NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I’m among the walking wounded, this week.
Remember to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, (ow) How Good It Is Pod.
Let me mention up front that some of the songs suggested for this show came to me from a listener named Kim, who had a couple of nice things to say, and because I’m emotionally needy that way, I was happy to read Kim’s note. Thanks, Kim!
[POOR, POOR PITIFUL ME]
Now, since today’s show is about songs you may not have realized were covers, I’m going to use one of Kim’s suggestions in today’s trivia question. You see, Kim noted that Linda Ronstadt’s hit “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” was originally recorded by its author, Warren Zevon. But that got me to thinking about how many of Ronstadt’s singles were covers and how many weren’t. And as near as I can figure, only one of her charting singles was not recorded by another artist before she got her hands on it. I could be wrong on this but I think I’m not, so I’m going to frame it pretty definitively: what is Linda Ronstadt’s only single not to be a cover?
I’ll have that answer for ye near the end of the show.
“I Will Always Love You” was a monster hit for Whitney Houston in 1992, spending 14 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, selling over 20 million copies and putting it in the list of the top ten singles of all time, and THE best-selling single for a female artist ever. Not only did it do that well in 1992, it re-entered the charts in 2012 after Whitney’s death, making it only the second single to reach the top three on the Billboard chart in separate chart runs. And when most people try to sing this song in the Karaoke bars, they’re emulating Whitney, and good luck to them on that one.
[WHITNEY BREAK to] [DOLLY 1982]
And I’ll grant you, there’s a contingent of people who say, “Big deal, I already know Dolly Parton sang this song in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I know it’s a cover.” Of course there are some Smarty Pants people who say stuff like that. But what these people with the Smart Pants may NOT know is that Dolly Parton’s 1982 recording for that film isn’t the original recording.
Dolly Parton originally wrote and recorded the song back in 1973, as a parting gift to her professional partner and mentor Porter Wagoner. It was a means of giving herself a send-off from his TV show after seven years of working together. She performed the song during her last appearance on his show, and it became the second single from her 1974 album, Jolene…
…incidentally, the song “Jolene” was written on the same day as “I Will Always Love You.” How about that Dolly, cranking out two major hits in a single day?
Now, this 1978 rendition of “My Way” by Sid Vicious—not the Sex Pistols, incidentally—didn’t get a lot of attention until it was used in the closing credits of the film Goodfellas. Now, it was sped up and some of the words—OK, a lot of the words—were changed, but it’s the same basic song. And people who listen to it now are kind of split about who did it first, and who did it better. Was it Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra?
I said a few episodes back that this sort of thing often goes to which version imprints on you first. Elvis first performed it on his Aloha From Hawaii concert in 1973, and he recorded it for the Elvis in Concert TV special in June of 1977, just a few weeks before he died. That’s the version you commonly hear, which was released a few weeks after Elvis died and went to Number 22 on the Hot 100. But the Frank Sinatra version certainly came first, having been recorded in December of 1968 and released in 1969. And, it’s important to know that when Paul Anka wrote the song, he wrote it specifically for Sinatra. Sinatra’s version went to Number 27 on the Billboard Hot 100 and spent a record 75 weeks on the Top 40 chart in the UK, which I believe is still the most time a record has spent on that chart. It also spent another 49 weeks in the Top 75. But in all that time it never got higher than Number Five in the UK. Now, listener Kim noted that the earlier release was by someone described as some “old blue eyed guy,” but if the story was that simple, would I have brought the whole thing up, or would I have skipped over it?
As I mentioned a minute ago, the song was written by Paul Anka, but the more accurate way of putting it is that Anka RE-wrote the song.
You see, in 1967 Paul Anka was vacationing in the south of France when he heard this song…
…this song is called “Comme d’habitude,” which is French for “As Usual”, performed by a singer named Claude François. And rather than being a kind of “Me Generation” anthem, “Comme d’habitude” is actually a rather sad tune about a relationship where everyone is just kind of going through the motions. I’m going to put a link on the website that has a translation of the lyrics on-screen, so you can see. But Anka knew he’d heard a great melody and he flew to Paris to get the rights to the song. He got it for the cost of only one dollar, plus the original composers got to retain their original share of royalties with respect to anything Anka or his designated created.
