wanted to sing but just wanted to play piano.
Donny had been diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1971, and as time progressed, sadly, so did the disease. He also suffered from depression. By 1974 his mental health issues had become so severe that studio work and live performances became increasingly difficult to arrange and follow through with. He did what he could, when he was able, but for all intents and purposes, his career as a singular headlining and touring artist was over. As a result, from 1974 to 1979, his recorded output was minimal, consisting of two tracks with Roberta Flack in 1979 and a dozen or so solo songs, the latter of which didn’t see light of day until the release of the 2013 Rhino box set Never My Love. He ultimately died by suicide on January 13th, 1979 in New York City.
Donny Hathaway was one of the greatest singers to ever walk the planet, and his excursions into the world of covers remain to this day a master class in how it’s done. Continue reading »