When Covers Are Just As Much Fun As Originals

A playlist of some of my favorite covers part II

Recently, I remembered a post from July 2017, which featured some of my favorite cover versions of songs I dig. This triggered the idea to put together a second part. Rather than focusing on covers I already knew, this time, I decided to take a slightly different approach. Except for one instance, I picked some of my all-time favorite songs and checked whether they have been covered and, if yes, by whom. Not only did I find some intriguing renditions, but there were also a couple of real surprises.

Ella Fitzgerald/Sunshine of Your Love

Did you know that one of the greatest voices in jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, covered Cream? I had absolutely no idea! Not only did she do so, but she even named a live album after the tune: Sunshine of Your Love, released in 1969. Composed by Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton with lyrics by Pete Brown, the original was included on Cream’s sophomore album Disraeli Gears from November 1967. Fitzgerald’s orchestral version is really cool. Obviously her singing is amazing. Check it out!

Richie Havens/Won’t Get Fooled Again

Richie Havens performing The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again was another unexpected find. He recorded the tune for his final studio album Nobody Left to Crown that appeared in March 2008. The original, written by Pete Townshend, was included on my favorite album by The Who, Who’s Next, their fifth studio release from August 1971. Haven’s acoustic guitar-driven taken is great. I also like the violin. He really made the epic rocker his own.

Townes Van Zandt/Dead Flowers

Townes Van Zandt wrote almost all tunes that are on his 10 studio albums, and many of them have been recorded by the likes of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and Gillian Welch. One exception is the live album Roadsongs, a collection of live covers from the mid-’70s through the early ’80s, which was released in 1994. It includes a fantastic take of Dead Flowers, which has become my favorite song by The Rolling Stones, at least on most days! Co-written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Dead Flowers was included on Sticky Fingers, which also happens to believe is the best Stones album that appeared in April 1971. It’s almost a bit painful to listen to Van Zandt’s version, considering he had struggled with drug addiction for most of his short life.

Noah Guthrie/Whipping Post

Noah Guthrie is a 27-year-old South Carolina-based singer-songwriter. According to his website, he taught himself to play guitar and began writing songs at 14. Here’s a “quarantine” cover version of Whipping Post Guthrie recorded with his band Good Trouble in April 2020. Written by Gregg Allman, Whipping Post appeared on the eponymous debut album of The Allman Brothers Band from November 1969. While this cover stays close to the original, these guys are doing a great job, giving this classic a nice build.

Heart/Stairway to Heaven

This cover of the Led Zeppelin gem is the exception I noted above. In other words, I had known about it. Just the other day, I watched this footage again from the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors, during which Heart with Jon Bonham’s son Jason Bonham on drums honored the surviving members of Led Zeppelin. This is one of the most amazing renditions of Stairway to Heaven, co-written by Jimmy Page, Robert Plant (and Randy California of Spirit!), and included on Led Zeppelin IV from November 1971. Messrs. Page, John Paul Jones and Plant were visibly touched. Yes, it’s a bit bombastic but still so good!

Kenny Lattimore/While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Here’s a great soulful version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps by Kenny Lattimore, an R&B and gospel singer-songwriter who has released seven studio albums to date. This cover of the George Harrison tune – one of his best during his period with The Beatles, IMO – is included on his sophomore album From the Soul of Man that came out in October 1998. While My Guitar Gently Weeps was first recorded for the White Album from November 1968. Thank goodness John Lennon and Paul McCartney didn’t reject all of Harrison’s songs!

Green Day/Like a Rolling Stone

In case you’ve ever asked yourself how Bob Dylan would sound grunge style, here’s one possible answer. Green Day’s eighth studio album 21st Century Breakdown from May 2009 includes this version of Like a Rolling Stone as a bonus track. The maestro first recorded the tune for his sixth studio album Highway 61 Revisited released in August 1965.

Willie Nelson/Have You Ever Seen the Rain (feat. Paula Nelson)

The last cover I’d like to call out is a breathtakingly beautiful rendition of my favorite Creedence Clearwater Revival song: Have You Ever Seen the Rain, written by John Fogerty and included on CCR’s sixth studio album Pendulum from December 1970. Willie Nelson recorded this rendition with his daughter Paula Nelson for his 62nd studio album To All the Girls…, which appeared in October 2013. Nelson, who at age 87 remains active, has a new album coming out on February 26, his 71st! In April 2019, Nelson told Rolling Stone weed had “saved his life,” adding, “I wouldn’t have lived 85 years if I’d have kept drinking and smoking like I was when I was 30, 40 years old.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Noah Guthrie website; Rolling Stone; YouTube

My Playlist: Fab Four Covers

What do you do in music when you run out of ideas? Get “inspired” by the work of others and claim it as your own ingenious creation. And get good legal representation. Just ask Led Zeppelin!

