According to The Guinness Book Of Records, the most covered song in history is The Beatles’ “Yesterday”. (Breaking News: Gershwin’s “Summertime” has made a similar claim).
Wikipedia claims there has been no fewer than 2,200 recorded cover versions.
Unfortunately that means there’s a strong risk of at least two thousand not very good versions of Yesterday out there, and probably more.
They’re hard to cover, are Beatles songs. Because the Fabs would experiment endlessly in the studio they invariably found the best way to record their songs, the big swots, which made cover versions redundant. After all, which of us wouldn’t argue that the sixteen takes over three days of recording Maxwell’s Silver Hammer ultimately resulted in sonic perfection?
Don’t answer that.
But some musicians have achieved that holy grail of recording a version of a Beatles song that doesn’t make you want to scream with horror. There are even some that are genuinely brilliant, and I have for several years been collecting these vinyl nuggets whenever I find them, and it is these recordings that you can hear on my latest mix (above).
(For the vinyl geeks among us, most of these recordings are taken directly from the original vinyl, ripped to a WAV file).
The good news is that there have been so many great versions of Beatles songs, that one mix isn’t enough to cover all the covers, so this is the first of a trilogy of shows that will bring you the very best of The Beatles’ cover versions.
We start with Doris Troy, who was one of the first artists signed to the fledgling Apple label. Her singing talent was discovered by James Brown while she was working as an usherette at the Harlem Apollo. She wrote her own songs: “Just One Look” was a US top ten hit in 1963 and “Whatcha Gonna Do About It” was a top 40 UK hit in 1964. Her self titled album on Apple was produced by George Harrison, who also played on it, alongside Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston and Stephen Stills. Her brilliant take of “Get Back” didn’t make the album, but was somewhat lost on the b-side to single “Jacob’s Ladder”.
The Beastie Boys originally intended their cover of “I’m Down” to appear on their debut album Licensed to Ill on side 1, after “She’s Crafty”, but they failed to get clearance from the owner of the song’s rights (who at the time was Michael Jackson), required because the song samples the line “How can you laugh” from the original recording.
Thanks to the Internet, we are now able to hear what we were prevented from hearing in the eighties.
Junior Parker got his big break in 1948 when he was in the audience at a Sonny Boy Williamson gig. Williamson asked if anyone could play harmonica, and Parker seized his chance, jumping on stage. He so impressed that he remained in Williamson’s band for a year. Junior Parker was in the twilight of a career that had seen him play with BB King and write “Mystery Train” for Elvis Presley when he recorded 1970’s Outside Man, one of three albums he made shortly before his death from a brain tumour in 1971. Of those records, two contained sublime Beatles covers, including the most brilliant version of “Tomorrow Never Knows”. As that record appears on the excellent Ace Records compilation CD “Come Together: Black America Sings The Beatles” (one of two Ace Records Beatle covers compilations that come highly recommended), I have chosen his version of Taxman which also appeared on Outside Man.
Paul McCartney had Fats Domino in mind when he wrote “Lady Madonna” as a counterpoint to Fats’ own 1956 song “Blue Monday” which tells the story of a hard working man as he goes through the week. McCartney told a similar story from a female perspective after being inspired by a magazine photo of an African woman holding a baby captioned “Mountain Madonna”. McCartney borrows heavily from the rhythm in jazz hit “Bad Penny Blues” by Humphrey Littleton, but it’s very much in a Fats Domino style. The two songs were released around the same time in March 1968, with The Beatles version reaching #4 in the US charts, and the Fats Domino version reaching #100. It turned out to be Fats Domino’s 77th and final hit record.
Black Heat were a funk band led by percussionist and vocalist King Raymond Green who released three albums on Atlantic in the first part of the ‘70s. They covered Kool and the Gang on their second album, but covered the fabs on their third LP, 1975’s Keep on Runnin’, also releasing what was an excellent version of “Drive My Car” on the b-side of their single “Questions and Conclusions”.
Moving away from the RnB for just a moment, The Silkie, who covered a number of Bob Dylan’s songs, were briefly touted as the English equivalent of Peter Paul and Mary – not bad for a bunch of students from Hull University. They released their first single as part of Hull University Rag Week and performed at The Cavern club in Liverpool, which led to them being signed by Brian Epstein. Epstein’s influence was sufficient to ensure John (producer), Paul (guitar) and George (guitar taps and tambourine) all assisted them to record this cover of “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” in August 1965, not long after The Beatles’ own version had been released on the Help! soundtrack. Lennon was said to be so pleased with the recording he called Epstein and told him they had just recorded a number one record. It peaked at #10 on the US Billboard charts – no mean feat.
Ernest Evans auditioned for American Bandstand Dick Clark and performed a Fats Domino Song. When asked what his name was he said his friends called him Chubby. Clark’s wife, linking Chubby with Fats, and Checker with Domino, quipped “As in Checker?” and Ernest had a new stage name: Chubby Checker.
His string of top twenty hits with songs like “The Twist” in 1960 and “Let’s Twist Again” the following year ground to a rapid halt when the British Invasion left his music sounding old hat, so it was somewhat ironic when his cover of Back In The USSR gave him a comeback hit – his first in three years – reaching #82 on the Billboard charts in 1969.
