August 30, 2012
Some songs are so closely associated with certain musicians that it’s hard to believe they weren’t the first to perform them. In our 2nd musical partnership with Spotify, we explore well-known tunes that were actually covers. Original story was published in Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges into Music. Scroll to the bottom for our Spotify playlist to accompany the story. Also, here is a link to the post on the Spotify blog.
Best-Known Version: Aretha Franklin
Original artist: It’s an Otis Redding song. When it came out on his 1965 album Otis Blue, it wasn’t a hit or even a single. Franklin covered it two years later. When he heard her version, Redding reportedly said, “That little girl stole my song.” He was right—it became a #1 hit and Franklin’s signature song.
“Got My Mind Set on You”
Best-Known Version: George Harrison
original artist: Harrison’s 1987 comeback hit was a cover of an obscure 1960s soul song recorded by James Ray and written by Rudy Clark (who also wrote “Good Lovin’” and “If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody”). Harrison had wanted to do the song ever since he was with the Beatles—he thought it was well written, but badly performed on Ray’s recording. (He especially disliked the “horrible screechy women’s voices singing those backup parts.”)
“Killing Me Softly With His Song”
Best-Known Version: Roberta Flack
original artist: In 1971 Los Angeles-based singer Lori Lieberman saw Don McLean perform “American Pie” and was so moved by his concert that she wrote a poem called “Killing Me Softly with His Blues.” Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel later wrote music for it, changing “blues” to “song,” and Lieberman recorded it—but it went nowhere. Flack read an article about Lieberman on an in-flight magazine, thought the title of the song was great, and later, upon hearing it, decided to record it herself.
Best-Known Version: Soft Cell
original artist: It’s arguably the definitive 1980s synth-pop song, but Ed Cobb of the Four Preps wrote it in 1964 as a ballad for a little-known soul singer named Gloria Jones.
“Mama Told Me (Not to Come)”
Best-Known Version: Three Dog Night
original artist: Randy Newman wrote it, and Eric Burden and the Animals first recorded it in 1967. Newman later included the song on his 1970 album, 12 Songs, which didn’t receive much attention at the time. But later that year, the song became a #1 hit for Three Dog Night, who transformed Newman’s slow, funk-influenced tune into a revved-up rock song.
“Greatest Love of All”
Best-Known Version: Whitney Houston
original artist: Though it’s one of Houston’s best-known songs (and widely regarded as one of the sappiest ever written), it was first sung by George Benson for the 1977 Muhammad Ali movie The Greatest. So is the song about Ali? No—lyricist Linda Creed actually wrote it about battling breast cancer, which would later claim her life at age 37.
“Don’t Know Much”
Best-Known Version: Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville
original artist: The song was cowritten and performed in 1980 by Barry Mann, who wrote dozens of hit songs in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, and is best known for his 1961 hit recording of “Who Put the Bomp?” Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers and Bette Midler both recorded “Don’t Know Much,” but it wasn’t a hit until the Ronstadt/Neville duet was released in 1989.
“That’s What Friends are For”
Best-Known Version: Dionne Warwick and Friends
original artist: Rod Stewart. He sang the song (written by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager) for the end credits of the 1982 comedy film Night Shift. That version went largely unnoticed, but it became a smash hit when Warwick performed it with Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder in 1986 to raise money for AIDS research.
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