For any first time visitors, I totally dig Zep and Stairway To Heaven. I’m glad they recorded that song, which probably is my most favorite rock tune. Messrs. Page and Plant just should have given credit where credit was due, even if ripping off Taurus by Spirit was a subconscious act. Okay, ’nuff going on a tangent, this is supposed to be a happy post. And guess what? It totally was my idea! 🙂

This morning, I watched a clip of a Paul McCartney appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. At some point, Colbert noted many other artists had done covers of Beatles songs, adding he believed Yesterday was the most covered tune. He then asked McCartney about his favorite version. Thinking about Yesterday, McCartney mentioned Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and his favorite, Marvin Gaye. Then I completely erased the clip from my memory.

Fast-forward 30 minutes. I’m sitting at my computer, and suddenly out of nowhere, a flash of ingenuity hit me. What if I did a playlist of Beatles songs covered by other artists? What a brilliant and original idea, I thought, so here it is!

Got To Get You Into My Life (Earth, Wind & Fire)

Essentially, this was an homage to Motown, which The Beatles recorded in 1966 for the Revolver album. In July 1978, Earth, Wind & Fire released a fantastic cover of the tune as a single. It also was part of the less than stellar feature film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Feel free to snip along!

Yesterday (Marvin Gaye)

I trust this song needs no further introduction. What you may not have known is that none other than the fabulous Marvin Gaye recorded a take of the timeless ballad. And when Marvin sang, magic happened most of the time. He included his version of Yesterday on his tenth studio album That’s The Way Love Is from January 1970. Just listen to this – makes me feel like floating in space!

We Can Work It Out (Stevie Wonder)

We Can Work It Out is a non-album single The Beatles issued in December 1965 as a double A-side with Day Tripper. Stevie Wonder liked the song and decided to record a take for his August 1970 studio album Signed, Sealed & Delivered. Who can blame him? According to Wikipedia, Wonder performed the tune for McCartney on various occasions. Even if you’re Paul McCartney, it’s gotta be cool to witness Stevie Wonder playing one of your songs!

Eleanor Rigby (Ray Charles)

This is one of my all-time favorite Beatles tunes and another track from the Revolver album. I also dig this cover by Ray Charles, which he recorded as a single in 1968.

In My Life (Johnny Cash)

In My Life is one of the most beautiful and moving songs John Lennon has written and a standout on the Rubber Soul album, in my opinion. Gosh, I can’t deny this tune gets me every time! At first, I wanted to feature the cover by Bette Midler, a fantastic vocalist. Then I came across this take by Johnny Cash, which blew me away. There’s perhaps nobody better than the Man in Black when it comes to conveying raw emotion and vulnerability, especially during the later stages of his career. This take is from American IV: The Man Comes Around, a studio album released in November 2002, about 10 months before he passed away.

She’s A Woman (José Feliciano)

José Feliciano is an artist I’ve admired for many years, not only because of his outstanding guitar-playing, but also because of great covers he has done and how he has made them his own. Check out this amazing version of She’s A Woman, which The Beatles initially released as the B-side to their I Feel Fine single in November 1964. Feliciano’s take also first appeared as a single, in 1969. I love how he gave it a Latin jazz type groove.

If I Needed Someone (Roger McGuinn)

If I Needed Someone has become one of my favorite Beatles and George Harrison tunes. And who better to cover it than Roger McGuinn, the man who after seeing George playing a Rickenbacker guitar on TV knew that jingle-jangle sound was made for him and The Byrds. If I Needed Someone is another gem on Rubber Soul. McGuinn recorded his version for his seventh solo album Limited Edition that came out in April 2004. Every time I hear that distinct Rickenbacker sound, I’m getting the same sentiment than listening to a Hammond B3 – I want one. So badly!

