Great songwriting and musicianship does not guarantee that a song will be a hit, so it is wonderful when a recording artist uncovers a musical gem by, well… covering it. When a cover song becomes a hit, the original artist benefits. Often there is a renewed interest in the original artist’s work and hopefully (depending on their recording contract) they are also compensated for the use of their song. Here are 10 examples of cover songs and their original versions- we can argue about which version is better, but in each case the cover song is indisputably more famous. In some cases, perhaps you didn’t know the song is a cover:
10. All Along The Watchtower
The Cover – Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix’s version of this song appeared on the album Electric Ladyland, the third and final album released by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. It is often noted as an exemplar of the psychedelic rock genre, and was ranked by Rolling Stone Magazine as the 47th greatest song of all time, ranked above such classics as Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire and the Eagles’ Hotel California. View the cover versions of these 10 songs at our YouTube Playlist.
The Original – Bob Dylan
The song first appeared on Bob Dylan’s album John Wesley Harding in 1967. It was written soon after he had had a motorcycle accident and some claim that its lyrics were inspired by his newfound interest in the bible and have made connections between his words and the book of Isaiah. Unlike Hendrix’s electric and psychedelic rock version, the original was folksy and recorded with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica.
9. I Shot the Sheriff
The Cover – Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton released this song on his second album, 461 Ocean Boulevard. He didn’t initially plan to include the song on the album, but was eventually convinced by the other band members. It is one of his most popular and well known songs; the only one to reach number 1 on the Billboard top 100.
The Original – Bob Marley
Bob Marley, who wrote the song, released it one year before Clapton in 1973 on the album Burnin’. The album was ranked as the 319th greatest album of all time by Rolling Stone Magazine. In the story of the song, a man admits to killing the Sheriff, but claims he is falsely accused of killing the deputy. The anti-police sentiment in the song was very well received and brought much acclaim to both Marley and Clapton.
8. Oye Como va
The Cover – Santana
Oye Como Va was one of Carlos Santana’s most popular songs sung in Spanish released in the 1970’s. On the Santana ablum Abraxas, it reached 13 on the Billboard top 100 and was one of the major catalysts for his stardom. Translated literally, it means “listen to how it goes”, but can also mean “how’s it going” or “check it out”, depending on the region and context.
The Original – Tito Puente
This song was originally written and recording in 1963 by the Latin jazz musician Tito Puente. It was inspired by an earlier song by a popular Cuban Mumba artist, Israel “Cachao” López. The song has been covered by, and has inspired, several other Hispanic artists.
The Cover – Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin released her signature song, Respect , in 1967. It won her a grammy, was seen as a major anthem by the feminist movement, and was ranked by Rolling Stone Magazine as the 5th greatest song of all time, right above Johnny B. Goode and Good Vibrations. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. That spelling was not actually in the original version.
The Original – Otis Redding
Respect was originally written and performed by a man, Otis Redding, in 1965- 2 years prior to Franklin’s hit version. His version is a desperate plea from a man willing to do anything to please his significant other, as long as he gets his respect when he gets home. And by respect, he means, ….well… uh. Yeah. It was a euphemism. Aretha Franklin’s version was basically the same idea from the opposite side: if you want some, you have to respect her.
The Cover – Eric Clapton
Clapton came out with his version of this song in 1977. Clapton has received criticism in the past for the song, but he claims it is an anti-drug song. Because of this, he eventually inserted the lyric “that dirty cocaine” to make the previously ambiguous message more clear. It peaked at 30 on the US Billboard charts; however, it has become one of his most recognizable songs, called by Allmusic “among [Clapton’s] most enduring popular hits.”
The Original – JJ Cale
Cocaine was written by JJ Cale, a southern blues and rockabilly musician, about a year before Clapton’s version came out . His version did reach number one on the music charts… but only in New Zealand. Cocaine was actually only one of several songs Clapton borrowed from Cale, including “ After Midnight” and “Travelling Light.”
5. Hound Dog
The Cover – Elvis Presley
Most people don’t really listen to this song any more, but pretty much everyone has heard of it. It was Elvis’s trademark song: one of the most popular American singer’s greatest hits. His version of the song was ranked number 19 on the Rolling Stones “500 greatest songs of all time.”
The Original – Big Mama Thornton
Hound dog was a song written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The first recording of the song was by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, an African-American rhythm and blues singer, in 1952. She also recorded the song “Ball and Chain”, which later became a hit for Janis Joplin.
4. You’ve Got a Friend
The Cover – James Taylor
This song was released by James Taylor on his 1971 album Mud Slide Jim and the Blue Horizon. It reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and number four on the UK singles charts. He eventually won a grammy award for it.
The Original – Carole King
This song was originally written and performed by Carole King. It was on her album Tapestry, which came out earlier in the same year that Taylor’s version would be made famous. Before and after this, King and Taylor were friends and would occasionally perform together. They would actually often sing the song together.
3. I Will Always Love You
The Cover – Whitney Houston
Whitney Houston recorded her version of this song in 1992 for the soundtrack of her first film appearance, The Bodyguard. She was going to sing Jimmy Ruffin’s What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, but decided not too when she found out it was also going to be in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes. Her version was a huge success, eventually appearing at number 68 on Billboard’s “Greatest Songs of All Time.”
The Original – Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton wrote this song in 1973 and released it as a single a year later. It had a significant amount of success on the monthly country charts, but very limited recognition otherwise. She re-recorded it about a decade later to include it in the soundtrack for a movie she was in, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
2. Blinded by the Light
The Cover – Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
Manfred Mann’s Earth Band released Blinded by the Light on their album The Roaring Silence in 1976. It reached #1 on both Billboard’s Hot 100 and on the Canadian RPM chart. The original album recording length was over 7 minutes, but is usually cut down to around 3 on the radio. It was their first and greatest hit.
The Original – Bruce Springstein
It was originally written and performed by Bruce Springsteen on his debut album Greetings from Asbury Park N.J. His band’s version was unsuccessful and did not appear on any music charts. You may know this song from it’s famously misheard lyric. At one point in the song it sounds like he’s singing “wrapped up like a douche,” but the actual lyric is wrapped up like a deuce, a reference to a 1932 Ford.
The Cover – Johnny Cash
Hurt was one of Johnny Cash’s last hits before he died in 2003. It was released in 2002 on the album American IV: The Man Comes Around, when Cash was 71 years old. Cash’s version did fairly well on the charts in the US and UK, but for some reason got all the way to number 8 on the Norway charts. The song made it onto 2 “songs of the decade” lists, 15th on The Rolling Stones list, and 2nd on Country Music Television’s. In addition, he won several awards for his music video, including #1 on CMT’s 100 Greatest Country Music Videos in 2003, best video of the year at the 2003 Grammys, and best video of all time by NME in 2011.
The Original – Nine Inch Nails
Cash was covering a song by the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails. He changed the lyric “I wear this crown of sh*t” to “I wear this crown of thorns.” The original version, written by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, was released on the 1994 album Downward Spiral and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Song in 1996.
Can you think of a famous cover song that should be on this list? Let us know in the comments and we might add it to our…
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by Dylan Moore