Popular Songs You Had No Idea Were Cover Tunes
Stars like Whitney, Aretha and The Beatles all found success with cover songs.
A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I went to our weekly music trivia night at a local restaurant-pub. Every week, we get together with friends, enjoy a good meal, enjoy some laughs and get super competitive over a game of name that tune and artist. Every once in a while, a category comes up during the game that gets the room really talking and excited. On this particular night, the category “Cover Songs You Had No Idea Were Covers” came up. I felt pretty confident.
But many of us were shocked to find out that some of our favorite tunes from across the decades were actually remakes! How many of these songs did you know were cover tunes? I bet some of them might surprise you, too.
‘Ring of Fire’—Johnny Cash
Cash was a country music icon with “Ring of Fire” his signature song. Yet he is neither the original artist nor the songwriter. His wife, June Carter Cash, and another songwriter, Merle Kilgore, wrote the song for June’s sister Anita Carter. However, it didn’t get much play as an acoustic number, so Johnny Cash rearranged and re-recorded it to create a No. 1 song on the country charts in 1963.
‘Hound Dog’—Elvis Presley
The King of Rock and Roll gyrated and sang his way into the hearts of teenage girls around the world with his 1956 recording of “Hound Dog.” But the classic song had already made a splash on the music charts three years earlier when blues singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton released her version in 1952. It sold half a million records at the time, but it wasn’t until a newcomer named Elvis covered it that it became a worldwide sensation.
‘Hey Joe’—Jimi Hendrix
Hendrix was an electric guitar god to music lovers of the 1960s. His talent transcends his untimely death in September 1970 at the age of 27. One of Hendrix’s most popular songs was originally recorded in 1965 by a Calfornia garage rock band called The Leaves, though the song’s authorship remains up in the air. Hendrix, meanwhile, recorded his version of the song in 1966 in the United Kingdom and in 1967 in the United States. The song reached legendary status when Hendrix played it as the last song of the multi-day music festival Woodstock.
‘Big Yellow Taxi’—Counting Crows Featuring Vanessa Carlton
Singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell released “Big Yellow Taxi” in 1970 and only found success with the song in her native Canada. Thirty-two years later, in 2002, the Counting Crows hit it big with the song, which featured vocals by Vanessa Carlton. The song eventually went on to make the Billboard charts (peaking at number 5 on the Adult Contemporary chart) and was given Gold status by the Recording Industry of America.
‘Downtown Train’—Rod Stewart
Rod Stewart broke away from his rock and glam image when he released his version of “Downtown Train” in 1989. But famous songwriter Tom Waits wrote and recorded the song as part of his 1985 Rain Dogs album. In fact, Waits has a number of songs that have gone on to become more popular when others recorded them, including “Jersey Girl” by Bruce Springsteen and “Ol’ 55” by The Eagles.
‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’—Cyndi Lauper
It was one of the most popular girl power anthems of the 1980s and, let’s face it, it’s just a totally fun song. So it might seem a little unusual that it was originally written and recorded by a man named Robert Hazard in 1979. When Lauper recorded the song as her first single and produced a video for MTV, it became an instant classic, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard charts.
‘I Will Always Love You’—Whitney Houston
It was the song the world couldn’t get enough of or get away from in the mid-1990s. As part of the soundtrack for the movie “The Bodyguard,” Houston’s soaring version of “I Will Always Love You” cemented her diva status in the music world. Houston’s version stayed on top of Billboard’s Hot 100 for 14 weeks. The song, though, had its first round of success with the original songwriter and artist Dolly Parton. Her simpler, country version of the song hit No. 1 in 1974.
‘Don’t Cha’—The Pussycat Dolls
Before The Pussycat Dolls hit it big with their 2005 R&B hit “Don’t Cha,” the song had its first life as a single for Tori Alamaze (former vocalist for the group OutKast.) The song, written by famous producer CeeLo Green and rapper Busta Rhymes, needed a sexier vibe and the burlesque-style Pussycat Dolls gave the tune the punch it needed to become a top 10 Hot 100 song on the Billboard charts.
If you were a kid in the 1980s, you have to remember this classic song from its constant rotation on MTV with singer Toni Basil jumping around in her cheerleader outfit. The song, though, was originally called “Kitty” and released in 1979 by a British group called Racey. But when Basil changed the name to “Mickey” to make it about a man and added the “Oh, Mickey, you’re so fine,” chant at the beginning of the song, it became the classic we all know and love today.
‘Mambo No. 5’—Lou Bega
The world all had a “little bit of mambo” fever in at the end of the 20th century thanks to Lou Bega’s single “A Little Bit of Mambo.” The catchy one-hit wonder had everyone thinking mambo was the latest craze. But Bega snatched the song from way back in 1950, when Cuban songwriter and artist Dámaso Pérez Prado released the original.
In 1997, Australian female singer Natalie Imbruglia took a song that already had a number of lives and made it into one of the most popular hits of the late 1990s. She earned a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Female Vocalist for her rendition of the song, which dates back to 1993. It was then that it was first performed by a band named Ednaswap and later a Danish singer named Lis Sorensen. Eventually, the song made its way to Imbruglia for her debut album and the rest is music history.
