Songs get written, songs get recorded, songs get heard, songs get rerecorded and then heard again. Okay, so no one learned anything new from that, but you’ll enjoy some of the songs we’re covering today. Covering! Ha! That was mighty clever, as you’ll soon agree.
When someone records a song, that’s a recording. But when someone else hears that recording and then plays it or records it, that’s a cover. Sometimes a cover recording is more famous than the original, and some of the songs you like might be covers and you might like the original better than the version you know. We’re going to visit three covers and you can decide which you like better. It’s not a contest, there are no prizes, it’s all for fun. There are scads of covers, and you could suggest your own, but we only have time for three, so with no reference whatsoever as to why I chose these three, here they are. Regular readers will know that I love the Stones, so let’s go there:
Time Is On My Side
Not to impugn anyone’s capacity for reasoning, we start with the logical proposition that songwriters need to write songs to make a living. Jerry Ragovoy was a song-writer and record producer, and he had a recording session coming up and only a partial idea for a song. His idea was a phrase that had been rolling around in his head: “Time is on my side.” The problem was that the session was about to commence, and that was all he had until he added: “You’ll come running back.” It wasn’t much of a song yet, but it didn’t matter because the session was with jazz trombonist Kai Winding, whose music was mostly instrumental and normally wouldn’t include any lyrics, and those two lines would be fine. Winding had chosen Ragovoy because the British Invasion had begun and he was… ancient. Mr. Winding might be known to parents, but the record-buyers were all teens and he wanted to be part of it, wanted to sell some records and get onto the charts for a damn change. Teen music was what was selling, so he wanted to go in a more commercial direction, and Ragovoy was a hip young record producer: i.e. just what he thought he needed. Ragovoy’s song had a pop-ish beat and featured background singers Cissy Houston and Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, who added an R&B flavor. The song was released in October, 1963 and did as well as a Kai Winding song would do. I think today they call it “meh.”
But the melody and those two lines stayed with Ragovoy into the next year, when he booked a studio and a bunch of musicians and gave those two lines to a songwriter- who finished the song just moments before Irma Thomas walked into the studio to record it. Done! Here it is! Here she is! There wouldn’t be any honing, shaping or working on the song. No lyric adjustments, no changes in key, tempo or length. It was going to be a one-and-done: when the session was over they’d have a record and Bob’s your uncle.
In a pattern we’ll see again, the song was recorded, heard, rerecorded and recorded again in rapid order. In this case, within eleven months after the Kai Winding release there were versions by Irma Thomas and then the Rolling Stones. Sure, some songs come back from a long obscurity, but in the pop business, once it’s out there, it’s in the market and if you want it, you’d better take it quick.
Here are all three versions:
“Go Now” was written by Larry Banks and recorded by his former wife, Bessie. Mr. Banks’ specific intention was to have the former Mrs. Banks break big nationally. Now we let Ms. Banks tell us how that turned out:
“I remember 1963, Kennedy was assassinated; it was announced over the radio. At the time, I was rehearsing in the office of Leiber and Stoller. We called it a day. Everyone was in tears. Come back next week and we will be ready to record 'Go Now'"; and we did so. I was happy and excited that maybe this time I’ll make it. 'Go Now' was released in January 1964, and right away it was chosen Pick Hit of the Week on WINS Radio [GK: The most popular and influential Top 40 station in New York City]. That means your record is played for seven days. Four days went by, I was so thrilled. On day five, when I heard the first line, I thought it was me, but all of a sudden, I realized it wasn’t. At the end of the song it was announced, "The Moody Blues singing 'Go Now'." I was too out-done. This was the time of the English Invasion and the end of Bessie Banks’ career, so I thought. America's DJs had stopped promoting American artists.”
Banks' recollections are questionable because her single was released in the US in January 1964, and The Moody Blues' version was not released in the UK until November 1964 and January 1965 in the US. I just don’t know what to make of that. I want to trust her, and you’d think she’d know and all, but dates don’t lie. Let’s say the immediate period following President Kennedy’s assassination was an emotional time for everyone. Ergo:
Questionable or not, Bessie Banks had the first crack at the song, but the British Invasion was an unstoppable tsunami, and once the Moody Blues covered it, Ms. Banks’ version was history, perhaps not to be uncovered until today. Fun for us, big bummer for Bessie Banks. There’s not a lot more to say about this, so here are some fun facts:
• The Moody Blues version was released in November ’64 and hit #1 on the British Singles Charts in January ’65; it was released in the U. S. in January, ’65 and rose to #10 on the US charts.
• It was recorded by David Cassidy in 1972, by Ozzy Osbourne in 2005, by Simply Red in 2008, and something called Spitting Image, which I’ve included for fun.
