In this world, very few things have reached a level of perfection and should never be altered. For example, hot dogs are always the best meal at a baseball game. There’s no reason to consume avocado toast or a noodle bowl while you’re watching the Red Sox play the Yankees. I can quickly think of a few other items we shouldn’t tamper with—M&M candies, Maine in the summertime, and the movie My Cousin Vinny. Along those same lines, I’ve recently spent some time mulling over famous songs I believe should never be covered by anyone other than a specific artist. As you might expect, I decided to make a list. My rules were: (1) I had to love the song, (2) I could only choose ten, and (3) they had to be legitimate hits. I couldn’t pick some obscure piece most people wouldn’t recognize. Unsurprisingly, my selections aren’t contemporary. However, as much as I’ve dated myself, I’m confident most people would agree these are classics. Anyways, here goes (in no particular order):
“At Last” – Etta James
Originally recorded in 1960, “At Last” remains prevalent in commercials, movies, and popular culture. In addition to the beautiful lyrics, Etta James’ alternates between crystal clear and slightly husky tones, creating a hypnotic experience for the listener, a kind of verbal caress. Others who have recorded this classic don’t even try to change things up. They sing the song like Etta did. Why even bother?
“American Pie” – Don McLean
“American Pie” represents the quintessential American folk song. I often listen to this song three to four times in a row. Sometimes I simply go to the longer versions. In addition, since no one is 100% certain what all the words mean, it’s helpful to hear the writer sing the lyrics. The simple orchestration, alternating primarily between piano and guitar, combined with unpretentious styling, creates a listening experience others couldn’t and shouldn’t try to duplicate. If you doubt me, check out Madonna’s rendition on YouTube. You’ll be back with McLean in a heartbeat.
“Piano Man” – Billy Joel
“Piano Man” tells a story, one based on Billy Joel’s time performing in bars and lounges before he became a megastar. You can picture him observing the crowd—Davey from the Navy, Paul the Real Estate novelist, John at the bar, and the waitresses “practicing politics.” His perceptions make you nod your head, knowing you’ve witnessed this scene somewhere along the line, and you want to know more about the characters. More importantly, hearing Joel bang away at the keys crooning “and the piano sounds like a carnival,” followed a few measures later by “man, what are you doing here?” cements the personal nature of the narrative. Listening to “Piano Man” is almost like reading a diary entry. No one should read (or, in this case, sing) someone else’s diary.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” – Queen
Really, no explanation is required here. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is so outlandish and unique even Queen probably shouldn’t have recorded the tune. However, sheer will, the utilization of once-in-a-generation talent, and technological brilliance, gave birth to one of the most magnificent rock songs in history. I haven’t checked (and never will) but anyone who tried their own version should have their instruments confiscated.
“Greatest Love of All” – Whitney Houston
“Greatest Love of All” has been performed by a wide range of musicians and at least one motivational speaker (I’ve heard the recording.) The song is irresistibly hopeful and a consistent crowd pleaser. However, Houston’s 1986 cover is iconic. The sheer power of her voice and spectacular vocal range creates the ideal union of song and artist. When Whitney expresses her belief in the power of future generations and inner confidence, we’re right there with her, nodding along, ready to help people believe in themselves.
“What’s New Pussycat” – Tom Jones
Hey, this is my list and I get to choose. I’m not sure if everyone is aware of this, but the late 1960s and 1970s were the heyday for the “Lounge Lizard.” These entertainers would perform in bars and lounges, singing high energy love songs and ballads. They always had coiffed hair, sideburns, and a shirt open to at least the second button. If one of these guys showed up to date your daughter, you’d shoot him on the spot. Tom Jones represents the full evolution of the species and “What’s New Pussycat” is his most representative tune. In my view, respecting his version is a way of preserving history. As an aside, comedian John Mulaney’s five-minute routine about playing “What’s New Pussycat” twenty-five times in row on a diner jukebox is one of funniest things I’ve ever heard.
“Ain’t No Sunshine” – Bill Withers
“Ain’t No Sunshine” was inspired by the 1962 movie Days of Wine and Roses, a painful story about a couple caught in the disease of alcoholism. The song uses phrases like “she’s always gone too long” and “I wonder this time where’s she’s gone” to dramatically amplify the song’s signature line “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.” The result is a vivid portrait of the agony caused by a lost relationship. The brilliant lyrics, combined with Bill Wither’s haunting voice and verbal tone, pull the audience into the anguish. When I listen, I feel like I’m sitting in a dark room, hearing a friend grieve lost love. Don’t bother checking out anyone’s else version—it’s impossible to reproduce the brilliance of the original recording.
“Sweet Home Alabama” – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Guitar riffs dominate “Sweet Home Alabama” and the Southern Rock song never fails to get a room moving. Any party, wedding, or cruise-ship lounge will instantly transform from sedate to bustling when the opening chords of this tune play. Combine the unforgettable music with the somewhat non-sensical lyrics and mature women will abandon their grandchildren to relive their glory days on the dance floor. I’m sure other bands have mimicked Lynyrd Skynyrd’s amazing arrangement, but all they can do is imitate. Plus, you have to respect a band named after a high school gym teacher who didn’t like long hair.
“Satisfaction” – The Rolling Stones
“Satisfaction” was originally released by the Rolling Stones fifty-six years ago. I’m convinced if it was released for the first time today, the song would become an instant classic. The emotional message and pounding arrangement are timeless. Someone might ask, “but couldn’t a more modern version ring true?” I don’t think so. “Satisfaction” has been covered by so many bands and singers (including Britney Spears) there’s a list of the top fifty. I’ve never heard any of them, which tells you something about the superiority of the original recording. In a 1975 People magazine interview, lead singer Mick Jagger was quoted as saying, “…I’d rather be dead than singing ‘Satisfaction’ when I’m 45.” He’s now seventy-seven and still performing the song. Enough said.
“Respect” – Aretha Franklin
Go ahead. Suggest one other person who should sing this song. I’ll wait …
As Aretha tell me she needs “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and to “find out what it means to me,” I’m paying attention, hearing the force behind the words, aware I’m close to getting my sorry butt kicked to the curb. The distinctiveness of Aretha’s voice, combined with her get-out-of-my-face attitude, produces an unforgettable character, a person who isn’t going to take anything from anybody. With every listening, a new story forms in my head, explaining why some guy has to get his act together (at least I always picture her talking to a guy.) She does this so well I’m unable to separate the song from the artist, making it impossible to accept anyone else in the role.
I would like to finish by noting two additional items. First, more than one person suggested I include Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” on this list. I must confess that, while I know “Stairway to Heaven” is an all-time classic and loved by many, I don’t enjoy the song. Every time I try to listen, I keep hoping they’d speed things up and am consistently having thoughts like, “get on with this will you?” Secondly, you may be surprised to find I didn’t include any songs from The Beatles or Carole King. After some consideration and input from a friend, I realized other artists consistently devise new arrangements and fantastic renditions without mirroring the original versions. This, to me, is a sign of true songwriting genius.
I’m sure you all could generate your own list and I hope I’ve got you thinking. In the meantime, take a look as these selections on YouTube. I apologize in advance for any “ear worms.”
Steven Rogers faith-based novel “Into the Room” will be published by Elk Lake Publishing in May of 2021. You can visit his author page at https://elklakepublishinginc.com/steven-rogers/