A Brief History
On November 14, 1978, 40 years ago today, the #1 Song in the United States was the disco dance tune, “MacArthur Park,” by the Queen of Disco, Donna Summer. Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in 1948, this powerful singer unfortunately died in 2012, at the too young age of 63 from lung cancer though she was a non-smoker. (She thought all the contaminated air she breathed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York is what caused her cancer.) Summer was certainly not the first or the last musical artist to take a previously recorded song and take it to the top of the charts. Today we take a look at 5 of these great songs that are actually covers.
“MacArthur Park,” 1968, 1978.
Originally a #2 hit by Richard Harris in 1968 (#1 in Australia and Canada), other artists also had some success with this epic song, including country artist Waylon Jennings that took his country version to winning a Grammy in 1969 (Grammy Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal). Despite the overwhelming commercial success of the song, and the fact that we hear it played often enough on the (satellite) radio, a Miami based journalist polled his readers in 1992 and “MacArthur Park” was selected as the “Worst Song of All Time!” (“Worst Lyrics” and “Worst Overall Song”) Wow! Even though the Four Tops took their version to #38 and Andy Williams had a successful “Easy Listening” version in 1972. The Donna Summer version was considerably different in tone (and in some lyrics) than the Richard Harris ballad type rendition. Summer sang the tune faster and with more excitement, though less angst. Elvis Presley was known to sing the song in a parody way accentuating the over-seriousness of the Harris version. While this author is not really a fan of “disco” music, the Donna Summer version of the song is really great.
“Hound Dog,” 1952, 1956.
Surely just about every living human has heard the 1956 Elvis Presley version that reached #1 not only on the Pop Charts, but also on the R&B and Country Charts. The Elvis version sold an incredible 100 million copies, making it one of the most successful recordings of all time. Perhaps you are not familiar with the original recording of this Lieber & Stoller classic by Big Mama Thornton in 1952. That original version was also a hit, selling 500,000 copies and reaching #1 on the R&B Charts. Television had become much more commonplace in the United States by 1956, and the Elvis rendition of his mega-hit crooned to a bored looking Basset Hound on the Milton Berle Show on June 5, 1956, is one of the iconic television musical performances of all time. Rock and Roll music had really grabbed the US by storm, and Elvis was the “King” of the new musical genre, and “Hound Dog” was his signature song. Even though other people (beyond Big Mama Thornton) had already recorded the tune.
“Blue Moon,” 1934, 1961.
The wonderful doo-wop version by the Marcels went to #1 in 1961, a sped-up version with an incredible beat and doo-wop mumbo jumbo lyrics thrown in. (Bomp-baba bomp, dangy dang dang, etc). The song was first recorded way back in 1934, an adaptation of a Rogers and Hart tune written for a movie (Hollywood Party) altered for another film (Manhattan Melodrama). Further altered yet, the commercial version was recorded in 1934 with Muzzy Marcellino on vocals, reaching the Variety Top Ten and staying there for 18 weeks, peaking at #1 in 1935. The song has appeared in at least 7 movies and has been recorded by many major recording artists, including Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton, The Supremes, Cyndi Lauper, Bob Dylan, Dean Martin and even Yvonne De Carlo (Lily Munster from television), among others. Oh, and Elvis Presley had an eerie, haunting version recorded in 1954, released in 1956 on his first album (“Elvis Presley”). This author was aware of the Elvis version (and has long loved it), but prior to researching this song had no idea it went so far back and had so many big stars singing and recording it.
“Twist and Shout,” 1961, 1963.
Okay, technically the Beatles version did not hit #1 in the US in 1964 (released in the UK in 1963) but only because another Beatles tune was at the top spot, “Can’t Buy Me Love” holding the top spot. So, you can accurately say that “Twist and Shout” by the Beatles was on top of all songs by all other artists, other than the Beatles themselves! (And it did reach #1 in the UK, so there, you nit pickers…) The other version you are probably familiar with is the Isley Brothers recording from 1962, a fine record indeed, and the basis for the Beatles version. The Isley’s version only reached #17 on the US Pop Charts but got to #2 on the US R&B Charts. The first recording of this rock standard was recorded by the Top Notes, a record produced by Phil Spector before Spector had hit the big time. Incredibly, considering “Twist and Shout” is such a great song, that first effort flopped, which just goes to show you, arrangement and performance can make or break even a good song.
“Respect,” 1965, 1967.
In the case of “Respect,” the two singers most associated with the song each gave it a different take; the 1965 Otis Redding original (Redding also wrote the song) is about a desperate man willing to give his love anything she wants; whereas the more famous 1967 Franklin interpretation is about a woman demanding respect. This difference is reflected in the tone of the respective versions. In 1967, the blue-eyed soul group The Vagrants had a minor hit with it as well. The Aretha Franklin version became her signature song, and also a standard of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Her version featured the familiar spelling R-E-S-P-E-C-T and the “sock it to me” lines. Franklin also pulled down a pair of Grammy Awards for her rendition. The Motown supergroups, the Temptations and Supremes collaborated on a version of the tune in 1968.
Bonus Song: “Delta Dawn,” 1971, 1972, 1973.
This song catapulted 13 year old Tanya Tucker to prominence on the Country Charts in 1972 (#6), and later became a #1 hit for Australian Helen Reddy on the US Pop Charts as well as the US Easy Listening Charts. The Helen Reddy version also reached #1 in Canada and Australia. The song was first performed by co-writer Alex Harvey in 1971. Dianne Davidson, a backup singer for Harvey, recorded the song in 1971 and yet another of Harvey’s backup singers, Tracy Nelson, sang the song as part of her act. The Helen Reddy version was released only 2 days before Bette Midler released her own version! (Note: This author saw Tanya Tucker live at the Cleveland Sportsman’s’ Show at Public Auditorium, I believe in 1973, and she blew us out of the building with a fantastic rendition of “Burning Love.”)
Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite cover song that made it to #1? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Morse, Tim. Classic Rock Stories: The Stories Behind the Greatest Songs of All Time. St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998.
Padgett, Ray. Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time. Sterling, 2017.
The featured image in this article, a low-resolution image of the cover art for “MacArthur Park”, is used in an article intended for educational purposes per fair use under the copyright law of the United States.