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Songs You Didn’t Know Were Covers: 20 Surprises That Smashed It
MARKA / Alamy Stock Photo
List & Guides

Songs You Didn’t Know Were Covers: 20 Surprises That Smashed It

Some songs are so ubiquitous, you’d never think they existed in another form. Here are 20 songs you didn’t know were covers.


What makes a good cover version? Radical reworkings can help but, ultimately, the original song needs to be good enough to stand the test of time in the first place. When both elements combine, you get a definitive classic that becomes a part of pop culture for ever more. Here, then, are 20 songs you didn’t know were covers, but which have relegated the originals to footnotes music’s history books.

20: Donovan: Universal Soldier (originally by Buffy Sainte-Marie)

The title track of Donovan’s hit 1965 EP, Universal Soldier’s themes touch on just the sort of subjects the rising Glaswegian über-hippie wrote about. Except he didn’t write it. Canadian folkie Buffy Sainte-Marie had penned the song a couple of years earlier in the basement of a Toronto coffee house. Appearing on her 1964 debut album, It’s My Way, Universal Soldier might not have become an anti-war anthem had Donovan not taken a cover of the song, in much the same style as Saint-Marie recorded it, to No.5 in the UK. A modest hit in the US, Glen Campbell released a version there the same year to much the same reaction. The pacifist movement soon gained pace, though, and Universal Soldier has had a long afterlife.

19: Kim Carnes: Bette Davis Eyes (originally by Jackie DeShannon)

Seven years before Kim Carnes released her hit 1981 cover version, American singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon released the original recording of Bette Davis Eyes. A mixture of pop and R&B, DeShannon’s recording features a bluesy, rock’n’roll piano part so far from Kim Carnes’ reimagining, you’d be forgiven for not realising it was the same song. Carnes’ version starts with a catchy synth hook, instantly capturing the essence of the 80s’ new wave sound. It was a global hit, topping the charts in the US, France, Spain and elsewhere.

18: Johnny Cash: Ring Of Fire (originally by Anita Carter)

Written by Merle Kilgore and June Carter Cash, June’s sister Anita originally recorded Ring Of Fire and released it on her 1963 album, Anita Carter Sings Folk Songs Old And New. At the time, June married Johnny Cash, and Anita’s new brother-in-law reportedly had a dream featuring the song with its distinctive mariachi-band horns. Recorded with this arrangement and released the same year, Cash’s cover version become one of his most popular singles, repeatedly featuring across “best singles of all time” lists. In 2020, another reimagining of Ring Of Fire was recorded by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for the posthumous album Johnny Cash And The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

17: José González: Heartbeats (originally by The Knife)

Argentinian-Swedish singer-songwriter José González really announced himself to the world with his cover of Heartbeats, which hit No.9 in the UK singles charts in 2006, after having been recorded for his 2003 album, Veneer. A hugely talented guitarist, González’s soothing voice was perfect for the stripped-back arrangement that he gave to the track, which had originally been released in 2002 as a synth-oriented song by Swedish electronic duo The Knife. Completely changing the song’s feel with his acoustic reimagining, González created one of the biggest singer-songwriter hits of the 2000s, providing a springboard to for the rest of his career; two further studio albums followed, while González also provided music for Ben Stiller’s 2013 movie adaptation of The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.

16: UB40: Red Red Wine (originally by Neil Diamond)

Before releasing of their version of Red Red Wine in 1983, UB40 were revelling in the success of three consecutive Top 5 UK albums, as well as scoring hits in other countries such as New Zealand and Australia. While singles such as King and My Way Of Thinking had made inroads into the charts, it took the release of Red Red Wine for the Birmingham band to achieve their first No.1 single. Included on the reggae covers album Labour Of Love, which featured takes on songs such as Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers To Cross and Winston Tucker’s Please Don’t Make Me Cry, Red Red Wine was actually penned by MOR songwriter Neil Diamond; UB40, however, had heard it from Jamaican singer Tony Tribe, who had released a version in 1969.

15: Madness: It Must Be Love (originally by Labi Siffre)

In 1981, ska legends Madness released their cover of It Must Be Love, which went on to peak at No.4 in the UK, one of ten Top 5 singles for the band. The song’s music video was about as Madness as it gets, with saxophonist Lee Thompson and guitarist Chris Foreman playing their solos underwater. It also included a cameo from the song’s original writer, Labi Siffre, on violin. Siffre had written the song ten years earlier and released it on his 1972 album, Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying. He also had hits with (Something Inside) So Strong, a powerful song about apartheid in South Africa, and I Got The… which went on to be sampled in Eminem’s global hit My Name Is.

14: Blondie: The Tide Is High (originally by The Paragons)

Out of all the covers of The Tide Is High (it has been tackled by everyone from British pop trio Atomic Kitten to Canadian rapper Kardinal Offishall), Blondie’s 1980 version received international acclaim, giving the group No.1 hits in the UK, US, Canada and New Zealand, along with countless other Top 10 chart placements. Recorded 13 years earlier, The Paragons’ original version is a heart-warming rocksteady classic, oozing with charm; for their version, Blondie retained the reggae influences, using trumpets and a tight piece of percussion throughout. With Debbie Harry’s impeccable vocals really shining through, it was a departure from the group’s customary new wave sound.

