So far we’ve discussed cover songs that are loving recreations, near tributes, of their originals, and total renovations, veritable gut and rebuilds, of their counterparts. But I believe there’s more to consider.
Of Standards, Revivalists, and Composers
In any conversation about music, I will usually find a way to bring it around to this next band: Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers. (See. It took three installments, but I still got it there.) Ms. Smith and company have three albums that I listen to so often the CDs may very well wear out yet they blow me away every time. The band does splendid versions of old Jazz standards from the 1930s and 1940s. Does that mean they do cover albums or have the songs themselves grown beyond cover status?
These are no mere knock-offs. Even if the songs themselves are classics, there’s a huge amount of work that goes into creating a new arrangement. Having a certain appreciation for big-band Jazz, it’s easy for me to see that. On the other hand, they hold a certain place in my life that makes me think of them as more than mere standards either.
Another example would be “Mack the Knife.” It was originally written by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht for the 1928 Berlin premier of their music drama Die Dreigroschenoper. Mark Blitzstein translated it to English in 1954 for The Threepenny Opera. Louis Armstrong introduced the 1954 translation to the hit parade in 1956. Bobby Darin recorded his own version in 1959 and it is this recording that most people know. Since that time it has charted more than 100 times, so which, if any, are covers? Did Darin do a cover of the Armstrong version? Was Armstrong’s version a cover Brecht/Weill original? What if I recorded my own rendition and released it today? Would it be a cover? Of whose version? If not, where in the intervening 55+ years did they stop being covers and what are they now?
So when do new renditions of a song grow, perhaps even graduate, from being a cover into standard? What makes something like “Mack the Knife” a standard where “Hallelujah” is not? It may have something to do with copyright, but I think a bigger factor is longevity.
These days we have more music being released than ever before. That’s not saying there’s a wider variety, just larger quantities. Much of it won’t be with us in 50 or 100 years. Heck, even 20 years will be pushing it. This issue isn’t limited to songs from the last 5-10 years either. I graduated high school in 1985 and listened to a lot of 80’s music. While I’ll always have a certain fondness, not all of it has held up that well. For every New Order, there’s at least 5 Flock of Seagulls.
So you can see that, like much in present-day society, modern music isn’t built to last. It’s largely disposable; meant to be consumed rather than savored and enjoyed. Many current-era bands, and ever their songs, sound the same. It’s more about selling, not the next big thing, just the next thing. Most of the songs mentioned in parts one and two would have to be included in “modern music” and who knows how long they’ll be around either. Will I still care about them as anything other that curiosities 5 years from now?
Rod Stewart, has had a minor resurgence in his career recording four albums straight from the American Songbook. He’s continued along those same lines with two more albums of covers, one of rock classics and one containing soul and Motown classics. One of his early hits, “Downtown Train,“ was a cover song, the original having been done by Tom Waits.
That just goes to show that you can’t take any old song, create a new version, and have people identify with it. The original has to bring some juice of it’s own. There must have been some base popularity in the original song, something that makes it recognizable years later. Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Rogers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin all created songs that are timeless. These are the songs that Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Sarah Vaughn, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat “King” Cole, and Tony Bennet (to this day) made their living from.
You don’t even need to go back that far to find songs and bands that have that same kind of staying power. Just look at acts such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, and many many more.
What about bands that are best thought of as revivalists? There have been others, but two stand-outs would have to be Sha Na Na and the Blues Brothers.
Sha Na Na formed in 1969 and brought back 1950s doo-wop through concerts, an appearance in the movie Grease, and their own TV show (1977-1981). The lineup has changed, but they’re still performing today with three of the original members. I remember them best from the TV show and, for a time, hoped to grow up to be Bowser. I don’t know that they did any original songs, but they made a career out of nostalgia, drawing from songs that are near and dear to most Baby Boomers.
The Blues Brothers began their “mission from God” in a 1976 Saturday Night Live skit and turned into a glorious, loving tribute to the blues, soul, and R&B music from the 1950s and 1960s. Not to be missed (and really, is anyone not familiar with these?) are their versions of “Soul Man” and “Rubber Biscuit.” Whether you consider their work an homage or mere send-up, there are many people who wouldn’t have explored the music of Aretha Franklin, Sam & Dave, and many, many, others.
What if a songwriter pens the tune for someone else, then later does it themselves? Take the glam rock anthem “All the Young Dudes,” arguably a classic. It was originally written by David Bowie and recorded by Mott the Hoople on their 1972 album of the same name. In 1973 Bowie started doing the song on tour, and his studio recording was finally, although unofficially, released in 1994. († See note below.)
Are any of these groups cover artists? The answer isn’t so easy for me. Surely, at some point, songs go from originals and covers and evolve into standards. That brings us back to the longevity question I touched on earlier. If your grandparents listened to it, there’s a good chance it’s a standard. If the original performer, the one who made it famous, is dead, it’s probably a standard. If Frank, Tony, Sarah, Sammy, or Nat did the song, it’s practically guaranteed to be a standard.
Ultimately does it really matter? Probably not. But, once in a while, give me a good cover, if it’s all the same to you. Something that is new and, at the same time, a old familiar friend.
† My original example was going to be Barry Manilow instead of Bowie/Mott the Hoople. It should have been easy. Here’s a guy that has written hundreds of songs for other musicians and has a thriving career of his own spanning more than 30 years and over 21 albums – and that’s not counting the live albums and his series of Greatest Songs of the… releases. I couldn’t find a single instance where he a) wrote the song, b) for someone else, c) and later recorded it himself. That was a huge surprise. In fact, most of his hits as a performer were written by someone else and his hits as a songwriter were almost exclusively performed by others.
‡ Some reference/research information for this series from Wikipedia, allmusic, and several friends.
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