Hit Cover Songs Mistaken For Originals (Part One)

Songwriting is an elusive art form.  Inspiration for that great single is frequently beyond your control, no matter how hard you try.  Think about it.  Developing lyrics and melodies that will knock out a large population on a consistent basis seems a fool’s game, especially since being original and successful simultaneously is the most difficult, if not impossible, task of all.  Only the truly gifted are able to churn out hit after hit after hit, making everybody else look like desperate amateurs.  But even the best composers can’t always come up with stellar material of their own.  After all, there are only 13 basic notes to work with day in and day out.

Sometimes, a well-made cover tune can save the day.  Not only that, depending on how strong it is, a musical remake can deceive the listener into thinking it’s not a remake at all.  Generally, it helps that the initial version is not particularly well known.  But sometimes a hit cover can eclipse the chart fortunes of its predecessor to the point where it becomes the definitive version, making the original a forgotten relic of the past.

Here are the first set of examples:

“The Messenger” by The Tea Party

In the 1990s, this Windsor, Ontario trio were among the biggest bands in Canada.  Beginning with their second album, Splendor Solis, Jeff Martin and company became reliable hitmakers for much of the decade with original songs like The River, Fire In The Head and Temptation dominating rock radio.  In 1999, they released their fifth full-length offering, Triptych.  Among the breakout hits were Heaven Coming Down (their only number one hit in Canada), These Living Arms, and Touch.

And then, there was The Messenger.  It sounds like a typical Tea Party ballad with its acoustic guitar opening and Martin’s typicallly anguished vocals.  But a quick perusal of Triptych’s liner notes reveals something surprising.  It’s not an original.

The song was written by Daniel Lanois who initially recorded it for his 1993 solo offering, For The Beauty Of Wynonna.  (It’s the opening number.)  Unlike The Tea Party’s rendition, though, the Hamilton native’s original was not a radio staple.  (Lanois is better known as a superproducer who’s collaborated with performers like U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Luscious Jackson, and, believe it or not, Raffi.)  The band had been playing it live during gigs for years before finally recording a proper studio version for release.

Not only did it appear on Triptych, it was also added to the band’s only greatest hits package, Tangents.  (Heaven Coming Down was the only other Triptych single included on the compilation.)  For a singer/songwriter who’s never had a hit single or a certified album of his own, Lanois must’ve been appreciative of the extra cash The Tea Party’s cover generated for him.  The band can take credit for making it well known even if they didn’t write it.

“Tainted Love” by Soft Cell

It might be the most annoying song of the 1980s.  Memorably irritating from start to finish, this you’ve-done-me-wrong song never really disappeared from the radio or dance clubs, thanks to the continuing endurance of Retro music.  It’s so engrained into the popular culture (popping up in numerous TV shows, commercials and movies) that the mistaken belief it was written by these two DJs from Leeds, England persists.

But truth be told, theirs is the fourth recorded version.

Tainted Love was the brainchild of Ed Cobb, who wrote it for soul singer Gloria Jones in 1964.  It was her first single and her first hit.  Eleven years later, Ruth Swann did her own take on the song.  In 1976, Jones revisited it.  This time, she worked with T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan on the number.  (The following year, they both got into a horrendous car accident which claimed Bolan’s life.  Jones was the driver.)

By 1981, Marc Almond and David Ball were ready to work on their own version.  Desperate for a hit, they relied on a borrowed drum machine and a synclavier (“a rather large computer instrument”, according to the song’s producer, Mike Thorne) for much of the instrumentation.  Almond’s first stab at singing, a standard rehearsal take secretly recorded, is the one that ended up on the record.  In all, the sessions took a day and a half to complete.  The numerous electronic effects were feverishly mixed in real time late one night.  Almond thought at the time it would do no better than crack the Top 50 in England.

He greatly underestimated the song’s appeal.  Not only did it become Soft Cell’s breakthrough single, it hit number one in 17 different countries.  (In 1982, it cracked the Top Ten in America.)  Both the abbreviated 3-minute version and the expanded 9-minute epic (which includes elements of The Supremes’ Where Did Our Love Go?) were impossible to avoid.

Since then, the song has been covered by other acts like The Inspiral Carpets, The Living End and The Pussycat Dolls.  Marilyn Manson closely followed the Soft Cell rendition for his contribution to the Not Another Teen Movie soundtrack.  And most recently, Rihanna’s SOS single sampled the song’s famous “bam bam” hook.

But most disheartening of all, it is said that The Clash had this track in their repertoire, as well.  Oh God.  Please.  Someone prove this is not the case.  Alan Cross?  Warren Kinsella?  I turn to you for relief.

“The Twist” by Chubby Checker

Was it a dangerous activity that served as foreplay for immoral acts or was it a simple series of moves that made clubbing with strangers fun?  It all depends on who you talk to.

Hank Ballard was a risque rhythm & blues performer well known for cheeky hits.  (Work With Me, Annie is all about trying to get laid.  “Work” is black slang for “fuck”.  Ditto the phrase, “rock & roll”.  He even made a sequel to it:  Annie Had A Baby.)  In 1958, while on an American tour, he closely observed the movements of his back-up band, The Midnighters, during various gigs.  “I was just watching them go through their [dance] routines, seeing them twist their bodies, and the lyric just came to me – ‘twist’,” he remembered years later in the book, Behind The Hits: Inside Stories Of Classic Pop And Rock And Roll.  It looked like they were “putting out a cigarette with both feet” while “wiping off” their “bottom[s] with a[n]” imaginary “towel to the beat of the music.”.