After returning to New York, Anka sat down in the middle of the night, changed the lyrics and the attitude to be a little more Sinatra-like, and at 5 AM he called up Frank Sinatra at Caesar’s Palace and said, “I’ve got something really special for you,” Anka later said that his record company was irritated that he didn’t keep it for himself, but Anka always saw it as a Sinatra song, though he did release his own version shortly after Sinatra’s was already a hit. This song replaced “Strangers in the Night” as Sinatra’s signature tune, but the truth is, he didn’t really like either of them that much. Or, I think it’s more accurate to say that he didn’t really want to be too deeply associated with a single song.
Oh—and for what it’s worth, Paul Anka did not think that “My Way” was really suited for Elvis Presley. In 2007 The Daily Telegraph of London asked him what he thought of the Sid Vicious version, and he said he’d been kind of destabilized by it. He said it was kind of curious, but he thought that Sid Vicious was sincere about it. And finally, about this song, it’s so popular in karaoke bars in the Philippines that people have gotten into deadly arguments over performances, and many of them have taken the song off the menu, just out of self-preservation. How about that!
“Good Lovin’” was first performed by the Grateful Dead in 1969 and it became one of their concert staples. Sometimes Pigpen McKernan would sing lead, other times it would be Bob Weir. Finally the Dead committed it to vinyl, adding it to their 1978 album Shakedown Street. And while it did get some airplay on the album rock stations in the US, and the Dead played it on Saturday Night Live in November of that year, the song took a little bit of a beating in the press. Specifically, Rolling Stone Magazine thought it was kind of aimless and maybe Weir shouldn’t have been the one to sing it. And I kind of agree in this respect: a record like this needs just a little bit of vamping with the vocals, and Weir was just too on-the-nose with everything. He needed to feel a little more free. And most people know it as a cover of the much-higher-energy song by The Young Rascals. Now: before I start playing that Rascals version, I want you to pay attention to the vocals. If you’re listening in stereo, just notice how the opening countoff ping-pongs between speakers: Left, right and then center…
Now, in between the Rascals and the Dead were several versions, including the The Who, Tommy James and the Shondells, and Mary Wells. But you’ve got to know by now that there was a version before the Rascals. Not only that, there were two, but one of them is more important to this discussion.
Shortly before the Rascals’ version came out, there was a cover by Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, but so far as I know it didn’t do a lot. But before that, in 1965, the song was recorded by a band called The Olympics, which was an R&B group that did have a few hits. This one made it to Number 81 on the Billboard Hot 100:
But while it wasn’t a huge hit, it did get some airplay in the New York City area, and Rascals member Felix Cavaliere heard the record and they immediately added it to their concert repertoire, using the same lyrics and practically the same arrangement as the Olympics. The band didn’t really like this recording but their producer, Tom Dowd, thought he’d captured the live feel and talked the band into letting it stand. That version was released in February 1966 and made it to the top of the chart by the time spring rolled around.
But we need to go to the well one more time, because The Olympics weren’t the first version, either. Just one month earlier, it was recorded by an artist who appears on the label as Lemme B. Good, but his real name was Limmie Snell, and he released this version with slightly different lyrics:
Snell eventually reverted to his real name and formed a group called Limmie and Family Cookin’. They had a couple of hits in the UK in the early 1970s before breaking up around 1975. He continued writing and recording songs all the way up to his death in 1986, and while the bands he formed after Family Cookin’ broke up were short-lived, several of its members went on to join bands like New Musik, Neo, and Ultravox. So, Snell spawned some musical heritage, there.
And now, it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you about—so far as my research can tell—the only single by Linda Ronstadt that wasn’t a song recorded first by a different artist. Well:
[HOW DO I MAKE YOU]
As near as I can figure, it’s this one. “How Do I Make You”, written by Billy Steinberg and released by Ronstadt in 1980. Steinberg wrote the song with some echoes of The Knack’s “My Sharona” in his head, and I think that influence is pretty clear.
Now, I might be cheating a little bit here, because Steinberg did record the song with his band as one of a bunch of demos, but ultimately none of those demos were released until much later on. Steinberg says in an interview with Songfacts dot com that the song came to Ronstadt’s attention because his band’s guitarist was dating one of her backup singers, and he—the guitar player—was the one who played the unreleased demo for Ronstadt. Also of note is that singing backup on this song was Nicolette Larson, who’d struck gold a couple of years earlier with “Lotta Love” but unfortunately she couldn’t really parlay that into further pop success.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we go rollin’ down the river along with Proud Mary.
Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.