13: The Housemartins: Caravan Of Love (originally by Isley-Jasper-Isley)

A minor 1985 hit from the offshoot Isley Brothers outfit Isley-Jasper-Isley, Caravan Of Love reached No.51 in the Billboard charts. Its Christian themes of love and unity, however, struck a chord with Paul Heaton, singer and lyricist of British jangle-poppers The Housemartins. The R&B style of the original was rather uniquely reworked with a gospel-style a cappella arrangement, reaching No.1 in the UK singles chart during December 1986 – only the second a cappella single to achieve this feat. For many, Caravan Of Love remains synonymous with Christmas. Check out the brilliant video, which sees the group japing around inside and outside a church in New York.

12: Natalie Imbruglia: Torn (originally by Ednaswap)

The Australian singer-songwriter, model and actress came to prominence in the early 90s playing Beth Brennan in the long-running soap opera Neighbours. Three years after leaving the show she began a singing career with this global smash in 1997, reaching the Top 10 in most territories – and selling more than one million copies in the UK alone. Written by Scott Cutler and Anne Preven of LA rock band Ednaswap, alongside producer Phil Thornalley, Torn was first a hit for Danish artist Lis Sørensen in 1993, before appearing on Ednaswap’s own self-titled 1995 debut album. Imbruglia then worked with Thornalley, who suggested she record a version for her own debut album, Left Of The Middle.

11: The Beatles: Twist And Shout (originally by The Top Notes)

Such is Twist And Shout’s ubiquity, it’s been recorded by everyone from female hip-hop trio Salt-N-Pepa to pop-reggae duo Chaka Demus And Pliers. Most people will know it as the closing track to The Beatles’ debut album, 1963’s Please Please Me, where, after a solid day of recording while bunged-up with a cold, John Lennon unleashed a larynx-shredding vocal that more or less finished him off. It arguably finished off all other known versions of the song, too. Amusingly, Brian Poole And The Tremeloes – whom Decca had signed instead of snapping up The Beatles when they had the chance – had been covering the song before the Fabs picked up on it… but who remembers that? Fans should, however, put their ears to The Isley Brothers’ gospel-infused R&B version of 1962, which The Beatles copped for their own overhaul. Less well-known is the 1961 version by US vocal group The Top Notes, whose Phil Spector-produced version was the first ever stab at the Phil Medley- and Bert Berns-penned song,

10: Bill Haley And The Comets: (We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock (originally by Sonny Dae and His Knights)

Max C Freedman and James E Myers co-wrote this rock’n’roll classic in 1952, and the song was originally meant to end up in Bill Haley’s hands. The Comets did begin performing it live, but a dispute between Myers and Haley’s label at the time, Essex Records, prevented them from recording it. Step forward a novelty all-white musical group led by Italian-American singer Paschal Vennitti, who, in March 1954, saw some regional success with a boogie-woogie version of the song. Once Haley jumped ship to Decca he was able to record the famous version, though it was initially consigned to B-side status when released in May that same year. After featuring in the original rock’n’roll rebel movie, 1955’s Blackboard Jungle, the song was reissued, becoming the phenomenon we now adore.

9: Roberta Flack: Killing Me Softly With His Song (originally by Lori Liberman)

Aspiring musician Lori Lieberman was 19 years old in 1971, when she was introduced to veteran songwriter Norman Gimbel and composer Charles Fox. The two men signed her to a management contract that allowed them to write her songs and manage her career. With lyrics inspired by a scintillating Don McLean live performance, Liberman’s version of Killing Me Softly With His Song did not chart. Hearing it on a flight soon after its release, however, soul singer Flack was entranced and set about immediately recording her cover version. Its release, in January 1973, eventually saw the song take the top spot in the US while becoming a major hit worldwide. The Fugees also saw huge success with their own take in 1996.

8: Phil Collins: A Groovy Kind Of Love (originally by Dianne And Annita)

Written by New York-based songwriters Toni Wine and Carole Bayer, A Groovy Kind Of Love was first given an obscure release by US duo Dianne And Annita on a 1965 French EP. Mere months later, the song gained some significant fame via beat combo The Mindbenders, who, fresh from their split with Wayne Fontana, took it to the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic. It was ex-Genesis drummer Phil Collins, however, who took A Groovy Kind Of Love to the top spot, off the back of his 1988 movie outing, Buster. Collins’ cover stripped the song back to a soft-focus ballad, with sweeping strings giving it a second wind halfway through.

