The Singer Not the Song: The Best Covers Ever

Craig Rosen
Stop The Presses!

Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog," famously covered by Elvis Presley

This week (Aug. 13) marks the 61st anniversary of Big Mama Thornton's recording of Leiber and Stoller's "Hound Dog." Although it spent seven weeks on top of the Billboard R&B chart in 1953, it was nearly forgotten after a fellow named Elvis Presley recorded his version of the track four years later. His version spent 11 weeks at No. 1 in the summer of '56, effectively turning Thornton into a footnote in the story of his success.

That song is by far not the first original tune which ultimately was usurped by a cover version in terms of popularity, however. Read on for our list of the best cover songs, like, ever.

The Rolling Stones "The Singer Not the Song," famously covered by Alex Chilton

Back in 1965, the Rolling Stones released a song titled "The Singer Not the Song" in which Mick Jagger maintains that the voice is more important than the material while singing about a troubled relationship. The song wasn't a hit, appearing on the B-side of "Get Off Of My Cloud" in the U.K. and as an album track on December's Children (And Everybody's) in the States, but it went on to be covered several times, most notably by former Box Tops and Big Star frontman Alex Chilton. Chilton's version was recorded for 1975's Bach's Bottom, a sloppy booze-fueled collection of originals and covers, and somehow ol' Alex's take of the song manages to sound looser and cooler than the Stones, and that's something not many artists can accomplish.

Irma Thomas' "Time Is on My Side," famously covered by The Rolling Stones

The Stones, who started their career as a cover band, have also done their fair share of remakes that have surpassed the originals, including their first big U.S. hit, "Time Is on My Side." Prior to the Stones, the song, written by Jerry Ragavoy, was recorded by New Orleans soul great Irma Thomas. Although Thomas released her version in 1964 as a B-side, hers actually wasn't the first. A jazz trombonist named Kai Winding, with vocals by Garnet Mimm's Enchanters, was the first to commit it to wax, but the Stones version, which peaked at No. 6, also in '64, remains the ultimate rendition of the song. Considering Mick Jagger just celebrated his 70th birthday after wrapping the band's "50 and Counting" tour, it's an appropriate song to be linked to the band's legacy.

The Zutons' "Valerie" famously covered by Mark Ronson featuring Amy Winehouse

The phenomenon of killer covers isn't just a thing of the distant past. It continues to this century, although the retro vibe sometimes remains. Take the version of "Valerie" by the late, great Amy Winehouse for example. The song was first written and first recorded by British band the Zutons in 2006. A year later, ace producer Mark Ronson enlisted Winehouse to cover the track on his album, Versions. It later turned up as a bonus track on Winehouse's breakthrough album Back to Black and remains one of her finest recordings.

Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You," famously covered by Whitney Houston

Since we're on the late divas tip, Whitney Houston's version of Dolly Parton's two-time No. 1 country hit "I Will Always Love You" might be the most famous cover version ever. And the man that deserves credit for making Houston's version decidedly different than Parton's was her Bodyguard co-star. "I would love to take credit for it, but it was Kevin Costner's idea," producer David Foster once told me. "I said, 'Kevin, I don't like that idea. Maybe for the movie we'll do it, but for the record, I don't think that is such a good idea.'" Yet when Foster recorded Houston's vocal in Miami, he changed his mind. "She started singing with no music and I just went, 'Wow, this is incredible.'"

The American public agreed. Houston's version topped the singles chart for 14 weeks, while the soundtrack album had even a longer run at the top, racking up 20 nonconsecutive weeks at the summit.

As an extra bonus, check on this version of the song by John Doe, of Los Angeles punk band X, which played on a jukebox during a scene in the film.

Otis Redding's "Respect," famously covered by Aretha Franklin

"Respect" is a song that is so closely affiliated with Aretha Franklin that few people know that the Queen of Soul wasn't the first to record it. That honor went to another legend, Otis Redding, who also wrote the track and scored a No. 5 R&B hit with it in 1965. However, that was all but forgotten after Franklin's version was cut under the guidance of legendary producer Arif Mardin. It was Franklin and her sister Carolyn's idea to add the unforgettable "sock it to me" bit to the song. That along with Franklin's spirited vocal and King Curtis' amazing sax solo were enough to drive "Respect" to the top of the R&B chart for eight weeks and for two weeks on top of the pop chart in '67. While Redding happily collected the songwriting royalties, he once complained, "That girl stole that song from me."

Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," famously covered by Sinead O'Connor

As Aretha proved, sometimes the ladies just do it better. The same could be said of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U." The then-Purple One first wrote the track for his side project the Family, consisting of former members of the Time and Susannah Melvoin, the twin sister of Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin and Prince's then- love interest. It appeared on the group's self-titled 1985 album; however, it wasn't until five years later when most of the world heard the song recorded by Irish singer Sinead O'Connor, who had been mostly an underground sensation prior to the release of the track and stunning video that featured O'Connor crying real tears. Prince subsequently released his own version of the song on his 1993 compilation The Hits/The B-sides, but frankly, it didn't compare to O'Connor's take.

The Beatles' "Come Together," famously covered by Aerosmith

Covering the Beatles is stepping on sacred ground. Making a movie based on the music of one of the Beatles' classic albums, starring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees, is boarding on blasphemy. Yet it all happened in 1978 with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was panned by critics and flopped at the box office, but there was at least one good thing to come from it — Aerosmith's version of "Come Together." It reached No. 23 on the Hot 100 in 1978 and the band rightly included it on their first best-of set, Aerosmith's Greatest Hits, alongside their own classics such as "Dream On" and "Walk This Way."

Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," famously covered by Jeff Buckley

Speaking of sacred ground, the same could be said of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," which originally appeared on the Canadian singer/songwriter's 1984 album Various Positions before taking on a life of its own. The song was covered by one-time Velvet Underground member John Cale in 1991 for the Cohen tribute album I'm Your Fan, but it was a killer version of the song by the late Jeff Buckley, released on 1994's Grace, that might be the best-known take. The song has been covered by so many artists that Alan Light published an entire book about it in 2012 titled The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah."

Arrows' "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," famously covered by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts

Getting back to the rock, "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," a 1981 chart-topper for Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, became the former Runaways' signature song the second time she recorded it, but she didn't write it. It was actually penned by Alan Merrill and Jake Hooker of the Arrows, who recorded it and released it in 1975 as, Merrill once explained, "a knee-jerk response to the Rolling Stones' "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)." The Arrows' success was limited to the U.K., where they had a self-titled TV show in the mid-'70s. That's where Jett first heard the tune.

Cherrelle's "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On," famously covered by Robert Palmer

In 1984, when Cherrelle recorded "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On," aided by production maestros Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of the Time, it was a top 10 R&B hit, but barely cracked the Hot 100, stalling at No. 79. A few years later, super-suave British singer Robert Palmer released his take on the track, following the chart-topping success of "Addicted to Love." With a video featuring the four lovely ladies that appeared in his earlier hit clip, it climbed all the way to No. 2.

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