Broadcasting, Music, Music Countdowns, Radio, Retro Rock

Excellent Cover Songs from Top 40 Golden Age

“Wanna see my picture on the cover

(Stone) Wanna buy five copies for my mother (Yes)

(Stone) Wanna see my smilin’ face

On the cover of the Rollin’ Stone (That’s a very very good idea)”

OK: this message has absolutely nothing to do with Shel Silverstein’s written song, “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” that was a hit for Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show in 1973.

My latest music article actually is on the topic of superb cover songs that were popular during the golden age of top 40 radio. The time frame for these excellent remakes, ranges from 1965 through 1980.

I will be featuring a countdown on what I consider to be 20 magnificent remakes of classic original songs. In most cases, the initial first version and the cover remix, are both equally-exceptional recordings.

Here is my definition of a cover song: a new performance or recording by an artist other than the original composer and/or performer.

There are a couple of different types of cover songs.  First are remakes that sound similar to original version. The second type of cover tunes are reinterpretations of a song that differs substantially from the original recording.

My countdown of outstanding cover songs will highlight newer recordings of well-known hits that are presented in unique, different and fresh ways, as compared to the older original productions.

I must note before revealing my listing of cover tunes: this is NOT an article comparing original older versions with newer renditions.  The words “better” and “best” will not be used when describing the songs that I have selected for my countdown in the cover song category.

A good example of how I am proceeding with excellent cover songs is with the fantastic Dolly Parton written ballad, “I Will Always Love You.”  The legendary country music singer-songwriter had her original superb version reach number one twice on the Billboard Hot Country chart, in 1974 and again in 1982.

Forward to 1992, Whitney Houston had one of the biggest singles of the 90s with her rendition of “I Will Always Love You.”   Houston won two Grammy Awards with Dolly’s anthem and both versions of this iconic song are uniquely outstanding.

Before I start the countdown on what I consider to be sterling cover songs, I am listing ten noteworthy tunes that landed just outside of my top 20 countdown:

  • Superstar—The Carpenters
  • Summer Breeze—The Isley Brothers
  • Here Comes the Sun—Ritchie Havens
  • Strawberry Letter 23—The Brothers Johnson
  • Dancing in the Moonlight—King Harvest
  • Sloop John B—The Beach Boys
  • Summertime Blues—Blue Cheer
  • Hush—Deep Purple
  • Crossroads—Cream
  • Without You—Nilsson

Without further ado, my countdown of fabulous cover songs begins:

20.   You’re No Good—Linda Ronstadt 1974

Original version:  Dee Dee Warwick in 1963

Linda Ronstadt reached superstardom with her cover version of “You’re No Good.” Backing musicianship on the song is impressive.  A driving bass line, superior guitar riffs and a sparse drumming pattern generates a haunting melody. 

19.   Take Me to the River—Talking Heads 1978

Original version: Al Green in 1974

Talking Heads co-produced this version with Brian Eno. Tune has a slow tempo. Combines pop/rock and classic soul/R&B in forming an eclectic mix of gospel, punk rock and new wave sounds.

18.   My Back Pages—The Byrds 1967

Original version: Bob Dylan in 1964

The Byrds provide a superb interpretation of Bob Dylan’s song. Uses multiple acoustic guitars, a flowing melody, wonderful vocal harmonies by the band. Results in a magnificent cross-section of psychedelia with country/folk rock.

17.   Roll Over Beethoven—Electric Light Orchestra 1973

Original version:  Chuck Berry in 1956

Opening this tune: a snippet of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony before evolving into a straight up rock tune, featuring Chuck Berry’s original music and the “Peter Gunn Theme” song in the background. This is ELO’s absolute crown jewel.

16.   Love Hurts—Nazareth 1974

Original version: Everly Brothers in 1960

 Scottish Blues rock Nazareth soared high on international charts with their power ballad “Love Hurts.”  Vocalist Dan McCafferty delivers an emotional outpouring of grief and seeking compassion on this rock track.

15.   Got to Get You into my Life—Earth Wind & Fire

Original version: The Beatles in 1966

Maurice White’s signature vocals sets up this innovative rendition. Music spans the genres of jazz, R&B, rock, funk, disco and pop. Earth Wind & Fire won a Grammy Award for “Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist” with their Beatles cover.

14.   Me and Bobby McGee—Janis Joplin 1970

Original version: Roger Miller in 1969

“Me and Bobby McGee” was written by American singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson. Blues/rock ballad. During March 1971, It became the second posthumous single to peak at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The first posthumously #1 hit was “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding in 1968.

