Saturday, October 11, 2014

I Write the Songs… Sometimes: 10 Singer-Songwriters Whose Biggest Hits Were Covers

Oleta Adams and yours truly on the night I heard her sing "New York State of Mind" in New York City
I would like to take this opportunity to set the record straight -- the cover record, that is. I recently spent an entire blog post railing against the creative evil that is the covers album. Well, that might be overstating my objection to them. I didn't say they're evil, just lazy. And in making my case, I may have given the impression that I have a problem with remakes in general.

I won't remake my initial case, but let me restate this one: In general, I don't have a problem with remakes. On the contrary, I have great deal of respect for interpretative singing, an art that doesn't get the respect it deserves. Where would the history of music be without it? Some of the greatest performers in various genres over the years have been primarily interpretative singers. Most of the '50s -- including the king of rock & roll himself, Elvis Presley -- wouldn't have happened without them. Nor would have The Great American Songbook, Motown, Brill Building pop, Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, Leiber and Stoller, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Philly soul, disco and country music, a genre whose very foundation was laid by singers of other people's songs.

And were it not for interpretative singing, a number of excellent singer-songwriters wouldn't have scored their greatest hits, like these 10…

Joan Osborne Those who are familiar with this '90s one-hit wonder only through her lone smash (1995's No. 4 Billboard Hot 100 hit "One of Us," written by Eric Bazilian of The Hooters) and her covers of vintage R&B (most notably in the 2002 Funk Brothers documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown), might not even be aware that she's so much more than a killer voice. Over the years, I've enjoyed Osborne best rocking out on her own material, particularly "Right Hand Man," a follow-up single to "One of Us," and her 2000 album Righteous Love.

Nilsson As is the case with Osborne, those who know Harry Nilsson through his best-known work, know him all wrong. His two biggest hits as a performer -- 1969's "Everybody's Talkin'" and 1971's "Without You" -- sound like they were sung by a completely different guy than the performer of "Coconut" and "Jump Into the Fire," his own compositions from Nilsson Schmilsson, the 1971 album that contained "Without You," and the writer of "One," Three Dog Night's 1969 No. 5 hit.

Bobby Goldsboro I wonder how it makes as gifted a songwriter as Goldsboro feel that his biggest million-sellers -- 1971's "Watching Scotty Grow," and "Honey," the No. 1 Hot 100 single of 1968 -- weren't written by him. Oh, well. He saved the best, 1974's Top 20 "Summer (The First Time)," for himself, and he'll forever be the guy responsible for putting Brenda Lee on my map, via "The Cowgirl and the Dandy," a song he wrote and recorded in 1977 (as "The Cowboy and the Lady") that was the first thing I ever heard Lee sing way back in 1980 when it was climbing the country singles chart en route to becoming a Top 10 hit there.

Jim Kerr "You write the beautiful songs," his then-wife Chrissie Hynde wrote and sang in deference to him on The Pretenders' 1987 single "My Baby." Those beautiful songs didn't include Simple Minds' signature hit, "Don't You Forget About Me," but there was so much more greatness where that didn't come from. (Like, for instance, "Mandela Day, the song that was playing on a continuous loop the Friday afternoon last year when I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and was one-third of Simple Minds' only UK No. 1 single, via the Ballad of the Streets EP, which also featured "Belfast Child," a musical remake of an Irish folk song for which Simple Minds composed new lyrics, and a cover of Peter Gabriel's "Biko.")

Oleta Adams Like Osborne, a '90s one-hit wonder (if you don't count her appearance on Tears for Fears' 1989 Top 40 single "Woman in Chains") best known for singing someone else's song (in her case, Brenda Russell's "Get Here"), and possibly one of the finest interpretative singers by whom I've ever had the pleasure of being floored. She's also the only performer who has ever made Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" tolerable to me. Hell, she made me love it on par with how much I used to love my former adopted hometown. If you haven't heard her version of "Evolution" (an Ivan Lins co-write) or Little Feat's "Long Distance Love," you're missing out. But if you aren't familiar with her originals (which make up roughly half of her three pop-charting albums from the '90s), you're missing out more.

Kim Carnes Like Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan (I know, random comparison), Carnes is a singing-songwriting non-one-hit wonder that most people probably don't recognize as a gifted songwriter (though, also like Franklin and Khan, she wrote a number of her own hits) because their greatest commercial successes as solo artists came with other people's songs. In Carnes' case, they were Smokey Robinson's "More Love" and Jackie DeShannon's "Bette Davis Eyes," her only solo Top 10 pop hits and, for me, the definitive versions of both songs.

Luther Vandross A gifted singer-songwriter and arranger who was known for always assuming ownership of at least pop or soul classic on every album, Vandross still enjoyed a string of self-penned R&B and pop hits during the '80s and '90s. However, despite his creative prowess, the man who was responsible for arranging the backing vocals on David Bowie's "Young Americans" and co-writing and co-producing "Jump To It," Aretha Franklin's first '80s classic, has other songwriters to thank for his biggest Hot 100 chart mark (via "Endless Love," his 1994 No. 2 duet with Mariah Carey) and one half-of his second-biggest one (the "Love Power" portion of 1991's Top 5 "Power of Love/Love Power").

Robert Plant Little-known (or remembered) fact: The former Led Zeppelin vocalist who had a hand in writing some of the most enduring hard-rock classics of the 1970s and one of the few frontmen-turned-solo acts whose work on his own actually holds up, had his biggest Hot 100 success with The Honeydrippers, whose cover of Phil Phillips's "Sea of Love" went to No. 3 in 1985. In fact, The Honeydrippers, whose other Top 40 hit, a remake of Roy Brown's "Rockin' at Midnight," was basically a pop-revivalist supergroup featuring Plant, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Nile Rodgers.

Bryan Ferry Yes, the man whose band, Roxy Music, is often credited, alongside David Bowie, as being the greatest inspiration for '80s new-wave music (frequently by the new-wave artists themselves), the guy who wrote (or co-wrote) "Virginia Plain," "Love Is the Drug," "More Than This" and "Avalon," has this in common with Plant: His biggest chart hit arrived via someone else's song. In Ferry's case, it was a Roxy Music cover of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy," a 1981 UK and Australian No. 1. (Fun fact: Ferry's 1973 solo debut These Foolish Things may have launched the modern covers album and was released two weeks before Bowie's own covers album, Pin Ups.)

Dolly Parton Last but definitely not least. The most interesting case of a singer-songwriter scoring with a cover -- covers -- Parton has been on both sides of the creative exchange, a beneficiary as solely the singer and solely the writer of a classic record. Though she's written the bulk of her own material over the years, both her first and her biggest crossover pop successes -- "Here You Come Again" and "Islands in the Stream," respectively -- were composed by others, and one song she wrote for herself and actually took to No. 1 on Billboard's country singles chart twice, "I Will Always Love You," is best known as the song that Whitney Houston turned into one of the biggest singles of the '90s. Once when I interviewed Parton, I happened to mention a few of my favorite '80s singles by her: "Starting Over Again," "But You Know I Love You," "Old Flames Can't Hold a Candle to You"... "Oh," she said with a laugh. "All songs I didn't write!" (Fun facts: "Starting Over Again" was co-written by none other than the queen of disco herself, Donna Summer, while the co-author of "Old Flames" was one Patricia Rose Sebert, aka Kesha's mom!)

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