We’ve all been there. We hear an amazing song on the radio and rush to the internet to find out who sang it, only to be greeted with comments and complaints that the tune is a cheap cover of an older, better song. Well, that might be true in some cases. But sometimes, cover songs can breathe new life into songs that never received their due during their initial release. Love them or hate them, here are a few popular songs that you might never have realized were covers.
Cover: Aretha Franklin (1967)
Original Artist: Otis Redding (1965)
R-E-S-P-E-C-T. It’s nearly impossible to spell out that word without hearing Aretha Franklin in your ear. This hit song became an anthem for the gospel singer, with her 1967 cover heralded to this day as a feminist love letter intended to smash the public’s notions of gender roles in a Civil Rights-era America. The original song by Otis Redding tells the same story from a more traditional, male-oriented angle, though it was Franklin’s interpretation that made this song a timeless classic.
“Red Red Wine”
Cover: UB40 (1983)
Original Artist: Neil Diamond (1967)
This earworm is notorious for getting stuck in listeners’ heads, with its punchy chorus and irresistible sample. Most casual listeners these days know the song from the 1983 cover made famous by English reggae/pop band UB40, but the song was actually written by Neil Diamond in 1967. Comparing the two, UB40’s delivery is much more upbeat and funky than Diamond’s original tune, which presents a far different perspective on what “red, red wine” will bring to your life.
Cover: Pearl Jam (1999)
Original Artist: Wayne Cochran (1961)
Some folks think Pearl Jam wrote this haunting ballad in 1999. They’d be wrong. Others may, only slightly more accurately, believe that it was written by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers in 1964. They’d also be wrong. “Last Kiss” was actually written by soul singer Wayne Cochran in 1961. And while he never found commercial success through this now-hit single, he’s still remembered for creating the original tune that other artists would build from.
“Twist and Shout”
Cover: The Isley Brothers (1962), The Beatles (1963)
Original Artist: The Top Notes (1961)
“Twist and Shout” is one of those classics that’s received plenty of attention as a pop cover. Starting with the chart-topping rendition delivered by the Isley Brothers in 1962, “Twist and Shout” would eventually be covered by The Beatles, The Tremeloes, and The Who, among others. But it all started back in 1961, when a small rhythm and blues group called The Top Notes first put the song on record.
“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”
Cover: Joan Jett & the Blackhearts (1982)
Original Artist: The Arrows (1975)
This rock classic was originally written by Alan Merrill of The Arrows, but it didn’t take the world by storm until it was covered by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts in 1982. The cover took off from there, earning a spot at the very top of the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks straight. Of course, Joan Jett and her band would have plenty of other hits in the coming years, but given that this cover was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2016, it’s clear that this classic still holds a special place in our culture.
“Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”
Cover: They Might Be Giants (1990)
Original Artist: The Four Lads (1953)
Younger folks likely know this bop by its 1990 cover, performed by alternative rock group They Might Be Giants. However, the actual song dates back decades, originally performed by the '50s-era swing group The Four Lads. Aside from being a catchy tune, there’s some interesting history behind the song. Designed as a humorous reference to the renaming of Constantinople in 1930, the song was first performed in 1953, exactly 500 years after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire. And while both versions found mainstream success, we’d have to give the edge to the original for historical points alone.
Is everything a pop cover?
Some say there are no original ideas left, and when you look at how many seemingly-original songs turned out to be covers of undiscovered hits, it’s hard to argue with that.
But if this list shows us anything, it’s that it takes more than originality to make a hit. Many of these songs never saw their heyday until a particular artist came along and put a new spin on it. And by doing so, they helped the songs (and their original writers) achieve more exposure and acclaim than they would have otherwise. In our book, that’s a good thing.