I’m a musical sponge and because of that I seem to always forget not everyone has the same breadth of music knowledge as I do. Which is fine by me because I like being able to share and teach people the things I’ve found interesting. One of these instances is over cover songs. In recent culture they’ve had a sudden resurgence in popularity thanks to BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge, but there are many iconic songs that few people realize are actually cover songs.
I choose in my opinion the 10 most commonly not known cover songs. Many of these songs have gotten to be so large in society because the cover version is arguably more popular. These are the songs that when you start to Google them by name the cover song pops up higher in the search results. I and many others will also admit to enjoying the cover song most of the time over the original.
*For page size I’m only placing the cover song, but all originals are linked in the first appearance of the original performer’s name if you’d like to listen to the differences.*
The Man Who Sold the World
The acoustic performance of “The Man Who Sold the World” is one of my favorite performances I’ve ever heard. Any critic will call it one of the most notable music performances of the last 50 years. Nirvana was playing Unplugged and Kurt Cobain was raw and emotional in the setting. (If you’re a Nirvana fan and never seen the whole thing, google it. Now.) The Unplugged taping was one of Cobain’s final performances and it’s become legendary in it’s own right. Even hardcore music fans often forget that David Bowie was the creator of the song.
(If you’re a Nirvana fan please come talk to me about this Montage of Heck documentary coming out.)
Hurt – Johnny Cash
Another artist whose final songs before death included a cover song. “Hurt” did a surprising thing for Johnny Cash’s career, it re-vitalized the singer for a new generation. While Cash used the song as a tale of life winding down and losing the love of his life, June – it was originally written about a heroin addiction from the rock band Nine Inch Nails. Knowing how Cash meant to project “Hurt” and the close dates of Johnny and June’s deaths many people speculate that he died of a broken heart (actually a valid syndrome) and to me, the eerie power of this song is increased.
All Along the Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix
Everybody and their brother knows the intro chord progressions to the Hendrix version of “All Along the Watchtower” the minute it starts. It may very well be the best known intro to a song in existence. It was actually written and performed in a more mellow, less funky guitar version by Bob Dylan originally. The watchtower is real and based in my home state of Minnesota – I sadly haven’t been inside it yet, fingers crossed for this year. Of all the songs on this list, this is the one I didn’t realize was a cover song until a few years ago either. That was until I took the most liberal arts university class a person could take, Bob Dylan: A Poet and A Prophet on the American Roads. It was amazing all we did was lounge outside on the grass in spring, listening to Bob Dylan music, and analyzing the poetic features in his lyrics. One of my favorite classes I ever took.
Uncle John’s Band – Jimmy Buffett
Parrot heads know this song as it’s become a mainstay in Buffett’s concert rotation. Many Parrot heads don’t realize that Buffett chose to cover “Uncle John’s Band” from The Grateful Dead. It’s no surprise that he choose this particular band and song because both Buffet and The Dead have very similar jam vibes to their music catalogs. I grew up hearing both versions of the song and it took me a long time to differentiate between the two. Buffett’s has more island tones, like you’re sipping a Pina Colada on the beach. The Dead’s is more mellow, like a spring day.
Crazy – Patsy Cline
I was shocked when I learned “Crazy” was performed by Willie Nelson first. It’s iconic Patsy Cline. “Crazy” is the song she is most known for! It was a song performance that changed the trajectory of country music. Willie himself has admitted that Patsy took the song to a new dimension and makes it hers that he even forgets who wrote it originally.
Twist and Shout – The Beatles
The song that is featured at every wedding and middle school dance until the end of time, “Twist and Shout” has a confusing history before it became another Beatles hit. “Twist and Shout” was actually written for The Top Notes, but any versions of that song are rare, it was considered a flop. In the early 60s it was then recorded by The Isley Brothers and while this version is played from time to time still, there wasn’t commercial success at the time. It wasn’t until a year after The Isley Brothers that The Beatles recorded their iconic version that shot up the charts and went down in history as another turning point in Beatlemania.
I Will Always Love You – Whitney Houston
Oh yes, the song that defined the 90s. Whitney Houston and her powerhouse voice on “I Will Always Love You” from The Bodyguard soundtrack was originally a country song by Dolly Parton. Both versions have had immense amount of fame and airplay. Two very well known women with crazy voice ranges both performed the emotion of this song perfectly, just for two very different genres and generations. It’s funny how music can do that isn’t it?
Me and Bobby McGee – Janis Joplin
The legendary Kris Kristofferson wrote “Me and Bobby McGee”, but it’s a name hardly any recognize that sang it first – Roger Miller. In the original version, Bobby is a woman, but Joplin loved the song and wanted to record her own version of it. After gaining Kristofferson’s permission she changed the gender and boom a classic was born. When you think of the essential Janis Joplin collection I would put bets that this is one of two songs that come to 90% of people’s minds immediately.
With A Little Help From My Friends – Joe Cocker
I know I think of The Wonder Years intro when I hear Joe Cocker’s rendition of “With A Little Help from My Friends” but Cocker has been performing the song since his Woodstock days. Cocker made the bold move in the 60s of taking a already well known song by The Beatles his own. Covers weren’t very heard of at that time, especially covers of songs that had been popular on the charts, but Cocker always enjoyed a bold move. The massive differences in sound come from instrumentation, “With A Little Help From My Friends” by Cocker is more guitar focused as his style normally was, where The Beatles had started experimenting with all sorts of sounds by this point in their career.
I Shot the Sheriff – Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton’s version of “I Shot the Sheriff” is actually in The GRAMMYs Hall of Fame, that’s how notorious his cover is. Released at the right time of political unrest in America as the end of The Vietnam War was winding down, many people felt a connection to the song. If you listen to the reggae vibe underneath even Clapton’s version, I bet many could guess that the man behind “I Shot the Sheriff” was actually Bob Marley about unfair justice in his home of Jamaica.
Was finding out any of these songs are cover songs a surprise to you? Can you think of other commonly not realized covered songs?
P.S. – If you want to know one of the reasons I became such a music lover, learn how Almost Famous taught me about life, love, following my passions, and some bad ass tunes.
Until next time,