I almost got my ass kicked in Huc-a-Poos by a couple of middle-aged shrews last Sunday night when I informed them that Nazareth's Love Hurts was not the original version of the song. It was originally a 1960 Everly Brothers hit, I explained oh so politely (riiight), and the best version may in fact be a duet by Graham Parsons and Emmylou Harris from a year or two before Nazareth reached #8 in 1976.
These bar-wives did not want to hear that one of the most memorable songs of their high school era didn't actually belong to their halcyon days, and, as shrews are wont to do, they went all batty on me. Who knew they wouldn't be responsive to this information coming from a gap-toothed weasel with 12 Killian's under his belt at 7:30 PM on a Sunday? I at least took some solace the next night when one of the husbands grabbed me at softball and said, "Hey, you know what? I looked up Love Hurts online, and you were right -- Everly Brothers. I don't know about that Graham Parsons version though." Yeah. Take that, bar-wives.
Anyway, that brings me to the popular subject of cover songs and its slightly less popular cousin, the "definitive version" song. I stumbled across this handy website a couple of months ago, and it has just about every version of every cover ever sung (it's prolific, Jerry). We muse about cover songs constantly because not a month goes by that some crappy new singer or band tortures a truly wonderful song (eff-you Michael Bolton). Lost in the all-encompassing morass of second hand songs, however, is the more interesting subject of which covers actually outperformed the original hits to become the definitive version?
I found myself thinking of definitive version songs this afternoon, and I'm sure there are dozens more that I'm either forgetting or simply not aware of that are just as deserving. There's Jeff Buckley's version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. Jimi Hendrix's All Along the Watchtower borrowed from Bob Dylan. Otis Redding did wonders with Ruth Etting's Try a Little Tenderness while Aretha Franklin mastered Otis' own Respect. A couple of years later, Aretha also bested Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water. Manfred Mann's Earth Band helped Bruce Springsteen's Blinded by the Light while Bruce did the same for Tom Waits' Jersey Girl. David Bowie stole Iggy Pop's China Girl while Nirvana took Bowie's The Man Who Sold the World. Many artists have stolen from Willie Nelson, so Willie returned the favor with his brilliant rendition of Brenda Lee's Always on My Mind.
Joe Cocker did the Beatles one better With a Little Help from [His] Friends. Soft Cell took Gloria Jones' Tainted Love to new heights, and the Talking Heads hit with Al Green's Take Me to the River. Gary Jules' relatively recent rendition of Tears for Fears' Mad World bettered the original while the late Eva Cassidy's version of Fields of Gold was so inspiring that it moved original singer Sting to tears.
A few of my favorite lesser known definitive versions . . . and I'm sure you'd get an argument from the other side on which one was better:
- Warren Zevon's 2000 version of the Steve Winwood hit Back in the High Life Again
- Dee Dee Warwick's 1973 version of Astrud Gilberto's I Haven't Got Anything Better to Do
- X's version of Leadbelly's 1954 Dancing with Tears in My Eyes (originally a 1930s song by The Regent Club Orchestra)
- The Knitters 1985 version of the Merle Haggard (and the Strangers) 1969 country hit Silver Wings
The Knitters were the side project, alter-ego band developed in 1985 by John Doe and Exene Cervenka of the L.A. punk band "X". X never made it big nationally, but they were well known as one of the better live acts and a seminal force on the late 70s/early 80s punk scene. By the mid-80s, their appreciation for the "bent-note beauty and lyrical honesty" of country music had already begun seeping into their music. For gits and shiggles (or more likely for something more serious along the lines of the mid-1980s benefits concerts craze), they gave themselves over to an acoustic side project that they dubbed "The Knitters" in honor of folk legends The Weavers.
The Knitters released one record, Poor Little Critter on the Road, in 1985 and then disappeared for 20 years until their 2005 album The Modern Sounds of the Knitters. I'm not going to tell you to run out and buy these two albums because, frankly, they're hit and miss at best. However, their version of "Silver Wings" from the 1985 album is the definitive version. Merle Haggard allegedly wrote the song for Dolly Parton in the late 60s. As the story goes, Merle was quite twitterpated with the young buxom, bawdy beauty and penned the song in despair when Dolly refused to leave her husband for him. Where's Paul Harvey when you need him? And now you know the rest of the story. . . .