Improving on a hit song is rare and takes some ingenuity. Here are a few unexpectedly fabulous cover versions by artists who refused to settle for second-best.
SUNNY Bobby Hebb vs. Robert Mitchum
You’ll find original Hollywood bad boy Robert Mitchum’s swingin’ take on Bobby Hebb’s cocktail-hour classic on the 1967 album That Man, Robert Mitchum, Sings! (Monument), which also includes his stellar The Ballad Of Thunder Road, which he wrote and recorded as the film’s theme.
SUGAR, SUGAR Ike & Tina Turner vs. the Archies
Ike & Tina Turner
While Ike & Tina’s revved-up rip through Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary proved they could make a popular song by a rock group their own, doing the same with a children’s cartoon staple took some subversive ingenuity. Ike turned the Archies’ sweet ditty into a funky New Orleans-style grind, with Tina moaning sexy in ways never heard on Saturday-morning television before or since.
FEVER Little Willie John vs. Usha Uthup
R&B belter Little Willie John scored a career-making smash with Otis Blackwell’s sizzler Fever, which Peggy Lee turned it into a lounge standard. But it was Bollywood chanteuse Usha Uthup who realized the broken-beat potential in the tune while playing a Nairobi casino gig back in 1978, years before IG Culture busted his first beat.
LOVE BUZZ Shocking Blue vs. Nirvana
Cobain and crew’s explosive revision of the obscure Nederbeat tune easily trumps the Shocking Blue original and stands among the grungefathers’ most sought-after releases.
SON OF A PREACHER MAN Aretha Franklin vs. Dusty Springfield
It’s not often that Aretha Franklin gets beaten at her own song-swiping game, but she met her match in young Britpop superstar Dusty Springfield. It was written for Franklin, but Springfield’s head-nodding version zoomed up the charts in the U.S. and UK and became the centrepiece of the Dusty In Memphis (Atlantic) album.
SUPERSTAR (REMEMBER HOW YOU GOT WHERE YOU ARE) Temptations vs. Society of Seven
A precursor to the hiphop dis track, the Temptations’ 1971 top-10 missive was seriously funkified by Hawaiian lounge act Society of Seven, whose Ernie Freeman-produced bumper opens with a mad break.
TO LOVE SOMEBODY The Bee Gees vs. James Carr
The Bee Gees
A number of artists have taken a shot at the Bee Gees’ ballad – evidently inspired by the boys’ fondness for manager Robert Stigwood – and most use Gram Parsons’ cover as a jump-off point. But Parsons was only trying to capture some of the hurt conveyed so soulfully in James Carr’s reading.
SATISFACTION The Rolling Stones vs. Otis Redding
While Mick Jagger and company made a career out of reworking blues and R&B hits by black American artists, it took the great Otis Redding to provide some payback by remodelling the Stones’ signature tune, Satisfaction, into his own horn-riffing showstopper.
HURT Johnny Cash vs. the Nine Inch Nails
It’s doubtful Johnny Cash had heard of Nine Inch Nails before Rick Rubin suggested covering Trent Reznor’s Hurt, but no matter. The Man in Black completely took control of the song and made it a personal statement about his own life and loss. Nine Inch who?
VALERIE The Zutons vs. Amy Winehouse
UK pop-punk boyos the Zutons had a peppy number in Valerie, but once Amy Winehouse and the Dap-Kings got ahold of it, the song was transformed into a certified soul anthem. The definitive take appears on the double-disc deluxe edition of Winehouse’s Back To Black (Universal) album.