The fact that artists are again recording good songs by other songwriters and not written by themselves is the best news we’ve had in the music business in a very long time (“The Cover Story,” Feb. 22). With comments like “It’s happening more, and that suggests this is not a generally fertile time for new ideas musically” and the description of programmers as “hard-to-impress,” we get a lucid glimpse into the musical dark ages where style is more important than substance -- an era we’re hopefully leaving behind.
We’ll enter a pop music renaissance when great songs recorded by terrific artists are again of utmost importance. The “do they write their own songs” mentality is akin to calling someone a good waiter because they cook the food they serve. Don’t get me wrong, when folks such as the Beatles and Elvis Costello happen to write and perform brilliantly, that’s a wonderful thing. But that’s no reason to encourage folks who have no business writing songs to do so.
One wonders if Randy Lewis’ story will elicit any objections from the originators of the covered songs he cites, particularly if the original artist was also the composer-lyricist. It would be interesting to know just how much money Dolly Parton has raked in from the Whitney Houston version of “I Will Always Love You.” Lewis’ snarky aside, “Whitney, Dolly Parton’s original was all we needed,” would most surely be challenged by Parton, as her writing royalties pile up. In fact, Dolly has made no secret of her gratitude to Houston for recording the song, having said as much on any number of television talk shows.
I am no fan of Whitney Houston’s music for the most part, but to put her cover of Dolly’s song in the “Bad Cover” section of your article makes no sense at all. I don’t understand how you can show a chart that states it was the biggest-selling cover of all time and then not mention it in your article.
LEWIS failed to mention an important factor in many 1950s covers: racism. In that decade, the color bar in popular music was firmly in place. Black artists, unless they sang mainstream pop arrangements (e.g. Nat King Cole, the Mills Brothers) did not enjoy crossover hits. But white record execs saw potential profits in the R & B charts, leading to covers of “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Tutti Frutti” from that blandest of white pop singers, Pat Boone. The results were predictably dire. Listening to Pat struggle through “ah wop bomp a loo bop a lomp bam boom” was to experience severe aural cramping.
LEWIS left out three of my favorite cover tunes of all time. They all have to do with Bob Dylan. I think “Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds was important because it exposed Dylan to a larger audience; it was also the beginning of the folk-rock movement. Also, it was America’s first answer to the Beatles and the whole British Invasion. I also love the Byrds’ exquisite version of “My Back Pages.” Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” really made the song his own.
I have a Neil Young footnote for cover tunes. His “Days That Used to Be” from the great “Ragged Glory” album is mostly the melody of the Byrds doing Dylan’s “My Back Pages.” Also, on his classic “Tonight’s the Night,” he has a song called “Borrowed Tune,” which is the same melody as the Rolling Stones’ “Lady Jane.”
I was a bit surprised at Lewis’ pronouncement, “When Bob Dylan ushered in the age of the singer-songwriter in the mid-'60s, the new standard in pop music was for performers to write and sing their own material.”
I thought everybody who professes to be a student of the history of rock ‘n’ roll knew that what you attributed to Dylan is precisely one of the many innovations that defined rock ‘n’ roll and had been introduced by Chuck Berry a decade earlier.
Certainly the single most important black artist in rock ‘n’ roll, Berry is arguably the most important figure, regardless of race, in rock history. The archetypal rock ‘n’ roller, he melded blues, country and a witty, defiant teen outlook into songs that influenced virtually every rock musician in his wake.
Berry was the first rock ‘n’ roller to write words that were relevant and entertaining to his young white audience without alienating his core black audience.
He achieved this with a driving rhythm that was, if not new, certainly unique enough to be instantly recognizable. For those reasons, he, more than any other artist, is responsible for the direction of popular music.