From Nina Simone’s “My Way” to Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” these cover songs dramatically changed the originals when the cover artists made them their own.
Almost all the musicians I’ve met in my life want to play their own songs, not someone else’s, when they perform live. If you’re an artist, what’s the purpose of playing a cover song? Sure, plenty of musicians will do it to please a bar crowd, and sometimes it’s fun to put your own spin on it, but often cover songs are nothing more than shadows of the original.
Every once in a while, though, a cover comes along that completely alters the original and makes it the artist’s own. Through slight changes of lyrics, music or point of view, the person creating the cover song takes it somewhere the original artist either didn’t intend or didn’t foresee. The following are five examples of cover songs that completely transform the original work.
1. Nina Simone: “My Way”
In 1969 Frank Sinatra sang a song Paul Anka had written for him, set to the tune of a French song, “Comme d’habitude” by Claude Francois. Anka allegedly wrote the song in words he thought Sinatra would use himself and handed it off to him. “My Way” became one of Sinatra’s signature songs and an anthem for a generation of men like him.
And while there may be some value beyond old men sitting on bar stools, listening to this tune on the jukebox while grimacing into their beers, there’s no doubt in my mind that the far superior version of this classic is sung by Nina Simone.
Sinatra is said to have been a drinking, temperamental philanderer. And while Anka may have been drawing upon the loneliness of such a character when he wrote “My Way,” it takes on an entirely different meaning when sung by Simone. The cover song, which can be found on Simone’s Here Comes the Sun album, is not only transformed by the jubilant beat and Simone’s brilliant voice, but its meaning changes entirely. This is not a sad, lonely man singing. This is a proud, strong, uncompromising Black woman who was a leader in the civil rights movement. While “I ate it up and spit it out” may sound like false bravado from Sinatra, when Simone sings it, it rings with power.
2. Jeff Buckley: “Hallelujah”
The work of Canadian poet, novelist and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen is generally considered uncoverable. Rarely does a musician think they can match the combination of his poetic words, harmonies and delivery. There’s at least one huge exception to that commonly held belief, though, and that’s Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah,” which is far more popular than the original.
Cohen’s original version was much more firmly about God and holy words (“There’s a blaze of light in every word / It doesn’t matter which you heard / the holy or the broken Hallelujah”), whereas Buckley’s version focuses on romantic love set against a religious background (“Now maybe there’s a God above / But all I ever learned from love / Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya.”)
Cohen’s original was allegedly 80 verses long, and over 100 versions of it have been recorded. Variations have been in the soundtracks of several films, including Shrek. But Buckley’s cover song, filled with his sparse guitar and haunting voice, has become the version most people know.
3. Hell Blues Choir: “Jersey Girl”
Bruce Springsteen probably did the most famous version of the Tom Waits song “Jersey Girl,” which was written when Waits was living in New York City and his future wife and collaborator, Kathleen Brennan, was living in New Jersey. The song likely gave a whole lot of New Jersey residents unreasonable expectations of love, thinking there were actually New Yorkers who were willing to drive over bridges and through tunnels to be their romantic partners.
Springsteen’s version is slightly altered but full of the same down-and-out charm that fuels the Waits original. But when I first heard it sung in a halting, Norwegian accent by a woman who was part of the Hell Blues Choir, the song seemed transformed.
The words are not changed from the original in the slightest in this cover song. The woman singing still has no time for “the whores on Eighth Avenue,” and she’s still in love with a woman from Jersey, who she calls her “little angel.” The cover song is ethereal, sweet, hesitant and unmistakably queer — nothing Tom Waits likely intended or delivered in his version.
4. Aretha Franklin: “Respect”
Though fairly close musically to the Otis Redding original, which was about a man who was beaten down by his wife, Aretha Franklin took this song into new territory with the change of a few words and delivery. Franklin’s version of “Respect,” with dynamic backup singers and her own powerhouse lead, became an anthem for the feminist movement.
Gender played a part in the cover song transformation — a woman demanding respect instead of a man pleading for it — but what was the most different (and revolutionary) about the song was that women were asking large scale for what Aretha Franklin articulated more clearly, rousingly and beautifully than many people had before that moment.
5. Townes Van Zandt: “Dead Flowers”
Not many people have Mick Jagger’s swagger, but nobody had Townes Van Zandt’s heart. While the Rolling Stones’ lead singer belted and wailed his way through this tale of a girl who thinks she’s “the queen of the underground,” the Townes Van Zandt version seems to come straight from the cover artist’s tormented soul.
And, to be fair, it was pretty tormented. Electro-convulsive therapy during Van Zandt’s young adulthood wiped parts of his memory away, and he was often incapable of remembering having written his own songs. His good friend Blaze Foley allegedly pawned a guitar of Van Zandt’s and was shot and killed shortly after while protecting another friend from an armed thief. Van Zandt dug up Foley’s body to retrieve the pawn ticket and his guitar. Throughout his life, Van Zandt struggled with alcoholism, heroin addiction and mental illness.