The first time I ever heard The Beatles’s ‘with a Little Help From My Friends’, I was blown out of my mind. I hadn’t heard a song sung so incredibly soulfully, the androgynous-sounding vocal harmonies meshing so perfectly with the lead voice and the instrumentation beneath underscoring all those soaring voices so impeccably and masterfully. It wasn’t The Beatles performing it, though. It was the sandpaper-throated soul singer Joe Cocker at the original Woodstock music festival. I was a tyke, all of 15, sitting goggle-eyed in Churchgate’s Eros cinema, bedazzled as much by Cocker’s star-spangled shoes that twisted and bent in synchrony with his flailing wrists and raspy voice. This was the version that stayed with me well after I heard that of The Beatles, which seemed like a bit of a disappointment after that divinely deranged rendition.
Covering great songs is no novelty. Most bands start out emulating their heroes, covering their biggest hits or their greatest unknown songs. Upcoming artists often take an old classic and reimagine it as if they had written the song themselves. It’s a clever strategy to showcase your sound and style by drawing people’s attention to you when they are searching for old favourites. Everyone’s game to stumble upon a gem, especially one that’s familiar but still new. But when a great song is reinvented by another musical giant, it not only finds new life, it can also be raised to unprecedented heights of soulfulness and creativity.
A great example is a song long considered an Aretha Franklin signature tune. ‘Respect’ was originally written and released in 1965 by the R&B-soul genius Otis Redding. But when Franklin put her feminist spin on Redding’s humbled-male plea, the song found a whole new universe to fill, winning the diva two Grammy Awards in 1968 and being ranked No 5 by Rolling Stone magazine on its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.
Few giants walked the earth with such command as the late Johnny Cash. Country music’s monumental “man in black” lived through his gods and demons like few other men could. And fewer would be able to hold their own as he does on his take of the John Lennon-penned Beatles song ‘In My Life’. Pared down to bare bones and more languid than the fab four’s sprightly version, Cash wrings truth out of every last word, needing no more than a guitar, a piano and his anchor-weighted baritone to create a new classic out of an old one.
Not quite a giant but his stature growing with every album, the diminutive Swedish singer-songwriter José González featured his acoustic take on the Massive Attack masterpiece ‘Teardrop’ on his sophomore album In Our Nature. González’s voice carries the song’s emotional depth with as much weight and air as the Cocteau Twins’s Elizabeth Fraser, who not only sang the original version (Madonna was first considered by the band but Fraser was chosen by democratic vote) but also wrote its lyrics, which were evidently influenced by the sudden drowning of her friend, the musician Jeff Buckley.