Willie Mae “Big Mama Thornton” by Nick Young
A couple of weeks ago when I was luxuriating in vast open freedom of spring break, the musician Howard Dlugasch and I sat at the bar at the newly opened Jack of Cups Saloon (nee Brew Pub) on Folly discussing the difficulties local musicians face in performing original compositions at bar gigs. “No,” he said, “They don’t want to hear originals. They all want to hear covers. They all want to hear Journey.”
Howard’s lament got me thinking about covers themselves, and I began cataloging what I consider the greatest covers of all time, a Herculean task if you stop to think about it. I immediately jettisoned jazz, decided to limit my purview to rock and folk. After racking my brain, I decided to limit my list to five, and certainly many will disagree with the following choices.
Before I announce my top five, though, I ought to provide the criteria I used in the construction of this pantheon.
1) The original song had to be significant in both its music and content. By content I mean both the degree of significance of the lyrics’ poetic purpose and the poetic quality of the lyrics themselves. Alas, this criterion eliminates Hendrix’s great cover of “Wild Thing.”
2) The cover of the song had to make the song, as Ezra Pound would say, new.
3) The musicianship had to be first class.
Rather than attempting to rank the covers from “grooviest” to least “groovy,”¹ I’ve copped out by presenting the 5 Greatest Covers of all time in chronological order from oldest cover to most recent.
¹I retrieved these vintage terms from the Teen Beat files located in the adolescent wing of my memory museum.
- Elvis Presley’s cover of Big Mama Thornton’s recording of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Hound Dog” Thornton’s 1953 recording is killer, backed by badass bass and drumming and some imitative barking. Hit the arrow for a 20 secondish listen:
Before Presley, others had recorded the song, and some critics claim that Presley was actually covering a Bob Wills cover or a Freddie Bell and the Bellboys cover. Nevertheless, Presley was aware of and liked the Thornton original, and so I contend he’s covering the original, not a covering a cover. At any rate, Elvis and his producer Steve Sholes have twanged the tune to rockabilly with some aggressive drum rolling.
- Next comes the Animals cover of the traditional folk song “Rising Sun Blues,” a song whose roots go to 18th Century England and a popular genre called “the Unfortunate Rake.” Immigrants transported the song across the Atlantic and transplanted the setting to New Orleans. Some contend the song’s narrator is a woman turned whore after being abandoned by a rake, which is the scenario Dylan employs in his cover, a recording that precedes the Animals’. The earliest recorded version is by Clarence “Tom” Ashley in 1934, which tells the tale from a male perspective. Here’s a snippet from an early ’60’s version by Ashley and the great Doc Watson. Note the featured lyrics are much different from the Animals version.
Electric guitarist Hilton Valentine’s minor key arpeggio and Alan Price’s organ transform the song into what the critic Dave Marsh called “the first rock folk hit.”
- Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 recording of Bob Dylan’s 1967 release “All Along the Watchtower.”
Now, that’s what I call making it new.
- The Doors 1970 live version of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” This selection is perhaps the most controversial. However, I’m going with it. Listen.
- Also, perhaps, controversial, I rank Patti Smith’s 2007 cover of Nirvana’s 1991 “Smells like Teen Spirit” in the top five. Here Smith substitutes banjos and fiddles for electric guitars and replaces Cobain’s solo with a poem that elevates the song from an anthem of teen angst to some sort of post apocalyptic nightmare.
Well, there you go. Would love to hear some comments. Obviously, I also stayed away from soul music because rating covers there would be almost as hard as jazz. Also, I’ve dissed Janis, whose cover of “Piece of My Heart” should probably bump Morrison and Smith off this list.