It’s not always readily apparent which songs are going to become standards. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” didn’t seem to have much chance of becoming one when the Canadian singer-songwriter, who passed away Thursday at age 82, introduced it on his 1984 album Various Positions. Neither the song nor the album hit the Billboard charts that year or received a Grammy nomination.
But slowly but surely, the song has attained the status of a modern-day standard. It has reached Billboard‘s Hot 100 seven times (including a current version by the vocal group Pentatonix). It has been performed countless times on TV talent shows. Just two months ago, Tori Kelly sang the song during the “In Memoriam” segment at the Emmy Awards.
John Cale recorded one of the first significant covers of the song. He sang it on I’m Your Fan, a 1991 tribute album to Cohen. A decade later, Cale’s version was featured in the 2001 film Shrek (although Rufus Wainwright’s version appeared on the best-selling soundtrack album).
In 1994, Jeff Buckley recorded a solemn, Cale-inspired version that remains the definitive cover of the song. It appeared on his only complete album, Grace. In March 2008, after American Idol contestant Jason Castro sang Buckley’s arrangement of “Hallelujah” on Fox’s talent competition, Buckley’s recording shot to #1 on the Top Digital Songs chart.
In 1995, Bono sang the song on another tribute album, Tower of Song—The Songs of Leonard Cohen. That album also featured such other respected artists as Willie Nelson, Don Henley, Peter Gabriel and Sting, and the Chieftains.
As noted above, Rufus Wainwright’s version was included on the 2001 soundtrack, Shrek: Music from the Original Motion Picture. That album went double-platinum.
k.d. lang recorded the song on her 2004 album, Hymns of the 49th Parallel. Lang sang the song at the 2006 Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame when Cohen was inducted, and sang it again at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.
In 2008, Kate Voegele performed the song in character as Mia Catalano on the teen drama One Tree Hill. Voegele’s was the first version of the song to appear on the Hot 100.
Bon Jovi have covered the song several times in concert, including on their 2008 DVD, Live at Madison Square Garden.
In 2010, Justin Timberlake and Matt Morris sang the song on the Hope for Haiti Now telethon, accompanied by guitarist Charlie Sexton. It reached #13 on the Hot 100. That is, to date, the highest Billboard-charting version of the song.
Also in 2010, Susan Boyle included the song on her chart-topping Christmas album, The Gift.
The song has become a staple of TV talent shows. The most notable versions are those by American Idol contestants Jason Castro and Lee DeWyze and The Voice contestants Matthew Schuler and Jordan Smith.
Just last month, Pentatonix released a cover version of “Hallelujah” that cracked the top 40 on the Hot 100. The song is featured on the group’s smash Christmas album, A Pentatonix Christmas, which is on its way to becoming this year’s top-selling Christmas album.
The song has been covered in a remarkably wide range of styles. Country legend Willie Nelson recorded the song on his 2006 album, Songbird. Il Divo recorded a Spanish-language adaptation of the song on their 2008 album The Promise. That same year, Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins recorded a version for her album, Sacred Arias.
In 2012, music journalist Alan Light wrote an entire book about the song’s history, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah.’
If Grammy voters could have foreseen how much of a standard “Hallelujah” would become over the years, they would likely have given the song a nomination for Song of the Year. The winner for 1985 (which was the eligibility year for the album) was the humanitarian anthem “We Are the World,” which won more for great intentions than for great songwriting. The other nominees that year were Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer,” Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing,” Paul Young’s “Everytime You Go Away,” and Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.” All are fine songs, but none have had the staying power of Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”