MICHAEL MUSTO: The 10 Greatest Cover Songs Ever

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First Michael Musto gave us his picks for the worst cover songs of all time, and now he shares his picks for the greatest song remakes that ever were. (BET.com photo)
First Michael Musto gave us his picks for the worst cover songs of all time, and now he shares his picks for the greatest song remakes that ever were. (BET.com photo)

Remaking a good song is a risky business because sometimes it’s better to leave well enough alone. But in the following 10 cases, musical artists soared by going back over familiar territory, doing it in a way that made their efforts anything but redundant.

“LET’S STAY TOGETHER,” TINA TURNER


In 1983, the great Tina hit the comeback trail with this sexy, woozy cover of the 1972 Al Green song. Getting her a spot on the charts as a solo artist, it helped propel her “Private Dancer” LP and made the public vow to “stay together” with Tina for quite some time.

“RESPECT,” ARETHA FRANKLIN


The Queen of Soul did some great covers through the years, but her most powerful and famous was this 1967 remake of the Otis Redding song from two years earlier. And she put her own stamp on it, making it less desperate and more declarative than Redding’s version, while adding irresistible touches like the spelling out of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and the “sock it to me” backups. With this song alone, ‘Re deserved all our proppers.

“AIN’T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH,” DIANA ROSS


Written by Ashford and Simpson, this was a bouncy, sincere 1967 hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, but in 1970, Diana totally transformed it for a solo triumph that make it clear that she was a star for the duration. This was a whole new version, with added gospel elements, strings and spoken-word segments. Everyone was convinced it wasn’t going to make it at first — including Berry Gordy — but once it started clicking with the public, it definitely went high enough.

“TAINTED LOVE,” SOFT CELL


Gloria Jones recorded the fairly obscure version in 1964, but in 1981, Soft Cell scored by slowing it down, changing the key, adding synthesizers and layering on Marc Almond’s plaintive and thoroughly unforgettable vocals.

“I PUT A SPELL ON YOU,” ANNIE LENNOX


The fiercely bluesy 1956 song was written and sung by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, who in concert would wear a cape and spring out of a coffin. It inspired many covers, including those by Nina Simone and Bryan Ferry, but the most sizzling of all was by Annie Lennox, who didn’t need costumes or theatrics; she simply stood there at the 2015 Grammys (after helping Hozier perform “Take Me To Church”) and ripped into the song with lung power, piercing emotion and brilliant showmanship.

“I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE,” MARVIN GAYE


A musically insinuating song about poisonous (but true) gossip, this was originally recorded by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles in a version that was rejected by Motown head Berry Gordy. Marvin Gaye recorded it, but that version was also thrown out, weirdly enough. Then, in 1967, Gladys Knight & the Pips put out their smash version, which was tough and incredibly catchy. But Gaye’s version didn’t die; it was put on his album and in ’68, Gordy released it to acclaim and great sales. It’s even darker than Gladys’s version, which makes it all the more memorable.
(Tied with Luther Vandross’ luscious version of “A House is Not a Home,” an exquisitely sung trip into heartbreak.)

“IT’S MY LIFE,” NO DOUBT


When I wrote up “The 10 Worst Cover Songs of All Time,” a Facebook commenter mentioned this 2003 remake of the 1984 song by the British new wave band Talk Talk. And I have to admit I was stunned! I happen to love No Doubt’s version, which is peppy and poppy and sexy, filled with Gwen Stefani’s girlish and pure vocals. It gives me a lift every time I hear it, so I’m glad the band talked themselves out of their reluctance to cover someone else’s material.

“SUSPICIOUS MINDS,” “BLUE SUEDE SHOES,” “HOUND DOG,” “ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT?” “IN THE GHETTO,” “BURNING LOVE,” “ALWAYS ON MY MIND,” ELVIS PRESLEY


Yes, every one of those songs (and plenty more) was a cover hit for The King, who was a master appropriator, though at least he did well by his material. And a lot of those songs kept getting covered after Elvis — like “Always On My Mind,” which resurfaced in the great Willie Nelson version and the fab Pet Shop Boys one, too.

“I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU,” WHITNEY HOUSTON


A sweet little 1974 country song by Dolly Parton became one of the biggest hits of all time when Whitney Houston recorded it for 1992’s “The Bodyguard,” starting with an a cappella introduction and building to a three-act-play’s worth of vocal histrionics, complete with belts, trills and volume changes. Go on and hate on it, but the woman had the gift.

“KILLING ME SOFTLY,” THE FUGEES


A 1973 hit for Roberta Flack, “Killing Me Softly With His Song” was a gentle yet emotional ballad about the sheer joy involved in seeing a musician perform material that speaks directly to the listener’s soul. In 1996, with the help of various samples and Lauryn Hill’s lead vocals, the Fugees made it into a riffier, more eclectic version which you could not escape all year, though you didn’t necessarily want to, since it was hauntingly effective. Luther Vandross also did a brilliant cover of that song.

RUNNERS-UP: I love Lulu’s affecting version of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World.” Also Thelma Houston’s simmering re-do of “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” Bette Midler’s raucously fun revamp of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and Sinead O’Connor’s powerhouse rendition of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” In 1968, Jose Feliciano did a haunting version of The Doors’ “Light My Fire” from a year earlier. The Langley Schools Music Project — a children’s chorus — did a beautiful version of the Eagles’ “Desperado.” Linda Ronstadt killed it with some fabulous covers. Laura Nyro and Labelle collaborated on a lusciously shimmery album of soul covers. And can anyone forget Sid Vicious’ outrageous punk version of “My Way?” The end truly was near for him, but he definitely did it his way.

Michael Musto is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine. Be sure to check out what remakes made his “10 Worst Cover Songs of All Time” list. 

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