Inspired, Ballard stole the melody line from a 1955 Drifters song called What’cha Gonna Do.  With the words all worked out, he wanted the music of this new composition to match the moves of his gyrating bandmates, hence the calculated thievery.  Despite thinking he had a major hit on his hands (and a possible dance craze), The Twist, as he called it, was initially a tough sell to his live audiences.  “We went all over the country doing this dance,” he recalled in Behind The Hits.  “It didn’t catch on until we got to Baltimore and Philadelphia.  That’s when the kids caught on to it.”

He was crushed when his record label, King, refused to issue his new recording as a single.  Instead, it was relegated to the flipside of Teardrops On My Letter in 1959.  But when radio DJs started playing the B-Side, The Twist started climbing the pop charts.  One of these jocks, Buddy Deane, who had his own self-named TV show in Baltimore at the time, an American Bandstand-type program, noticed the reaction the song was getting from the teenagers who were dancing to it during a particular broadcast.  According to Hank Ballard, “[h]e called up Dick Clark and told him to come over and see these kids, and hear this record by Hank Ballard called ‘The Twist’.”.

According to Bob Shannon and John Javna, the authors of Behind The Hits, Clark was initially disinterested because he thought it was “another one of those dirty songs”.  Deane somehow convinced him he was wrong and soon, Clark was playing the recording on American Bandstand.  Sure enough, it got a strong reaction from the dancers on that show, too.

The next step was to get Ballard & The Midnighters to appear on Bandstand.  It never happened.  So about a dozen performers were contacted and interviewed by Clark for the purpose of doing a cover.  Freddy Cannon and Danny & The Juniors were among the approached.  But then, Clark remembered this kid Ernest Evans.  He had recorded this song in 1958 called The Class which showcases his impersonations of singers like Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and The Chipmunks.  Clark wondered if Evans could imitate Ballard’s voice.  He could.  Originally nicknamed “Chubby” by his then-employer, a grocery store owner, Candy Clark, Dick’s wife, added “Checker” as an homage to Fats Domino.

According to his official website bio, Checker’s version of The Twist was cut in June 1959 and was met with skepticism by Cameo Parkway label boss, Bernie Lowe, who preferred it as a possible throwaway B-side.  Undaunted, the former Ernest Evans became a promotional machine hocking his version of the record wherever he could.  As the song started climbing Billboard’s singles chart, Ballard’s original started to fall.  By the summer of 1960, some fourteen months after it was recorded, Chubby Checker had a number one single.  It unleashed a phenomenon.

Two years later, the song incredibly returned to the top of the singles listings and soon people like Zsa Zsa Gabor were having their picture taken twisting at the popular Peppermint Lounge.  Checker would go on to have a very good career making hits out of dance crazes.  He even made a sequel to The Twist called Let’s Twist Again.  There was another number called Twistin’ USA.  He even went so far as to remake the song with The Fat Boys in the late 1980s.  Ballard would get his due in Ron Mann’s 1991 documentary, Twist.  Curiously, Checker never mentions Ballard in his official online biography.

Was Hank ever pissed about all of this?  Quite the contrary.  He told Shannon and Javna, “There wouldn’t be a ‘Twist’ if it hadn’t been for Chubby Checker and Dick Clark.  My company couldn’t see it, they couldn’t hear it.  Dick Clark was the one responsible for making it a hit.  I was always grateful to [him] and Chubby Checker for doing ‘The Twist’ cause it put a spark in my career — plus, heh heh, I get my royalties.”

Thirteen years after being inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, Hank Ballard died of cancer in 2003.  As for Chubby Checker, he’s still going strong.  He’s got an eponymous line of snack foods now.  Its slogan:  The King Of The Twist Food Products.  To call this shameless would be an understatement.  Not bad for an imitator.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, February 15, 2008
9:44 p.m.

CORRECTION:  A major factual error was made in the Chubby Checker story.  Lines two through four of paragraph two originally said:  “While touring cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia in the late 1950s, he noticed something unusual.  The kids who came to see him and his back-up band, The Midnighters, play did this rather unique dance.”  That is wrong.  It was The Midnighters who invented The Twist.  This part of the entry has been reworked considerably in order to fix the original mistake.  Also, as a clarification, the description of The Twist, the actual dance, was taken from Chubby Checker’s official website.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, March 22, 2008
1:44 a.m.

CORRECTION 2:  I finally corrected the spelling of Rihanna’s name.  (I originally had it as “Rhianna”.)  I’m sorry for the mistake and wish I had corrected it a lot sooner.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, February 25, 2012
7:57 p.m.

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Published in: on February 15, 2008 at 9:44 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “Ain’t Got Nobody”, made famous by the David Lee Roth years of Van Halen was another cover commonly mistaken for an original.

  2. or was that one JUST David Lee Roth?

  3. You mean “Just A Gigolo”, or “Just A Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody”, to use its full title.  It was indeed a Roth solo single.  Did really well, too, hitting number 12 in 1985 in America.  Louis Prima had a hit with it, as well, in 1956, but believe it or not, the song dates back to the early 1930s.  For more on its history, click here.


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