‘Killing Me Softly’—The Fugees
‘Killing Me Softly” is another song that had three life cycles. It was first recorded in 1971 by Lori Liberman, but then the 1973 cover version by Roberta Flack hit No. 1 on the international charts. The third time was definitely the charm for this classic song, though, when The Fugees re-released their version and earned a 1997 Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
‘I’m A Believer’—Smash Mouth
Before Smash Mouth’s version of “I’m A Believer” became a hit off the soundtrack from the movie “Shrek” in 2001, this hit had been one of the most popular songs of the late 1960s. Songwriter Neil Diamond recorded a version, but pop group The Monkees also recorded it, and it became the group’s most successful song.
‘Achy Breaky Heart’—Billy Ray Cyrus
Long before Hannah Montana or Miley Cyrus became pop culture icons, her daddy Billy Ray Cyrus had the world line dancing to his version of “Achy Breaky Heart” in 1992. It was only one year before, however, that The Marcy Brothers released “Don’t Tell My Heart”—which was slightly different than Cyrus’ remake and, unfortunately for them, nowhere near as successful.
‘Nothing Compares 2 U’—Sinead O’Connor
This haunting tune, written by the late Prince, grabbed the world’s attention when Irish artist Sinead O’Connor released the single in 1990. But Prince actually wrote it for another group, The Family, in 1985. The Family was a collection of artists who had worked with Prince over the years and often was a creative outlet for his new music.
It turns out this 1980s blockbuster American hit song was originally written in Italian! In 1979, Italian songwriters Umberto Tozzi and Giancarlo Bigazzi composed the love song and Tozzi released it as a single. It achieved significant success in Europe. When American singer Laura Branigan heard the version presented to her by her producer, she wasn’t thrilled. However, the team “gave it the American kick and re-wrote the lyrics, and off she went,” according to the singer. Of course, we all know it became her most popular song.
‘Red Red Wine’—UB40
When reggae group UB40 recorded and released “Red Red Wine,” even they didn’t know who the original artist was. The song, written and recorded in the late 1960s by Neil Diamond, was covered by an artist named Tony Tribe. UB40’s lead singer at the time, Astro, explained that there was some confusion over the songwriter.
“Even when we saw the writing credit which said ‘N Diamond,’ we thought it was a Jamaican artist called Negus Diamond,” he told the Financial Times back in 2017.
‘Blinded By The Light’—Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
It’s a song with some of the most misheard lyrics, and many people don’t know that a music legend wrote and recorded the original version. Bruce Springsteen included the song on his first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.,” but the song went nowhere. In 1976, though, British group Manfred Mann’s Earth Band decided to take the song, change it up a little and make it their own. The song was a major success for the U.K. group, hitting number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
‘If I Were A Boy’—Beyonce
“If I Were A Boy” is a song that got a second chance thanks to Queen Bey. A young artist named BC Jean wrote “If I Were a Boy,” recorded it and then presented it to her record label to include on a possible album. Unfortunately, the executives said no. But one of the producers, Toby Gad, passed on the song to Beyonce, who decided to record it and include it on her “I Am …Sasha Fierce” album. The song went on to major success. There were some hard feelings about Bey’s using the song at first, but now the feud seems to have settled down thanks to the song’s popularity.
‘Drift Away’—Uncle Kracker
The song “Drift Away” was first released in 1972 by country artist John Henry Kurtz. When artist Dobie Grey recorded the song in 1973, it had even more success as it cracked the top five on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. But it wasn’t until Dobie Grey teamed up with Uncle Kracker in 2003 that the song hit the stratosphere of success. It stayed on top of the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart for 28 weeks.
‘It’s My Life’—No Doubt
In 1984, British new wave band Talk Talk recorded “It’s My Life” as part of its second album. The song did well in the United States and reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart. About 20 years later, Gwen Stefani and her band No Doubt covered the song as part of a greatest hits collection.
‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’—Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” rocketed Joan Jett and the Blackhearts to superstardom, but it was a borrowed song. Jett saw the original artists, The Arrows, play the song on a British television show in the mid-1970s. She loved the song and decided to record it twice: once in cooperation with The Sex Pistols and then with her own band, the Blackhearts. That’s when lightning struck and Jett became a household name.
‘Ray of Light’—Madonna
Madonna had a magic touch when it came to “Ray of Light.” The original version of the song, named Sepheryn, was released in 1971 by the British duo Curtiss Maldoon. When the Queen of Pop heard the song in 1996, she loved the vibe of the song, revamped it and created one of the catchiest tunes of the late ’90s.
‘Dazed and Confused’—Led Zeppelin
Jimmy Page may have made “Dazed and Confused” one of the rock era’s best-known songs, but he heard it from another rocker before Led Zeppelin played it. American singer/songwriter Jake Holmes penned the song and performed it during solo concerts around New York City in the late 1960s. Then the rock group The Yardbirds heard it, fell in love with it and started playing it on their own tour. Once The Yardbirds broke up, guitarist Jimmy Page took the song, adapted it again and used it with his new group Led Zeppelin. In 2010, Holmes sued Page for stealing his work. The case was dismissed with prejudice.
‘Twist and Shout’—The Beatles
It’s hard to think of The Beatles having success with a cover song, especially since John Lennon and Paul McCartney are two of the most prolific songwriters in the modern music era. But “Twist and Shout” isn’t a Beatles original. The classic rock tune was originally recorded by The Top Notes in 1961, and then again by The Isley Brothers in 1962.
When Aretha Franklin sang “Respect” for the first time, the world stopped to take notice. In fact, many people may not remember that singer Otis Redding first wrote and recorded the tune. Once Franklin changed up the words and added her own flair, the song became hers — and the anthem of a generation of women. A few years later, he joked that it was “a song that a girl took away from me.”