Legendary vocalists Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo are founding members of The 5th Dimension, the venerable LA-based vocal pop group. As their otherworldly name suggests, The 5th Dimension had a knack for elevating novel tunes to new realms. Davis Jr. and McCoo’s lead vocals imbued hits like “The Worst That Could Happen” and “One Less Bell To Answer” with a buoyant blend of elegance, whimsy and surreal soul. The pair are old-school song interpreters in the most artful sense, illuminating new emotional planes in their powerful performances.
This marks the fourth year I’ve done a big anniversary countdown (after 1996, 1987, and 1978). It also proved to be the most challenging. There were a lot of covers released in 1969. In fact, according to covers-and-samples database WhoSampled, there were more than in any of the other years we’ve done. Their database lists 3,110 covers, which is surely still a small fraction.
The reason for the cover song’s proliferation seems clear to me after going through them all: Popular bands released a lot more music back then. Aretha Franklin released two albums in 1969. So did The Byrds, Elvis Presley, Joe Cocker, Johnny Cash, Johnny Winter, and Nina Simone. Creedence Clearwater Revival and Merle Haggard released three albums apiece. James Brown topped them all with four. To get that kind of output, artists would pad their albums with covers. Every 1969 album by every artist I just mentioned includes at least one cover. Many include several. A few are all covers. It adds up.
Impressively, many of those covers reinterpreted songs that had come out within the previous year. This entire list could easily have been “Hey Jude” covers. “Wichita Lineman” and “Light My Fire” came up constantly too (the latter song slightly older, but it had hit the charts again in 1968). Even songs from 1968’s soundtrack to Hair got covered endlessly in 1969.
Even beyond “Hey Jude,” Beatles covers dominated the year. I’m not going to go back through the entire 3,110 covers and count, but if you told me Beatles covers made up a full half of those, I wouldn’t be shocked. Add Bob Dylan covers to that side of the scale and it’s probably true. Beatles songs got covered in every conceivable genre for every conceivable audience. Jazz and swing and folk and proto-metal Beatles covers everywhere the eye can see. Plenty of people cover the Beatles these days, sure, but trust me: It’s nothing like it was in 1969.
So wheedling all those down to the top 50 proved incredibly difficult. But it means this is maybe the top-to-bottom strongest set thus far, and it killed me to leave some off (that’s why our Patreon supporters will get a set of 69 bonus tracks – so join now).
One note: I left off Woodstock performances. For one, we counted down the 50 best covers performed there last month. But more importantly, most people did not actually hear those covers until the movie and soundtrack came out in 1970. Jimi Hendrix performed his iconic Star-Spangled Banner – pretty much everyone’s top cover of the weekend – to a nearly empty field. Most of the audience had left before he punched in at 9 AM that Monday morning. That said, several of the classic covers performed at Woodstock were released as singles or on albums the same year – including Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help from My Friends” – and those studio versions make this list.
Now, let the sunshine in with the 50 best covers of 1969.
Even though it was never a single, the Mamas and the Papas’ 1966 breakup anthem “Go Where You Wanna Go” has found a place on numerous greatest hits compilations. The track’s catchy chorus embodies how we imagine the free-loving spirit of the ‘60s: “You gotta go where you wanna go / Do what you wanna do / With whoever you wanna do it with.” Shortly after its release, the track became an actual hit for the 5th Dimension (who are getting covered a lot this month).
Laura Nyro was one of the unsung heroes of 1960s pop. Though the singer/songwriter released a number of albums, many of her most enduring songs were covers recorded by other artists such as Three Dog Night and Blood, Sweat & Tears. “She had a kaleidoscopic musical sensibility that fused elements of folk, soul, gospel and Broadway tradition into intensely introspective songs that transcended easy stylistic categorization,” The New York Times wrote when Nyro passed away in 1997.
There are great drummers and then there was Hal Blaine. As a member of the famed Wrecking Crew of Los Angeles studio musicians, Blaine provided the backbeat to the soundtrack of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. He played drums on countless hits, backing such artist as the Association, the many Phil Spector Girl Groups, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Carpenters, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Simon & Garfunkel, Sonny & Cher, and the Mamas & the Papas (we could go on all day). With such a pedigree, it’s little surprise that he not only played on a number of cover songs, he played on some of the greatest covers of all time!
Since his death last week at the age of 90, tributes to have been popping up everywhere. We’ll simply add our own, the only way we know how – by going through some of his best covers.
So to Hal Blaine, we count it off one last time: 1-2, a 1-2-3-4…
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
In the summer of ’67, when Sgt. Pepper ruled the land and light pop songs like “Windy” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday” were high on the charts, a song came out of the South the like of which had never been heard. Murky and mysterious, prompting far more questions than it answered, “Ode to Billie Joe” cast a spell over America, and Bobbie Gentry (who turns 72 today) was thrust into the spotlight to say what she knew about the unknowable song she’d written and sung.