Sunday, June 8, 2008

Great black covers of white songs

It is undeniable that the history of modern music is really the history of white folks ripping off the innovations of black folks. From Elvis to the Stones to Eminem to Justin Timberlake, white performers usually became bigger stars than those they emulated, despite the music more often than not being a diluted shadow of the original.
Yet this was not always one-way traffic. Lenny Kravitz, for example, showed us what Led Zeppelin and The Beatles would sound like if they were black. And there is a whole list of songs by white artists that were covered by black artists. Some are good, some less so; some are easily as good as or better than the original versions. Below are the ones to watch out for.

Isley Brothers – Summer Breeze
The first family of soul turn Seals & Crofts’ tune into a wonderfully smooth sexy classic. The Isley’s had a penchant in the early 70s for covering rock songs, not all of which worked that well, but this is where it all comes together.

Otis Redding – Satisfaction
Given that Mick & the boys spent their career trying to sound black, it makes sense that a black man’s rendition of the Stone's classic hit is so smokin’. Otis brings so much energy and sweaty southern funk to this one that it’s hard to listen to the original the same way again. The Stax horn section is the piece-de-resistance.

Wilson Pickett - Hey Jude
The same applies to "Wicked" Pickett's cover of this Beatles standard. I imagine Lennon and McCartney would appreciate the happy irony of this - after getting their early inspiration from R&B performers from the Deep South, by this point in their career an R&B legend was copying them. I like that this version de-emphasises the obvious la-la-la bit and put's Pickett's phenomenal vocalisations to the fore. Plus the opening 6 seconds are so awesome that it's no wonder De La Soul sampled it.

Nina Simone – I Shall Be Released
A brilliant songwriter Bob Dylan may have been, but vocalist extraordinaire he was not. Nina Simone’s heart-rendingly soulful interpretation is one that would have made Bob mighty proud. And like Sam Cooke’s cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind”, there is an added poignancy in this song of struggle and yearning for deliverance being sung by an African-American. The definitive version.

Jimi Hendrix – All Along the Watchtower
Another Dylan cover, and again the definitive version. Sporting possibly the greatest opening 20 seconds of any song ever, one of the extreme highpoints of 60s rock.

Al Green – How Can You Mend A Broken Heart
The Bee Gees wrote a number of songs performed by black artists – think Diana Ross’s “Chain Reaction” or Tavares’ cover of “More Than A Woman” and Portrait’s cover of “How Deep Is Your Love”, which make the best of the Gibb brother's songwriting talents but compensate for their annoyingly chipmunk-like vocals. But Al Green’s cover of “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” is far and away the best of them, slowing it down and wringing every emotion out of the lyrics. With one of the greatest and sexiest male voices of all time, coupled with producer Willie Mitchell’s perennially great arranging, it is no surprise that this is beats the pants off the slightly twee original.

Ike & Tina Turner – Proud Mary
Not necessarily better than the original CCR version, just different - still quintessentially Southern, but with the church all up in it. Forgetting the extremely nasty side to Ike's character, he was a brilliant musician and bandleader, and Tina in her heyday was an electrifying performer.

Isaac Hayes – Walk On By
A slightly different case here, since this classic by writers Burt Bacharach and Hal David is best known as a Dionne Warwick song. But Hayes gets special recognition for his obsession with taking Bacharach & David's nifty pop numbers and reinventing them as orchestral soul-funk epics of love and betrayal. Despite taking inspiration from the white rock world, with his embrace of lengthy songs and extended psychedelic wig-outs, Hayes makes these songs far "blacker" than Warwick's versions. While his cover of "The Look of Love" is also notable, "Walk On By" is where it's at; it features one of the great bass & drum breaks - sampled by Biggie, Wu-Tang, Tupac among many others. By the way, check out the video and wonder as I do how Hayes looks exactly the same in 2008 as he did in 1968. I bet he was born with that beard and those sunglasses.

Living Colour – Memories Can’t Wait
Originally a fairly average Talking Heads track, Living Colour crank up the rock element as well as some funky soul, creating one of the highlights of their debut album Vivid. Big respect to Living Colour for busting down the colour barriers of rock and turning me on to black music - if not for them in the early 90s I might still be listening to hair metal.


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  3. @ xxxphantomxxx:
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  4. Lenny Kravitz dad is white Jewish and his mother is black.

    Unless we're working off the one drop rule?

    Damn these halfers sucking all the fun out of generalisations.

  5. Bulanikgirl.

    Some great choices.
    I wanted to add Grace Jones' cover of Edith Piaf's classic "La vie en rose" - who thought a French standard could sound so funky and sensual? In the hands of a Jamaican girl? Sure :-)

    Phyllis Hyman's rich-sounding cover of Bobby Caldwell's "What you won't do for love". The original is faultless, but Ms Hyman's version has a husky groove, an emotional sexiness that makes his seem almost 'thin' in comparison.

    Two other Black covers of beautiful songs that become emotionally compelling are Leon Russell's "A song for you", as sung by Donny Hathaway, and Anita Baker's version of "You belong to me" (Carly Simon).

    I mentioned opera on my Abagond post to you, and classical music might be a little off-track, but Kathleen Battle's (and Wynton Marsalis) version of JS Bach's "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen" really sounds different to the former recordings by German singers. When I first heard the recording, I had no idea who Kathleen Battle was, that she is Black - I actually believed she was a soul singer who was operatically trained, singing Bach! The warmth of her voice is what moved me.

    On a slightly different note, I really didn't think anything MJ has written or sung could be equaled, but when I heard Chris Cornell (acoustic version) and then David Cooks'(studio recording) versions of "Billie Jean", I had to revise my thinking. Who knew this song had such dark sexiness?

    Similarly with Marvin's "I want you". A masterpiece. Yet both Michael McDonald and Robert Palmer are more than listen-able. I know their versions are like 'tributes' to Marvin Gaye, but both capture the sincerity and longing of the original.

  6. Nice site here. You have introduced me and re-introduced me to some great songs.

  7. Thanks for your list. I've got another list "The Stones got soul".
    Soul covers of Rolling Stones’ songs by great soul, blues and gospel artists. You can find it here:

  8. All 4 One covered John Michael Montgomery's "I Swear". It's hard to say which one is better. And of course, Whitney Houston took Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" out of the C&W realm and into the Billboard Top 10.