This weekend marked 45 years since the death of Jimi Hendrix so with him and his colossal take on Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower in mind, here’s a list of five of my all-time favourite cover songs. I played All Along The Watchtower (featured at the bottom of this article) on my radio show Friday night and it still sounded out of this world. Imagine how it sounded back in 1968.
Defining what constitutes a “cover” isn’t always entirely straightforward – should live songs really be included? Yes in this case, but maybe it’s a contestable point. Also think of how multiple Motown acts would sometimes record different versions of the same song within a short space of time. This happened with I Heard It Through The Grapevine – best known for Marvin Gaye’s defining rendition (US #1 1968), but also recorded by the Temptations, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and Gladys Knight & The Pips (the latter having a substantial hit with it a year before Gaye).
Then you also have the matter of whether a sampled hook constitutes a cover? And all I wanted to do was tap out a list of a handful of cool songs!
So for the purposes of this article and without getting too complicated, here are five further cover songs in addition to Hendrix’s reworking of All Along The Watchtower that were were not written specifically for the artist in question. These songs not only honour the originals but in my mind somehow surpass them in similarly Hendrix-like fashion. And one of the songs is a cover of a Hendrix track itself.
In choosing these five I acknowledge there are countless great covers missing that normally make “best of” lists – songs like Joe Cocker’s soulful overhaul of the Beatles With A Little Help From My Friends, Johnny Cash’s take on Hurt by the Nine Inch Nails, Aretha Franklin’s feminist anthem Respect that was actually an Otis Redding song and Whitney Houston’s bombastic I Will Always Love You – originally a humble country love song by a certain Dolly Parton.
So instead of those usual suspects, I’ve gone for five that I believe are just as worthy and just as inspired. Not only is Jimi Hendrix featured again, but so too are Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan. Hope you like them:
Elvis Presley – An American Trilogy – 1972 (written and originally recorded by Mickey Newbury)
I’ve ended up including two live songs in my list, but both are so exceptional that it’s criminal to me they were never given studio versions. The soul and gospel stylings of Elvis were never better displayed than on If I Can Dream (1968) and on this song, An American Trilogy. The climactic drama of whether or not he’ll hit that final note at the song’s closing is outstanding showmanship as well as being vocally stunning. Click here to read more about this song.
Bob Dylan & The Band – I Shall Be Released – 1976 (written by Bob Dylan, first made famous by The Band)
Another Dylan song and this time Dylan singing with The Band and not just The Band on their own, though Dylan had written and recorded a rough version of the song himself back in 1967. I love The Band and it pains me to say I still find their original version timid to the point of sounding insipid. And yet in this guise – with Dylan leading not just The Band, but the all-stars from The Last Waltz rock film (including Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and others) – the song is the powerful gospel standard it always deserved to be. Dylan rarely sounded as good in concert.
Aretha Franklin – I’m In Love – 1974 (written by Bobby Womack, originally recorded by Wilson Pickett)
Written by the great (and now departed) Bobby Womack, Wilson Pickett also did a grand version of this simple and yet breathtaking love song. But Aretha leaves the blokes in her dust with her soaring interpretation and is able to pack so much meaning, emotion and story into those three words: I’m in love. Phenomenal.
Isley Brothers – Ohio / Machine Gun – 1971 (Ohio written by Neil Young and recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Machine Gun written by Jimi Hendrix and without a properly recorded studio version)
The Isley Brothers were often partial to a radical cover or two and their nine-minute amalgamation of Neil Young’s Kent State shooting protest song Ohio and Jimi Hendrix’s Machine Gun is truly inspired. This is first-rate socially conscious soul from a black group unafraid to show their appreciation of white rock. While recorded during the brothers (relatively) commercially-quiet early 70s period, they would be back at the higher reaches of the US charts within a couple of years.
Diana Ross – Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – 1970 (written by Ashford & Simpson, originally made famous by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell)
Is this kind of songwriting / producing confidence that borderlines on wonderful arrogance still evident in pop music? As in, it was only three years after Gaye and Terrell had hit the charts with what instantly became a snappy pop / R&B standard. And given the opportunity to produce a superstar like Diana Ross’s first solo LP, producers (and songwriters of the original) Ashford & Simpson were going to squander things by covering such a recent and now entirely ubiquitous song?
Only nothing was squandered with Ashford & Simpson somehow successfully turning two-minutes of very famous, carefree pop confection into a six-minute epic complete with spoken-word passages. To create tension and release, they deliberately kept the singing of the famous chorus line until near the song’s end. Somehow, they surpassed the original both creatively and commercially and were rewarded with a US#1, even if a three-minute edit is what you normally hear on the radio.
Jimi Hendrix – All Along The Watchtower – 1968 (written and originally recorded by Bob Dylan)
With my favourite five covers above, here’s the song that inspired me to write this article. There can be no greater praise for Hendrix’s unforgettable, almost spooky re-imagining of Dylan’s song than Dylan himself conceding its brilliance forever influenced his own future live playing of the track.