• After brief unsuccessful dalliances with the pop charts, when last reported in 2007, Ms. Banks "continues to sing, though she confines herself to gospel music now."
• As for that first cover recording, Denny Laine of the Moody Blues heard Ms. Banks’ recording and insisted his band cover it. This was their first single, and they had little success with subsequent singles until 1968 with “Knights In White Satin” and “Tuesday Afternoon,” but by that time Laine had gone to Wings with Paul McCartney, where he sang the song a few times in concert.
• Here’s the song by Wings in 1975 with Denny Laine singing lead.
• The original Bessie Banks version of "Go Now" was included on the soundtrack to the film Stonewall.
• The Moody Blues version is played over the credits after the final anniversary dance scene with Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtney in the film 45 Years.
• At the time the single was released, it was being promoted on television with one of the first purpose-made promotional films in the pop era.
PIECE OF MY HEART
Greetings, and welcome back for more Fun With Covers! First, we must… set a tone, give some historical context.
Aretha Franklin and her sister, Erma, learned to sing in their father’s choir at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. Younger sister Aretha had been discovered and was recording for Columbia, where they were excited about her promise, but even legendary producer John Hammond later admitted that they never understood her background in gospel. After six frustrating years she quit Columbia and signed with Atlantic, who sent her to record at the legendarily funky Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and in early 1967 Aretha had two smash hits with “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)” and “Respect.” Bam! Bam! Aretha was on the charts and gigging all over the place and everyone was talking about her. Everyone wanted her, and older sister Erma must have wanted some of that. No one doubted Erma’s voice or her chops after all those years in the choir, so she got herself signed and she recorded “Piece Of My Heart,” and let’s see how that worked out for her:
(Speaking of Muscle Shoals, there is a wonderful documentary about Muscle Shoals, Alabama and its recording studios and sound available
or here on Netflix. - Editor)
Recorded in early 1967, “Piece of my Heart” reached #10 on the R&B chart in the US, and peaked at #62 on the US Pop Singles chart. Then, Big Brother and the Holding Company played the Monterey music festival in June, 1967, and while the band was pretty good (no letters, please!), it was Janis Joplin who became a breakout sensation. Despite the fact that I really liked it, on its release, their first album had died an ignoble death. But after Monterey, word of the band spread and there was much excited anticipation for their next release. “Cheap Thrills” (the label prevented them from calling it “Sex, Drugs and Cheap Thrills”) was supposedly recorded live, but the only real “live” track was “Ball and Chain.” The album was a sensation from the moment it was released and every song on it was a must-listen track. Janis was the real deal. She was an original; she was genuine, funky, dangerous, troubled, soulful and glamorous all at once, and the soul she bared at each performance held audiences spellbound. I remember having to sit down to watch her. Yes, it was late at night or early in the morning and there might have been other influences, but it was Big Brother, it was Janis, it was the Fillmore and I had to sit down to watch her. She had literally knocked me off my feet. I don’t remember anyone else sitting down that night, but I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm for Janis; across the US and Great Britain, excitement abounded.
So where did that leave Ms. Franklin’s recording? Well, you tell me: have you heard it? You know you’ve heard Janis’ version, so today you’ll hear Erma Franklin’s bid for a place in what turned out to be Aretha’s universe: not a star, not a planet, maybe a moon somewhere. I know that’s cruel, and I wish I could erase it.
Erma Franklin once said in an interview that when she first heard Joplin's version on the radio, she didn't recognize it because of the vocal arrangement. A writer noted the difference: "When Franklin sings it, it is a challenge: no matter what you do to me, I will not let you destroy my ability to be human, to love. Joplin seems rather to be saying, surely if I keep taking this, if I keep setting an example of love and forgiveness, surely he has to understand, change, give me back what I have given". In such a way, Joplin used blues conventions not to transcend pain, but "to scream it out of existence".
• Remember Jerry Ragovoy, who wrote “Time Is On My Side”? He co-wrote this one, too.
• It was Ms. Franklin’s biggest record and she was nominated for a Grammy for it.
• In the UK, the single was re-released in 1992, due to a successful Levi's jeans commercial, when it peaked inside the UK Singles Chart at number nine.
• Dusty Springfield recorded it for an album in 1968.
• Faith Hill had a hit version of it in 1994, and Melissa Etheridge had one in 2005.
• A rock rendition of the song was recorded by Sammy Hagar, and it hit #73 in the US.
• Aerosmith frontman, Steven Tyler covered it in his first solo and country album.
• I know there’s more out there, but c’mon.
Janis Joplin: Album track:
Live Big Brother track:
As there seems to be no one else I know of named Irma or Erma, we’re done for the day.
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.