I’m leaving you with one more cover, which perhaps is the ultimate rock remake of all time: With A Little Help From My Friends by Joe Cocker. Cocker has recorded strong versions of various Beatles tunes, but this one from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the crown jewel. It became the title track of his debut album from May 1969.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Spirit/The Family That Plays Together

Sophomore album showcases band’s remarkable versatility

One of my favorite George Harrison songs, The Inner Light, includes the wise words, “The farther one travels/The less one knows/The less one really knows.” This how I frequently feel when writing this blog. During research I oftentimes come across things I wasn’t aware of. The most recent example is my post about Walter Becker, who I learned took guitar lessons with Randy Craig Wolfe. Wolfe was also known as Randy California, and an original member of Spirit, an American rock band that wasn’t on my radar screen.

When I looked up Spirit, I realized it’s the band that wrote the instrumental Taurus, which features an opening guitar progression that sounds very similar to the main theme of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. In April 2016, original Spirit bassist Mark Andes ended up filing an infringement lawsuit against Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, but a jury ruled the similarities between Taurus and Stairway didn’t add up to copyright violation. In March this year, an attorney and trustee for Wolfe filed an appeal.

While I believe the outcome of the appeal is still pending, there is much more to Spirit than this legal dispute. In fact, once I started listening to their music, I noticed they were a pretty remarkable band. This brings me to The Family That Plays Together, their second study album, which appeared in December 1968.

At the time, Spirit still had its original lineup. In addition to California (lead guitar, lead vocals, backing vocals, bass) and Andes (bass, backing vocals), the band included Jay Ferguson (lead vocals, keyboards, percussion), John Locke (keyboards) and Ed Cassidy (drums, percussion).

The record starts off with I Got a Line On You. Written by California, this upbeat rocker has a great groove and a catchy chorus. The tune was also released as a single ahead of the album in October 1968. The song ended up at no. 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became Spirit’s biggest chart success.

I Got a Line On You nicely transitions into It Shall Be, a mid-tempo relaxed tune that incorporates some jazz elements and nice horn arrangements. The tune was co-written by Locke and California.

All The Same, a co-write by California and Cassidy, is another track that caught my attention. It features some cool double lead guitar parts by California and a drum solo by Cassidy. The singing reminds me a bit of Cream.

Jewish stands out, since it’s performed in Hebrew. According to Wikipedia, the lyrics came from a traditional song called Hine Ma Tov and were based on King David’s Psalm 133. The tune is solely credited to California. I don’t think I had ever heard a Hebrew song performed by a rock band.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the record’s closer Aren’t You Glad. It’s one of the six tracks written by Ferguson and includes some great guitar work.

The Family That Plays Together was produced by Lou Adler, who is known for his work with The Mamas And The Papas and especially for producing Carole King’s  iconic Tapestry. Adler was also an executive producer of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A 1996 reissue of the album includes five additional tracks, including Mellow Fellow, a previously unreleased song.

The original lineup of Spirit recorded two additional studio albums, Clear (1969) and Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (1970). Starting with 1972’s Feedback, the band issued 10 more studio records with different members, the last being California Bus from December 1996. One month later, California died under tragic circumstances at age 46 while rescuing his 12-year-old son from a rip current. In 2005, another record from Spirit appeared, which was a collection of material from 1968 that was used for the soundtrack to the 1969 motion picture Model Shop directed by Jacques Demy.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

In Memoriam of Walter Becker

Steely Dan co-founder dead at age 67

I’m still a bit in disbelief about the sad news of the untimely death of Walter Becker at age 67.  According to Rolling Stone, the passing of the Steely Dan co-founder was announced earlier today on his official website without providing any details. Uncut reported that Becker had a recent operation that prevented him from performing with the band at the Classic East and Classic West festivals in July in Los Angeles and New York, respectively – possibly an indication of a lingering health issue.

In early August, Becker’s Steely Dan compatriot Donald Fagen told Billboard that “Walter’s recovering from a procedure and hopefully he’ll be fine very soon.” He did not further elaborate. I imagine more details about the circumstances of Becker’s death are going to emerge over the next few days.

Becker was born in Queens, New York on February 20, 1950 and grew up in the city’s suburbs. He started getting into music by learning the saxophone before switching to the guitar. Becker ended up taking blues guitar lessons from his neighbor at the time, Randy Craig Wolfe, also known as Randy California. He was in good hands. Wolfe was an original member of rock band Spirit that was founded in 1967. The previous summer, he had played with Jimi Hendrix in his short-lived rock band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.

Walter Becker & Donald Fagen

In 1967, Becker and Fagen met at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where they both studied at the time. They began to form Steely Dan in the summer of 1970. According to Wikipedia, the impetus was an ad in the Village Voice placed by guitarist Danny Dias, who was looking for a “bass player and keyboard player with jazz chops.” At that time, Becker and Fagen had already written a good amount of original music.

