Jan 262024

Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.

Sun Ra Second Star to the Right

In 1988, tribute album pioneer Hal Willner released Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films. The likes of Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, Sinead O’Connor, Los Lobos, and Ringo Starr all contributed to a record that mostly leaned toward the nightmarish feel of  films like Snow White (1937) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). This was not an album to play for the kids at bedtime.

One cover that stood out was Sun Ra and his Arkestra’s performance of “Pink Elephants On Parade” from Dumbo (1941). Those who knew Sun Ra as a pioneer of free jazz might have expected a drastic reinvention, but what he delivered was a faithful recreation of the original arrangement. This approach was not unusual for the Arkestra: while the group was (and is) famous for their improvised freakouts, they were (and are) equally adept at reverent renditions of standards by Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and others. Sun Ra approached this Disney song as he would any tune from the Great American Songbook.

Stay Awake was released, and everyone involved soon moved on. Everyone, that is, except for Sun Ra, who plunged headlong into a full-on Disney obsession. By February 1989, Ra was ready to premiere a series of concerts billed as “A Salute to Walt Disney,” which lasted nearly three hours and were comprised almost entirely of Disney material. At the first such concert at NYC’s The Bottom Line, for example, the Arkestra mined the Disney songbook for classics like “Chim-Chim Cheree” from Mary Poppins (1964), “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio (1940), and “Cruella DeVille” from 101 Dalmations (1961). Wikipedia reports that Sun Ra even performed a concert at Disney World, although details of this event are hard to come by.

These live performances allowed for more improvisation than the studio recording of “Pink Elephants,” but they were still played with respect for the original melodies, and in a spirit of fun that’s often missing from the covers on Stay Awake. While the arrangements themselves are usually very faithful, the fact that these songs are being played by Sun Ra at all gives the performances an extremely surreal vibe.

For years there was no document of Sun Ra’s 1989 “Disney Period” outside of bootlegs. That all changed in 1999 with the release on Leo Records of Second Star to the Right (Salute to Walt Disney), featuring tracks from a show in Ulrichsberg, Austria. This is an audience recording, and someone close to the taper can be heard throughout the show laughing aloud in disbelief at what’s unfolding onstage.
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Apr 222022

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.

Last year, a study by Fender and YouGov of Americans between 16-34 revealed that 16 million people had taken up the guitar since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Speaking to Insider about the study, Fender CEO Andy Mooney estimated that “as many as 72 million people are playing the guitar right now.” These are impressive statistics, and something to be celebrated. However, it’s hard not to wonder if the prominence of instruments like the guitar might be pushing other, less-well known instruments to the sidelines.

One person doing a lot to change this is London-based percussionist Rosie Bergonzi. Rosie has a YouTube channel dedicated to the handpan, a unique flying-saucer shaped instrument that can trace its roots back to the Trinidadian steel drum. The channel is a goldmine of information, featuring lessons, interactive livestreams, and an eclectic selection of covers arranged especially for the handpan.

“I first started playing the handpan in 2015,” Rosie tells Cover Me. “A few years before, I heard a busker playing in the street, and I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard–I was determined to have one! So after a lot for searching I found my own handpan and have kept up with it from there.”

The handpan itself was created in Switzerland in 2001 by steel drum makers Sabrina Scharer and Felix Rohner of Pan Art, based on a suggestion by hand percussionist Reto Weber. For its first twelve years of existence the instrument – originally known as the Hang drum – was extremely hard to come by, available only by sending a special request directly to Pan Art. However, once Pan Art ceased production of Hang drums in 2013, the instrument became widely available from other makers, soon becoming known as the handpan.

How does Rosie go about choosing songs to cover?

“I’ve found that the tunes have to be very melodic for an instrumental cover, so rap, for example, is really hard to make effective as it’s all about the words. It’s always surprising ones that work well, so I ask around a lot for song suggestions – any genre!”

And what about arranging the songs for the handpan?

“I get the chords down, normally while singing the tune. Then I work out the melody. The harder job is working out how to play the two at the same time. My handpans have limited amounts of notes (9-17) so getting the melody to sing clearly is an interesting challenge. My favorite part is working out the arrangement, sometimes playing with the speeds to make it feel really different to the original.”

To demonstrate this process, Rosie started a series called Covers Done Quick, where she selects a song a random and adapts it for the handpan in just one hour.

Let’s look at some of Rosie’s other handpan covers…
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Jul 262017

Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.

Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).

Today’s question: What’s your favorite Disney cover?
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Jul 072017

They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!

What’s a scruff like me doing with this lot? – Ringo Starr

Richard Starkey, MBE, has always been undervalued by the world, and even by himself. Seen as a happy-go-lucky guy who was himself lucky to fall in with three geniuses to form the most influential rock band of all time, Ringo has been disparaged for everything from his playing (SO undeserved) to his looks. The fact is, Ringo Starr was perfect for the Beatles, the Earth of their four-elements dynamic, and the fact that John, Paul, and George all continued to love him even as they slagged off on each other, in the band’s dying days and long after, shows that the only three people whose opinion of Ringo mattered knew how valuable he truly was.

Ringo celebrated his 77th birthday today by announcing the impending release of his 19th solo album; we’re celebrating it by looking at covers of four of his songs, plus one of the best covers he ever did.

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Feb 262014

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!

In the 1980s, there was one artist that Minneapolis became known for. And that was Prince.

But if you took the bus to the bad part of town, watching the blight and the snowy misery go by through fogged up windows, you would eventually spot a burned-out, abandoned, and graffiti-tagged little red Corvette: perched up on blocks, stuffed with liquor bottles in the back seat, and harboring a coffee can in the front filled to the brim with cigarette butts. If you opened the door, you would find a floor littered with cassettes. K-Tel. Kiss. Big Star. And if you ran the VIN number, you’d find the owner to be the Replacements.
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Aug 222011

Last year Brian Wilson released the four-star album Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin (read our review). Perhaps buoyed by that success, he has just announced his next album: a tribute to the songs of Disney movies. With anyone else, we might be inclined to roll our eyes, but if there is anyone who can deliver definitive performances of these oft-covered songs, it’s Wilson. Continue reading »