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October 18, 2017

Book Notes - Ray Padgett "Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time"

Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

For almost ten years Ray Padgett has been featuring cover songs on his blog Cover Me along with insightful commentary.

In Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time he uses the origin stories of twenty iconic cover songs to examine the evolution of the genre.

Variety wrote of the book:

"One of the best multi-subject music books to come down the pike in years. . . . By taking a fresh and deeply informed approach to a project that could have been dismally predictable, Padgett has produced a book that even the most condescending music snob will find satisfying and illuminating."

In his own words, here is Ray Padgett's Book Notes music playlist for her book Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time:

I've run the cover-songs blog Cover Me for ten years now, and for about nine and a half of those years people have encouraged me to write a book on the subject (my mom, mostly). I always resisted. The topic seemed too broad, too open-ended. Would you write a book about "original songs"?

So rather than write a book "about cover songs," I wrote a book about twenty specific cover songs - and used their stories to trace the genre's broader history. So that's an obvious playlist right there, the songs in the book. Too obvious, though. Churning out Cliff's Notes summaries of each chapter in the book sounded boring for both of us. I thought it would be more fun to explore some of the in-between songs that came up along the way. The songs that bridge the original and the famous cover I focus on in the book. The songs that made the more famous versions possible. The interesting and the odd, the also-rans, wannabes, and never-weres.

So, in that vein, here's my Book Notes playlist:

Freddie Bell and the Bellboys - Hound Dog

Elvis famously covered (or, depending on your perspective, ripped off) Big Mama Thornton with his "Hound Dog." The catch, though, is that it's not clear whether Elvis ever heard Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog." The version he knew was by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. This Vegas lounge act hammed up Thornton's blues moan for a novelty showstopper. The lines about catching rabbits? Those were Freddie Bell's, not Big Mama's. And when Elvis made those lines popular, the original songwriters Leiber and Stoller hated the changes. "'You ain't caught a rabbit, and you ain't no friend of mine' is inane," Leiber once said. "It doesn't mean anything to me." In later years, they amended their stance - slightly. We hated Elvis's cover, they would say, "until the checks started coming in!"

Rufus Thomas - Bear Cat (The Answer Song to Hound Dog)

One person who did know Big Mama Thornton's original was Sun Records' boss Sam Phillips, who wrote "Bear Cat" as the male response to the woman's "Hound Dog" accusations (pause a moment and imagine how well that approach would go over today). Not one of the great Rufus Thomas' finer moments, this rewritten version would be entirely forgettable, except for an odd ripple effect it caused.

Before Elvis, Johnny, and Jerry Lee, "Bear Cat" was Sun Records' first big hit. However, Sam Phillips had claimed sole songwriting credit on it, so Leiber and Stoller promptly sued him. Phillips lost, and the payments threatened to bankrupt Sun in the subsequent years. The only way Phillips could keep the label afloat was to sell the contract of the man who had by then become the label's biggest star. That's why Elvis Presley moved to Atlantic. And his first hit for them? "Hound Dog."

Vito and the Salutations - Unchained Melody

"Unchained Melody" began life as the theme song from the forgotten prison drama Unchained (hence the song title). And a number of other covers came before the Righteous Brothers took ahold of it; Bill Medley told me they learned the song from Roy Hamilton's soulful take. But before the Brothers' hit settled future covers into that emotive, tear-jerker template, New York doo-wop group Vito and the Salutations scored a minor 1963 hit with this unexpectedly chipper and upbeat version.

Cissy Houston - Midnight Train to Georgia

When songwriter Jim Weatherly pitched his new song "Midnight Plane to Houston" to Gladys Knight, she turned him down flat. But Cissy Houston signed on to sing it, only requesting a couple lyric changes. Her line for making the title "Midnight Train to Georgia" was always that her people took trains rather than planes and that her family was from Georgia. Still, I have to think that part of the calculation is that singing "Midnight Plane to Houston" sounds odd when your name is Houston. Also from Georgia, Gladys Knight reconsidered her stance once she heard Houston's cover.

The Who - My Way

Live at Leeds (by some counts the greatest live album ever) made The Who's cover of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" a classic. But it was only one of several Cochran tunes they covered early on. Mostly forgotten are the band's versions of "C'mon Everybody" and "My Way," a lesser-known number that possesses every bit the power of "Summertime Blues." When I asked Roger Daltrey whether the crowd response kept "Summertime Blues" around longer than "My Way," he didn't mince words : "I didn't really give a fuck whether people liked it or not. You should never, ever ask the fans what they think of anything."