Steely Dan’s first lineup was assembled in December 1971, after Becker, Fagen and Dias had moved to Los Angeles. The additional members included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals). Earlier, Gary Katz, a staff producer at ABC Records, had hired Becker and Fagen as staff song writers. It was also Katz who signed the band to the label.

In 1972, Steely Dan’s first single Dallas was released but sold poorly. The debut studio album Can’t Buy a Thrill followed in November that year. The producer was Katz, who also served in that role for all of the band’s other ’70s albums. Unlike the initial single, the record became very successful. It reached Gold certification in August 1973. Eventually, in September 1993, Can’t Buy a Thrill was certified Platinum, after sales had reached one million copies. Here is a clip of the record’s great opener Do It Again, one of my favorite Steely Dan tunes.

Seven months after their debut, Steely Dan released Countdown to Ecstasy in July 1973. While Bodhisattva and My Old School became concert favorites among fans, the record didn’t generate a major hit single. That changed with Pretzel Logic, the band’s third studio album, which appeared in February 1974 and featured Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. Also released separately in April 1974, the tune became Steely Dan’s most successful single, reaching no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1974.

In March 1975, Steely Dan’s fourth album Katy Lied appeared. By that time, most of the band’s original members had left, and Steely Dan essentially became Becker and Fagen who hired additional musicians as needed. Katy Lied reached Gold certification. Lead single Black Friday charted at no. 37. Notable guest musicians on the record included future Toto members David Paich (keyboards) and Jeff Porcaro (drums), as well as Michael McDonald on backing vocals. The Royal Scam followed in May 1976, another gold record for Steely Dan. Lead single Kid Charlemagne charted at no. 82 on the Billboard Hot 100.

In September 1977, Steely Dan released their sixth studio album Aja, the band’s best-selling record and my Steely Dan favorite. It peaked at no. 3 and no. 5 on the U.S. and U.K. charts, respectively, and became Steely Dan’s first platinum record. Ultimately, the album sold more than five million copies. It generated three singles, Peg, Deacon Blues and Josie. Here is a clip of my favorite one, Deacon Blues.

Gaucho, which came out in November 1980, was Steely Dan’s last studio release before they disbanded in June 1981 and went on a 20-year recording hiatus. Becker and his family moved to Maui where he became sober from drug use and eventually started working as a record producer. Fagen went on to launch a solo career. While the recording of Gaucho was impacted by various personal and professional challenges, the album was mostly well received, peaking at no. 9 on the U.S. album chart and reaching Platinum certification. The record includes the classic Hey Nineteen, which became the lead single climbing to no. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Between 1981 and 1993, Becker produced records for various artists, including Rickie Lee Jones, Michael Franks and Fra Lippo Lippi. He also became involved with the band China Crisis. Becker is listed a member of the band on their third studio album Flaunt the Imperfection. While Fagen and Becker had a couple of one-off collaborations in-between, they resumed their official partnership in 1993 when they toured as Steely Dan for the first time in 13 years.

Becker also produced Fagan’s second solo album Kamakiriad, which appeared in May 1993. In turn, Fagan became the co-producer of Becker’s 1994 solo debut 11 Tracks of Whack. Here is a clip of one of the record’s tunes, Lucky Henry, which features some great guitar work.

While Becker and Fagan continued Steely Dan tours, it took them until 2000 before they released a new album, Two Against Nature. It was a successful recording comeback, peaking at no. 6 on the Billboard 200, and scoring four Grammy awards and Platinum certification in the U.S. One of the Grammy awards was the record’s lead single Cousin Dupree, which won Best Performance by a Pop Duo or Group with Vocal.

The final Steely Dan studio album Everything Must Go appeared in June 2003. While the record received mixed reviews, it reached no. 9 on the Billboard 200. Here is a clip of the title track.

Following the album’s release, Steely Dan continued to tour frequently. At the same time, Becker and Fagan occasionally released solo albums without involvement of the other partner. Becker’s second and final such record Circus Money appeared in June 2008. Here’s a clip of Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore, a tune with a nice reggae groove.

Following are excerpts from a statement Fagen posted on his Facebook page about his long-time music partner: “Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967…We liked a lot of the same things: jazz (from the twenties through the mid-sixties), W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, science fiction, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman films come to mind. Also soul music and Chicago blues…[Becker] was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny…I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.”

Sources: Rolling Stone, Uncut, Billboard, Wikipedia, Donald Fagen Facebook page, YouTube