You always hurt the one you love
Aretha Franklin owns “Respect.” Her version is so far from Otis Redding’s original recording, it’s not just a different arrangement, it’s practically a new song. The whole R-E-S-P-E-C-T … Sock it to me! section is totally Aretha’s invention. When her sisters, backup singers Carolyn and Erma, are singing ree-ree-ree-ree-ree-ree-ree-ree-spect, the mantra they are chanting is actually Aretha’s nickname, “Ree.”
When Otis first heard Aretha’s version, he supposedly said, “That little gal done took my song!” He meant that as a compliment. Aretha’s recording of “Respect” went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in June of 1967. Otis Redding died in a plane crash that December. He was 26 years old. Redding seriously throws down on “Respect” — check out his whole crazy-fast set at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival — but Franklin transformed the song. “Respect” became an anthem for both the civil rights and feminist movements. The song is only two minutes and 23 seconds long! That is genius.
JJ Cale died last month. He recorded more than a dozen albums of his own. Sadly, he is most famous for having written “After Midnight” and “Cocaine.” Both songs were monster hits for Eric Clapton. Cale was amazingly influential among his fellow musicians. Neil Young said JJ Cale and Jimi Hendrix were the two best electric guitar players he had ever seen.
Cale’s own recordings pretty much define the laid-back Tulsa sound. On his song “Call Me the Breeze,” his guitar playing is spare and almost elegant. His chillaxed vocals are low in the mix, behind a precocious early ’70s drum machine. In 1974, the great Lynyrd Skynyrd took that song and drug it through the swamp. Hairy Southern boys like to make some noise. Their version of Cale’s song is classic-rock radio gold.
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was the first to record “Hound Dog.” Leiber and Stoller wrote it for her. Elvis loved her version, a No. 1 R&B hit in 1953, but his treatment of the song was actually based on a recording by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. In 1956, Elvis watched the Bellboys do “Hound Dog” many times at the Sands in Las Vegas. Colonel Tom Parker apparently promised Freddie Bell an opening slot on Elvis’ next tour in exchange for allowing the future King to use the Bellboys’ arrangement and alternate lyrics. Freddie should have gotten that in writing.
A friend of mine called a while back. He was working up a cover of an amazing, almost Queen-like tune by the ’70s Scottish metal band Nazareth and thought an acoustic version with really tight male/female country harmonies would sound awesome. He was right, but I had to break it to him that “Love Hurts” was actually an Everly Brothers song (written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant), and that it had already been knocked out of the park by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. My friend has a really good ear.
I listened to Talking Heads’ “Take Me To the River” for a year before I knew it was an Al Green song. When I finally heard the original version, I admired Talking Heads for their nerve, but never really looked back.
To cover a song another artist has written or recorded is the highest form of flattery. It’s impossible to calculate the number of little punk bands (including my own) who blasted through earnest, terrible versions of “Steppin’ Stone.” I was a huge Monkees fan, but our “Steppin’ Stone” was entirely based on the Sex Pistols’ deconstruction of The Monkees song, which the Interweb says was written by Boyce and Hart (not Neil Diamond, like I always thought).
Serious butchering is common in the world of cover songs — The Byrds doing Dylan or Reba McEntire crucifying the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown.” I just watched a YouTube video of Miley Cyrus doing “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” You always hurt the one you love. As far as that goes, I love Clarence “Frogman” Henry, but I have to vote for the original Mills Brothers version.
Catherine Irwin is currently out on the “Royal Baby” tour with Louisville’s own regal Old Baby.