Scotland’s Johnny Harris was in a beat group with an actual Beatle (of sorts): the world tour replacement for Ringo, Jimmie Nicol. The duo had recorded an album of Beatles cover versions in 1964, which was what led to Nicol’s call up for duty when Ringo fell ill. Harris subsequently worked as a musical conductor for Pye Records, alongside Nancy Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Lulu and Petula Clark. His second LP “All To Bring You Morning” featured musicians from Yes including Jon Anderson, and featured an orchestral cover of “Norwegian Wood” and a version of Imagine with guitar played by Steve Howe, but his classic debut album “Movements” featured this lovely cover of “Something”, alongside other cover versions of songs by the Stones and John Lennon. Harris topped this all off by scoring the third series of TV’s Wonder Woman starring Lynda Carter in 1979. He sadly died just recently, in March 2020, from lung cancer.
Ike and Tina Turner need no introduction, and their 1970 LP Workin’ Together contained the hit single Proud Mary and two Beatles covers: a great version of “Get Back” and this even better cover of “Let It Be”
Marcia Griffiths recorded duets with Bob Marley and Bob Andy on Clement Dodd‘s Studio One label in Jamaica. She was part of the I Threes, a trio of backing singers who supported Bob Marley and the Wailers., but also released several solo albums of her own. The average asking price for an original 1969 copy of her “Don’t Let Me Down” single on the Harry J Records label is close to £200, but thankfully it was re-released last year as part of a bonus disc of tracks from Griffith’s debut 1974 album “Sweet & Nice” and is a lovely version.
Paul McCartney was in Rishikesh, India, with the rest of the Beatles (Ringo brought a suitcase of baked beans and lasted ten days) as they reflected on life following Brian Epstein’s death, and wrote what would become The White Album. Paul spotted a couple of monkeys getting amorous in the street, and wrote “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road”. Lowell Fulson was a West Coast bluesman who formed a band with Ray Charles when both were very young. He wrote “Reconsider Baby”, later recorded by Elvis Presley, gave “Three O’Clock Blues” to B.B. King, which became the latter’s first hit, and co-wrote “Tramp”, recorded by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. Fulson recorded his extended version of “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” in 1969 but due to an administrative error at the record company (or was it for contractual reasons? The music industry is a murky place…) the 1970 album it appears on – “In A Heavy Bag” – is credited to “Lowell Fulsom”.
We All Together hail from Lima, Peru, and had a penchant for Paul McCartney, covering a number of his tunes, including this one from the first Wings album. They came to the attention of the West when one of their songs appeared on the second “Nuggets” album, and this is a decent cover of, let’s face it, a little heard Wings record.
Cornershop were formed in Leicester in 1991 and came to prominence with their “Brimful of Asha” single and its Fatboy Slim makeover which topped the charts in 1998. They haven’t stopped producing music, right up to this year’s excellent LP “England Is A Garden”. Cornershop recorded Norwegian Wood for their 1997 “When I Was Born For The Seventh Time” album, the one that included “Brimful…”.. The original song was the first in Western pop to feature the sitar and saw Lennon talk in a disguised way about a one night stand he had while still married to Cynthia. Cornershop disguise it still more, at least to English speaking people, by singing in Punjabi.
Lennon described his writing “Nowhere Man” out of desperation, having abandoned efforts to write a song in a five hour session. He went off for a lie down and saw himself as a nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land…and the song was born.
Low recorded their version of Nowhere Man for a 40th anniversary tribute to Rubber Soul, released in 2005.
Elliott Smith had already been nominated for an Academy Award by the time his 1999 cover of “Because” was featured in the end credits of the Oscar-winning drama American Beauty, and appeared on the film’s soundtrack LP. His subsequent album Figure 8 was partially recorded at Abbey Road and Smith was going to contribute a cover of “Hey Jude” for The Royal Tenenbaums movie, before personal issues got in the way. He died in 2003, and the last song he played live in concert was a cover of The Beatles’ “Long Long Long”.
“Every Night” was a song on McCartney’s low-fi debut album, released with a press kit announcing he was leaving the band. The Drifters have famously had over sixty singers in their line up over the years – even more than the Sugababes. They recorded and released this version – with Johnny Moore on lead vocals – as a single in 1972, and it appeared on the following year’s “Drifters Now” LP.
Chicago’s Ramsey Lewis took piano lessons from just 4 years old. He formed a jazz trio and had a top five hit with “The In Crowd” in 1965. Personnel changes included a brief stint for drummer Maurice White, later of Earth Wind and Fire. The 1968 album Mother Nature’s Son featured White on drums, playing ten instrumental versions of songs that featured on The Beatles’ White Album which had been released just a few weeks previously. “Cry Baby Cry” was a highlight.
Our final song is a cover of “Come Together” by Richard “Groove” Holmes, a jazz organist best known for his 1965 recording of “Misty” and Ernie Watts, a saxophonist who had toured with The Rolling Stones and who featured on many Marvin Gaye recordings. They recorded this version in 1970 – less than a year after the original topped the charts in America – for their album of the same name.
Don’t forget you can listen to all of these songs by clicking the “Play” button at the top of the page or clicking the link below it (and do check out the other mixes while you are there)
More Beatles cover versions in part 2 of “Without The Beatles” next time…