13.   We Can Work it Out—Stevie Wonder 1971

Original version:  The Beatles in 1965

Song Nominated for a Grammy Award: “Best Male R&B Vocal performance”. Cash Box magazine described Stevie Wonder’s remake as a “spectacular dance track.”  The 1989 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member completes tune with a fabulous harmonica solo.

12.   You’ve Got a Friend—James Taylor 1971

Original version: Carole King in 1971

 Lyrics written by Carole King as a response to hearing James Taylor’s 1970 hit “Fire and Rain.”    “You’ve Got a Friend” won Grammy Awards both for Taylor (Best Male Pop Vocal Performance) and King (Song of the Year).  Number 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 during the summer of 1971.

11.   House of the Rising Sun—Frijid Pink

The song was first collected in Appalachia in the 1930s. Popular version before: The Animals in 1964.

Detroit band Frijid Pink recorded a psychedelic version of “House of the Rising Sun”, which became an international hit in 1970. The song features distorted fuzz and wah-wah guitar playing with hard driving drumming.  An international smash.

10.   I Heard It Through the Grapevine—Creedence Clearwater Revival 1970

Original version:  Gladys Knight and the Pips 1967

Marvin Gaye had another rendition of “Grapevine” in 1968. An 11-minute version appeared on CCR’s 1970 “Cosmo’s Factory” album.  Long instrumental jam with two guitars, bass and drums. Considered in the “Swamp Rock” genre of music.

9.     I Shot the Sheriff—Eric Clapton 1974

Original Version: Bob Marley in 1973

Reggae went mainstream with Eric Clapton’s rendition. Reached #1 on Billboard Hot 100. Cash Box magazine called it a “smooth bluesy rocker with lots of guitar, keyboards and strong background harmonies.” This cover was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2003.

8.     Blinded by the Light—Manfred Mann’s Earth Band 1976

Original Version: Bruce Springsteen in 1973

Straight up rock tune. Manfred Mann’s version includes the “Chopsticks” melody played on piano near the end of the bridge of the song. The only song written by Bruce Springsteen to ever peak at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

7.     Try a Little Tenderness—Otis Redding 1966

Original version: Ray Noble Orchestra in 1932

Otis Redding’s interpretation starts slow and soulful. Tempo builds into a fast pace, with vocals delivered in an energetic manner. Rolling Stone ranks this cover at #136 of their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” listing.

6.     Light My Fire—Jose Feliciano 1968

Original version: The Door in 1967

Puerto Rican vocalist and guitarist. José Feliciano’s remake is “Proto-Latin Rock.”  The single is Latin influenced, mixing classic Spanish guitar, with American R&B, jazz and pop. Singer gained an international following after the success with this variation.

5.     Woodstock—Crosby Stills Nash & Young 1970

Original version: Joni Mitchell 1969

Hard driving rock song. Anthem for Woodstock festival written by Joni Mitchell. CSN&Y version from the “Déjà Vu” album, has splendid vocal harmonies by Graham Nash and David Crosby.  Stephen Stills has lead vocals while Neil Young provides superb guitar riffs.

4.     Proud Mary—Ike & Tina Turner

Original Version: Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1968

Written by John Fogerty, it is a signature song for his band CCR.  Ike and Tina Turner turned their rendition into a funk-rock triumph. The duo won a Grammy Award for “Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Group” with their cover in 1972.

3.     With a Little Help from My Friends—Joe Cocker 1968

Original version: The Beatles in 1967

Upon Joe Cocker’s death, Paul McCartney was quoted on the cover of the song he co-wrote with John Lennon:  “I was especially pleased when he decided to cover With A Little Help from My Friends….and it was just mind blowing, totally turned the song into a soul anthem and I was forever grateful for him for doing that.”

Cocker’s rendition of the song at Woodstock is considered one of the most iconic rock performances at the “Peace, Love, Music and Arts Festival” during the summer of ’69.

2.     Respect—Aretha Franklin

Original version: Otis Redding in 1965

Otis Redding penned this song in 1965. Two years later, Aretha Franklin went to Muscle Shoals recording studio in Alabama and re-created Redding’s composition into an anthem.  “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” became Franklin’s first number 1 hit and is considered her signature song.

Inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1987. In 2002, the Library of Congress honored Franklin’s version by adding it to the National Recording Registry. Rolling Stone rates Franklin’s version of “Respect” as the number 1 best single on their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” List.

