Monday, August 11, 2008

COME ON BABY, COVER ME

The art of interpretation gets no respect. We diss singers like Celine Dion and Whitney Houston for not writing their own material and extol the virtues of anyone who plays an instrument or writes songs regardless of how badly they do either--or both. Lest we forget, some of the greatest musical talents of the last century--Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Judy Garland, et al--spent their entire musical careers singing other people's songs. So in celebrating the art of interpretation, I pay tribute to 1o of my all-time favorite remakes--singers performing songs written and previously recorded by other people. (I'm leaving out Mary J. Blige and U2's reworking of U2's "One" because I already discussed it extensively in another post.) Let the countdown--which, by the way, is in alphabetical order, by artist--begin.

Annie Lennox (above) "Thin Line Between Love & Hate": When Annie released her covers album, Medusa, in 1995, she was accused of having run out of musical ideas. But a rethink is in order. In my opinion, Medusa ranks as one of the best albums of its kind, with Annie claiming songs by Neil Young, Paul Simon, Bob Marley, the Clash and this golden 1971 oldie by the Persuaders (remade as an anodyne ballad by the Pretenders in the '80s). Listen closely to the lyrics. They aren't pretty. God bless Annie for accentuating the love and the hate by ending the song on such a menacing note.

Aretha Franklin "Bridge Over Troubled Water" I also adore what she did to the Burt Bacharach/Hal David classic "I Say A Little Prayer," but if "Respect" hadn't already done the trick four years earlier, when Aretha took this Simon and Garfunkel classic to church in 1971, she cemented her place as the Queen of Soul.

Chaka Khan "I Feel For You" The best-ever revamp of a Prince song. Period. (Sorry, Sinead!) Extra credit for being one of if not the first R&B hit to feather a guest rapper, Melle Mel. Where would contemporary R&B and hip hop be without Chaka Chaka Chaka Chaka Khan?

Conway Twitty "Rest Your Love On Me" It's elegant, it's understated, and it features one of Conway's most heartfelt vocals. The only thing country about this 1981 Bee Gee's cover is probably Conway, but who cares? Major props for taking an obscure track from the Brothers Gibb's 1979 Spirits Having Flown album and spinning it into a No. 1 country hit.

D'Angelo "Cruisin'": I remember listening to this on my Discman at the gym back in the pre-iPod mid-'90s. It always made me want to rip off my sweaty gym clothes and start bumping and grinding on the treadmill. Ah, the memories! Better than Smokey Robinson's original, and that's saying a lot. Where in the world are you, D'Angelo? The music's no good without you.

George Michael "Miss Sarajevo": An excellent interpretive singer who also happens to be one of pop's greatest living songwriters, this version of the U2/Luciano Pavarotti song from his 1999 Songs From The Last Century covers album blew away everything else on it.

Kim Carnes "More Love" There's much more to Kim than "Bette Davis Eyes," her massive 1981 No. 1 hit. Another Smokey Robinson cover, this preceded Kim's signature tune into the Top 10 by one year. What I love so much about her performance is how truly overjoyed she sounds. For an emotion that is supposed to be all about ecstasy, songs about love are rarely performed with much of it. Kim's joy is contagious, and there's even more of it in repeated listening.

Marvin Gaye "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" Yes, the year before Marvin released what was to become his greatest hit, Gladys Knight & the Pips took a rollicking barely recognizable gospel version to No. 2 on the pop chart. By infusing the Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong composition with elements of mystery, paranoia and sensuality, Marvin, who actually recorded his version before Gladys and her Pips, made it immortal.

Nancy Sinatra "Let Me Kiss You" With a vocal assist from Morrissey, who wrote the song and released it as a single in the UK on the same day that Nancy released her version, Frank's little girl built on the quiet longing of Morrisey's Top 10 version. (Nancy's stalled at No. 46.) Foregoing Morrissey's wink-wink tendencies, she played it more straightforward, adding shades of desperate, weary and just a touch of creepy.

Tori Amos "Bonnie & Clyde '97" I don't know how she did it, but Tori not only beat Eminem at his own game, she made his song about a guy who offs his wife and disposes of the body in front of their daughter at once disturbing and sexy.

No post about remakes would be complete without an honorable mention of Luther Vandross, perhaps pop and R&B's greatest-ever interpretive singer. Also a skilled songwriter, every Luther CD included at least one total overhaul of some pop or R&B chesnut. Interestingly, when he finally got around to recording an actual covers album, 1994's Songs, the collection failed to wow as much as his remakes did in single doses. Here are my five favorite Luther covers (followed by the singers who made them hits):

1. "Superstar/Until You Come Back To Me" (The Carpenters/Stevie Wonder) (see video below)
2. "Creepin'" (Stevie Wonder)
3. "Knocks Me Off My Feet" (Stevie Wonder)
4. "Anyone Who Had A Heart" (Dionne Warwick)
5. "A House Is Not A Home" (Dionne Warwick)

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