It takes a special kind of talent to turn something that’s already been recorded and established as a good song, into something that will sound fresh and new again – not to say better than the original. Most people, however, don’t do a cover with an intent of making it better or proving themselves to the world, but as a homage to the original artist, or simply because they like the song.
On occasion, this turns into something special, and even the original artist acknowledges that he’s just been outdone.
The songs that we decided to mention in this article are pretty well known by most, but for some of them, you perhaps will not know that they are actually covers. Also, for the sake of being at least partially original when compared to similar lists online – we’ll skip the obvious ones like Whitney Houston and Johnny Cash.
Jimi Hendrix – All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan)
Dylan’s songs are among the most widely covered, but one that comes to mind first is definitely Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower”. Even Dylan himself admitted that it was simply better – quote, “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way… Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”
The song was originally released as a single on November 22, 1968, and Hendrix started working on his version just two months later. Allegedly, he kept changing his version over and over again, doing numerous guitar overdubs and moving the master tape from a four-track to a twelve-track to a sixteen-track machine. He just kept saying “I think I hear it a little bit differently.”
* Please note that Dylan original version is currently not available on YouTube.
Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen)
Buckley’s echoic and church-like guitar sound coupled with his haunting vocals gave this song a deserved treatment, and although many consider Rufus version of this song the be the best – we give the award to Jeff. The whole arrangement is simplistic but near perfect, and the song is just one of the few ones that take you on a trip.
Jeff recorded his version of Hallelujah in 1994, and it was inspired by John Cale’s earlier cover. The song didn’t become an immediate hit, and Jeff never got to see the full measure of the reception his recording would ultimately have, as he died in 1997.
White Stripes – Jolene (Dolly Parton)
Jack White is certainly one of the most unique musicians to come out of the 2000s. Although he is considered to be a new kid on the block, he’s highly respected by most of the old guard as well. His whole style revolves around minimalism approach when choosing equipment, and that reflects on the end product or the songs themselves.
Jolene was originally released way back in 1974 by the legendary country music artist Dolly Parton. Dolly has composed over 3000 songs, but according to her, “Jolene” is the song most-recorded by other artists of all the songs she has written. White Stripes recorded their cover during a live show in 2004 and released it as a single that reached No. 16 in the UK singles chart. It was voted as one of the greatest live covers by the readers of the Rolling Stone magazine.
Joe Cocker – With a Little Help From My Friends (The Beatles)
The Beatles are probably one of the most covered bands of them all. Very few of those covers get any traction though, which couldn’t be said for Cocker’s version of With a Little Help From My Friends. Joe really knew how to turn a song into an anthem and that was perfectly demonstrated when he turned this Lennon/McCartney tune into something that went on to live forever.
The song was originally released on Beatles’ eighth studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on 1 June 1967. It was written for and sung by the Beatles’ drummer Ringo Starr, or more precisely his alter ego named Billy Shears. Joe released his version as a single in October 1968, and it featured Jimmy Page on the guitar (this was prior to Led Zeppelin), B.J. Wilson from Procol Harum on drums, Chris Stainton on bass, and legendary session keyboardist Tommy Eyre on an organ.
Kurt Cobain – The Man Who Sold the World (David Bowie)
One could argue that everything that Kurt touched turned into gold. He wasn’t particularly technical, but he had something special that made him almost divine among those who followed his music. Although Nirvana came into play years after rock and roll was at its highest, they did perhaps represent the ultimate rock band, and most importantly – they allowed a new generation to experience something that many people considered to be a thing of the past.
During the MTV Unplugged gig in November 1993, Kurt sang some songs from a relatively unknown band Meat Puppets and made them arguably better. He sang a Leadbelly song and made it current and relevant again. But what is most impressive – he sang a tune by a well-known artist and a music icon like David Bowie and managed to make it even more memorable.
The Animals – House of the Rising Sun (Traditional)
House of the Rising Sun is probably one of the most covered songs of all time. But the version that is often heard nowadays was popularized by Eric Burdon and the Animals, and they are largely responsible for it becoming one of the almost universally known songs.
The song originates from the 18th century, but the first ever recorded version came in 1934 and was done by Tom Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster. Animals recorded their cover in 1964 and based it on Bob Dylan’s own rendition from 1962. Dylan stopped playing the song after The Animals’ hit because fans accused him of plagiarism, even though he was actually the first to cover it.
Led Zeppelin – Babe I’m Gonna Leave You (Anne Bredon)
Although this isn’t a particularly well-known fact, Led Zeppelin did cover a considerable amount of songs and released them on their albums. ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ was among them, and it was a song that would likely have been forgotten if Page, Plant and rest of the crew didn’t decide on making it their own.
The original song was written and recorded by Anne Bredon in the late 1950s and was popularized by Joan Baez who recorded her own version in 1962. Led Zeppelin released their version as a part of their debut album released in 1969. Allegedly, Page played this exact song to Plant at their first meeting together, at Page’s riverside home at Pangbourne in late July 1968.
Carlos Santana – Black Magic Woman (Fleetwood Mac)
It seems impossible to top someone like Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac, but Santana somehow managed to do it. He didn’t make the song necessarily better, nor was he a better guitarist than Peter Green – but he did make the song more popular and he became more often associated with it than Peter Green. Santana version wasn’t a direct cover of Green’s song, but sort of a fusion with Gábor Szabó’s instrumental “Gypsy Queen”, which spiced tho whole song with some Hungarian motives.
The original Black Magic Woman was released in 1969 as a single by Fleetwood Mac. A year later Santana released it on his second album “Abraxas”, and it became one of the band’s biggest hits reaching #4 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Joan Jett – I Love Rock N’ Roll (Arrows)
Surprisingly low percentage of people are aware of the fact that the song that was partially responsible for Joan Jett’s success was written and recorded five years earlier by a London-based band called Arrows. This is perhaps the best example of how important is the factor of luck in the music industry, and also how important is not only to have a great song but to have a great front-man in the band – someone charismatic, unique and memorable. Joan Jett obviously met all the requirements.
I Love Rock N’ Roll was written in 1975 by Alan Merrill and Jake Hooker of the band Arrows, and released as a single that same year. Joan Jett heard the song on the band’s weekly UK television series Arrows which ran in 1976. Jett’s first version of the song was released in 1979 on as a B-side to “You Don’t Own Me”. In 1981, Jett re-recorded the song with her band The Blackhearts. This version of the song became a U.S. Billboard Hot 100 number-one single for seven weeks
Janis Joplin – Piece of My Heart (Erma Franklin)
The list of female rock stars isn’t particularly long, at least when compared to the male one. There’s one lady thought who can compete with the best of them – that is Janis Joplin. She was one of those artists that you couldn’t possibly mistake for someone else, even if only by listening to her voice. All those factors combined made a song which was already big by itself, even bigger and eventually timeless.
Piece of My Heart was written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns and was originally recorded by Erma Franklin (Aretha Franklin’s sister) in 1967. Janis Joplin came up with her cover a year later, while being a lead singer in a band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. Their cover of the song made it to number twelve on the U.S. pop chart.