7: Madonna: Ray Of Light (originally by Curtiss Maldoon)

The title track from Madge’s 1998 EDM-infused seventh album, co-produced by William Orbit, quickly became a club anthem. Madonna was happy to tell everyone in interviews at the time that much of the melody and lyric was based on an obscure 1971 folk song by Curtiss Maldoon, entitled Sepheryn. The story is that Maldoon’s niece Christine Leach worked with Orbit on a re-recording of Sepheryn, and he shared the bare-bones version with Madonna while they discussed material for a proposed album. The differences between the two songs are significant; not a traditional cover as such, Ray Of Light is more a reimagining of a certain utopian spirit.

6: Tiffany: I Think We’re Alone Now (originally by Tommy James & The Shondells)

Written by regular collaborator Ritchie Cordell, bubble-gum rockers The Shondells took this eulogy to prohibitive teenage sex into the Top 5 in 1967. But its success was minor compared to what would happen in 1987, when teenage pop sensation Tiffany Darwish released a cover version that topped the charts everywhere. Currently played over 100 million times on Spotify, she would never experience a hit like it again. The irony is, Tiffany didn’t even like the original when her producer played it to her, feeling the track wasn’t hip enough. Persuaded to demo a dance-pop version, her friends’ instantly positive reaction was enough to make her change her mind.

5: Whitney Houston: I Will Always Love You (originally by Dolly Parton)

A 1973 composition written in tribute to singing partner Porter Wagoner after they professionally parted ways, I Will Always Love You was a No.1 country hit for Parton in both 1974 and 1982, though it never crossed over into the mainstream – that is, until the 1992 romantic thriller The Bodyguard hit the cinemas. Suggested by co-star Kevin Costner, who was a fan of Linda Ronstadt’s 1975 version, Whitney Houston’s incredible soul-pop version turned the song into the best-selling single by a woman (20 million sales and counting). It is now considered one of the greatest love songs of all time, with an a cappella introduction powerful enough to stop people in their tracks.

4: Soft Cell: Tainted Love: (originally by Gloria Jones)

The best thing Ed Cobb ever wrote, this Northern soul classic from 1965 was originally a B-side to a flop single. After becoming a Wigan Casino dancefloor favourite, US singer Gloria Jones re-recorded it in 1976 and scored herself… another flop (find it on her album Vixen, produced by her boyfriend, Marc Bolan). Another Marc – Almond – took a slowed-down synth-pop version into UK living rooms in 1981 with a memorable Top Of The Pops performance, helping Soft Cell’s third single rise to No.1 while becoming the biggest-selling single of the year. It also hit the Top 10 worldwide, fuelling sales of its parent album, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, along the way.

3: Tina Turner: The Best (originally by Bonnie Tyler)

From Bonnie Tyler’s seventh studio album, Hide Your Heart, The Best was originally released in 1988 to moderate success. Upon hearing the song, Tina Turner fell in love with it; retaining the pop-rock sound of Tyler’s original, The Queen Of Rock’n’Roll released her cover version on 1989’s Foreign Affair album to monumental international success. Turner’s vocals are as powerful and uplifting as the song’s inspiring message – heard whenever there is any kind of celebration to be had. As well as those powerhouse vocals, another aspect that sets Turner’s version apart is Edgar Winter’s dynamic saxophone solo, which adds vigour just when you think the track couldn’t have any more. Both the Foreign Affair album and the single were global hits that continue to be a part of pop culture to this day.

2: Pet Shop Boys: Always On My Mind (originally by Gwen McCrae)

OK, so you probably did know that Pet Shop Boys’ Always On My Mind was a cover, but it’s funny to think that one of the definitive synth-pop tracks of the 80s was originally a crossover country hit. No sooner had country musicians Wayne Carson and Johnny Christopher, and songwriter/producer Mark James, written the song, it was covered by soul singer Gwen McCrae and rock’n’roll icons Brenda Lee and Elvis Presley – all in 1972 – en route to becoming one of the most-recorded songs of all time (with over 300 versions and counting). For a whole new generation of fans, however, Pet Shop Boys’ take has become the definitive version. Originally recorded for an Elvis Presley tribute, they retained the song’s melancholy heart while giving it a radical Hi-NRG makeover that made it a smash hit all over again. Genius.

1: Aretha Franklin: Respect (originally by Otis Redding)

In 1965, Otis Redding released his song Respect on one of the greatest soul albums of all-time, Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul. Two years later, fellow Atlantic Records artist Aretha Franklin turned it into one of the most instantly recognisable songs of all time with a version that has become a soul standard. Franklin worked with her sisters Erma and Carolyn to change the song’s gender, singing it from a female perspective while adding the renowned backing vocals as well as the iconic spelling-out of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”. Franklin’s version is more than just a cover, it’s an astounding reworking of an already brilliant track that not many would have thought needed improving. Not only that, it’s one of the most important pieces of music ever recorded, becoming an anthem for both the feminist and civil-rights movements, and cementing Franklin’s place among the female singers who changed the world in the 60s. The song also lends its title the title to an upcoming biopic about Franklin, which features Jennifer Hudson as the singer and is due for release in August 2021

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