Boy George - Teddy Bear

I always get excited by those all-star tribute concerts that periodically air on TV, and am inevitably disappointed. I was neither old nor British enough in 1987 to be aware of the UK Elvis covers special Love Me Tender, but I would have had the same reaction. Imagine what someone as creative and unusual as Boy George could have done with "Teddy Bear" had he really made it his own. Instead, his personal expression is basically limited to wearing a wacky outfit while he sings Elvis karaoke. Visually his performance is phenomenal; sonically it's redundant. There's a reason this special is basically forgotten. Only one act broke the mold: Pet Shop Boys, who decided to play "Always On My Mind" a little differently than Elvis had. Soon, they had a number-one hit.

Spike Jones - Tchaikovsky Medley

The chapter about "Weird Al" Yankovic's polka medleys is kind of an odd duck in this book (appropriate for Weird Al). But I wanted to include it for two reasons. The first is selfish: Weird Al was the first artist I loved in middle school, and the opportunity to interview him - about a subject no one ever asks him about, no less - was one I couldn't pass up. The second is bigger though. One of the biggest recent trends in the cover-song world is the cross-genre novelty cover. It's a phenomenon mostly of YouTube, and they often go viral. A bluegrass band plays Slayer, a xylophonist knocks out the Game of Thrones theme song, that sort of thing. A YouTube duo called Karmin turned acoustic covers of rap songs into an actual Saturday Night Live booking a few years back.

Weird Al pioneered this style long before YouTube though, including polka cover (not parody) medleys of popular songs on most of his albums since the 1980s. But he's the first to admit even he didn't invent the genre. "My medleys owe as much to Spike Jones as they do to traditional polka music," Al told me. My personal favorite of the '40s and '50s musical-comedian's numbers is his take on Tchaikovsky, complete with banjos, novelty sound effects, and a cowbell solo that puts Will Ferrell's to shame.

Linda Ronstadt - I Will Always Love You

This is probably no one's favorite version of the song. Most people would of course pick Whitney Houston's (the cover I focus on), and country purists might stick with the Dolly Parton original. But Linda Ronstadt's intermediary version bridged the latter to the former. Houston was originally supposed to cover "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" for The Bodyguard's climactic scene, but shortly before filming another cover of the Motown song began working its way up the charts. Houston's would have seemed a copycat, so Kevin Costner suggested a last-minute replacement: "I Will Always Love You." Houston didn't know it, and they couldn't find Parton's version at the record store on such short notice. They had to learn it from Ronstadt, the only version the store had in stock. At the eleventh hour, they got a call from Dolly. Don't forget the final verse that Ronstadt didn't include, she told them. Dolly read it to them over the phone.

A Tribe Called Quest - Bonita Applebum

"Bonita Applebum" is, admittedly, not a cover. But it's the little-known half of one of the biggest covers of the 1990s: the Fugees' massive take on "Killing Me Softly." Pras told me they wanted Hill to show off her pipes on a Roberta Flack cover, but couldn't figure out how to make that fit a hip-hop album. He got the solution during a concert. Like professional wrestlers, every member of the Fugees had his or her own walk-on music. Pras' was "Bonita Applebum." One day he missed his cue and the song started playing when he was far from the stage. As he sprinted there, the song kept playing over and over. And in his head, he started "Killing Me Softly" over that beat. The pairing worked, and solved the band's problem. "When I finally jumped on the stage they were pissed off at me," he says, "but I had this big smile on my face like, 'Yo, I think I got it!'"

Devo - Secret Agent Man

Devo's cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" turned them from obscure art-school weirdos to…more popular art-school weirdos. "It was a way into Devo for a lot of people," Gerald Casale told me. "It made the Devo manifesto more understandable." But before they couldn't get no, they tackled another wildly unexpected song: Johnny Rivers' spy-show standard "Secret Agent Man." It set the template for all future Devo covers, taking a beloved song and breaking it down into a robotic lurch devoid of funk and sex appeal. It also set the template that led to them later needing Mick Jagger's permission to alter his song so dramatically. For "Secret Agent Man," Johnny Rivers actually said no. So they sneakily went to the Japanese publisher, who hadn't been informed of Rivers' refusal, to get the necessary sign-off.

Ray Padgett and Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time links:

the author's blog

The A.V. Club review
American Blues Scene review
Variety review

Brother podcast interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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