  1. All Along the Watchtower—Jimi Hendrix

Original version: Bob Dylan 1967

Jimi Hendrix comes in at #1 on my countdown of excellent cover songs. The artist took the outstanding lyrics written by Bob Dylan and created a magical musical masterpiece.

Utilizing a hard rock psychedelic sound, Hendrix’s rendering creates an outstanding landscape with powerful guitar riffs.  Mixing dynamic instrumentation, along with Dylan’s almost biblical lyrics, invokes a sense of foreboding urgency, dread and possible doom.

The remake received a Grammy Hall of Fame award in 2001, and was ranked 40th in Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” listing.

Without a doubt, “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix is my top outstanding cover song from the golden age of top 40 radio.

I completely understand that my listing of excellent cover songs was written from my point of view and is subjective. If you were creating a similar register of great cover tunes, your tabulation may be totally different.

Obviously, I do not want to come across as authoritative with my critique. What do you consider to be outstanding cover songs from the golden age of top 40 radio?

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11 thoughts on “Excellent Cover Songs from Top 40 Golden Age

  1. Bruce Bias says:

    Woodstock. CSN had a great version. Try a Little Tenderness, however I prefer the TDN version. Live at the Forum

    • Paul says:

      Definitely # 1 All along the Watchtower one of my absolute favs. Also like Woodstock & Little Help . Hendrix’s version on Dylan is one of my top 20 or so favorites. Thanx David. As always really enjoyable blog

  2. Fun write-up!! Let’s see…. while I normally prefer original versions of most songs, there are some exceptions like CCR’s “Heard it Through the Grapevine” and CSN&Y “Woodstock.” A couple other covers I like a lot are Matthews Southern Comfort’s take on “Woodstock” and Grand Funk Railroad’s version of “Gimme Shelter.”

  3. Laurie Russell says:

    This was a really great article. I was not aware of some these songs “not” being original as I had always assumed they were. My number one pick would have to be Respect by Arethea Franklin. As far as I am concerned NO ONE can sing that song like she did! Many of the others I love both versions such as, You’re No Good, You’ve Got a Friend and Heard it Through the Grapevine! Thanks for another informative and highly interesting blog!

  4. Tony Scumaci says:

    Great list as usual Dave! Some of my favorite covers not on here include: I Love Rock n Roll by Joan Jett, Angel of the Morning by Juice Newton, When You Walk in the Room by the Searchers

  5. Mark says:

    Thanks for the list Dave.
    I’d have Without You in the top 20. Nilsson took that song into the stratosphere.
    Interesting you mention the Carpenters. A couple of theirs are favourite covers of mine. A Song For You is just sublime. And I just love Sing.
    And Close To You is another I’d have top 20.
    Another favourite cover for me from the period in question is the Doobies’ Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me).

  6. Mark says:

    A couple from the Hollies too. He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother and The Air That I Breathe. Like Nilsson and Without You, the Hollies took those two songs to a different level.

  7. Charmaine Sims says:

    House of the Rising Sun, as mentioned the Animals version (my favorite) was an Appalachian hit. Bob Dylan sang it, then the Animals’ version eclipsed Dylan’s. He may not have been too happy about that. Then again he deserves credit for introducing the song into the popular vernacular.

    To my mind, the song does not seem like one from a male perspective (Dylan, the Animals). It sounds like a female perspective and there was (without citing sources, because I don’t know for sure, but pretty confident) a version of this song sung by a female artist decades before. She might have even been an African American.

    The song is set in New Orleans. The song is about prostitution. The original female voice is the correct one.
    Write to David Woodson

  8. Bernard Johnson says:

    Very well thought out subject. I had to ponder a bit. But, it is very difficult to choose a better version between Gladys Knight & The Pips and Marvin Gaye. But I’ll choose Gladys over Marvin.
    The song “I heard it through the grapevine” is my choice for best cover song.

  9. David Hardie says:

    Great list again DW. Respect is fabulous. How can you go wrong with either Otis or Aretha? One of my favorite covers is I’m a man. Spencer Davis group did the original, and Chicago followed up with their version of the great terry. Kath lead vocals. Spencer Davis group when they heard Chicago’s version said they wish they had done it that way.
    My back pages will always be a favorite and the Byrd’s version is outstanding. Hurts so bad is another favorite of mine with Little Anthony and Linda Ronstadt. Great job. I look forward to the next one.

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