As much as my life revolves around original music (whether my own or that which the artists I love have composed) I also have an interest in cover performances that transform a song. While that’s so common in the jazz world that the term “cover” isn’t even really used there, I have a particular soft spot for Black artists finding the innate soul in a song not initially presented in that way. A lot of attention has been paid to great Black blues and R&B songs that only achieved mainstream success once covered by White artists, but for this Black History Month I wanted to go in the other direction. In this instance I’m going to save the in-depth explanation of what I did or didn’t consider for the end, after the list, because I want to get right to it.
1 ) “Try A Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding from Dictionary of Soul (originally by Ray Noble Orchestra)
This was in a sense the hardest to rank, as (unlike the others here) THIS is unquestionably the definitive and best-known version of the song. I wasn’t sure whether that made it a less special/revelatory example, but in the end what is soul music without Otis Redding and what is Otis Redding without this seminal performance that demonstrates his whisper, his scream, his gotta-gotta-gotta and everything in between? Bonus points for the multiple documented live rave-ups on this song, including his iconic presentation to thousands of White teenagers at the Monterey Pop Festival, something that could have been an even greater commercial milestone for him and for soul music but for the plane crash that took him from us merely six months later.
2 ) “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” by Aretha Franklin from Aretha Live at Fillmore West (originally by Simon & Garfunkel)
This song always had gospel potential both in its music and lyrics, and who better than Aretha to bring that to fruition? The studio version (released as a single and on various compilations) is also great, but this slightly slower live version is even grittier. Even if the song ended before her vocals entered and we just heard her soulful electric piano blending with Billy Preston’s organ, it would be a classic. It, of course, does not end there and she testifies as compellingly as on anything in her catalog.
3 ) “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by Al Green from Love Ritual (originally by the Beatles)
In 1968, three years before his crossover breakthrough with “Tired of Being Alone” (and still more years before becoming Reverend Green), Al Green recorded his version of this classic and thus overplayed Beatles song. It is a virtuoso performance top to bottom and is a testament to how, prior to his own personal style being more fully refined, he was already one of the most proficient and exciting soul singers out there.
4 ) “Fire and Rain” by Isley Brothers from Givin’ It Back (originally by James Taylor)
In the 1970s the Isley Brothers interpreted a lot of “soft rock” hits. Some, like “Hello It’s Me” and “Summer Breeze” were fairly similar in tempo and vibe to the originals, albeit with Ronald Isley’s passionate singing on top. This one, though, has a VIBE. It begins and ends with a somewhat creepy vamp and in between Ronald wails the lyrics in a way that, if you think about it, is totally appropriate to the melancholy of the song.
5 ) “Hey Jude” by Wilson Pickett from Hey Jude (originally by the Beatles)
Recorded at Muscle Shoals (and with a young Duane Allman getting some fiery licks in), Pickett offers a signature performance here of another popular Beatles song, this one quite new at the time of the cover recording. He offers a Redding-worthy whisper-to-a-scream range (though obviously in his own style) and those screams on the coda are incredible.
6 ) “Only Women Bleed” by Etta James from Deep in the Night (originally by Alice Cooper)
Etta did a number of gorgeous, transformative cover songs, including the Eagles’ “Take It to the Limit” (including a subsequent live version that is utterly dynamite) and even Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” I could have picked either of those but decided to go with this really moving soul ballad performance partly because I love it so much and partly because of the seeming incongruity of covering a song by a maven of theatrical hard rock.
7 ) “If I Were A Carpenter” by Lee Dorsey from Yes We Can . . . And Then Some (originally by Tim Hardin)
I could have stuck to the original pressing of this album and included instead Lee’s version of Joe South’s “Games People Play,” which (like the rest of the album) features the signature funky production work of the great Allen Toussaint. But in this household we particularly love some of the tracks on the expanded reissue, particularly this funkification of the classic ‘60s folk song by Tim Hardin.
8 ) “Que Sera Sera” by Sly and the Family Stone from Fresh (originally by Doris Day)
This is a remarkable work of art on multiple levels. Sly’s first recorded cover song, the music and the context are transformed and the biting irony is second in impact only to the gnarly, sly (sorry) slow funk groove they lay down.
9 ) “We Can Work It Out” by Stevie Wonder from Signed, Sealed and Delivered (originally by the Beatles)
I think this track was my first exposure to this whole phenomenon. I was already a big fan of Stevie’s music from Talking Book through Hotter Than July but had paid little attention to what one might call his pre-liberation era when he was recording with the Funk Brothers and still part of the Motown machine. Then when I was 16 I saw him perform this (yes, more Beatles) on the Grammy telecast and my mind was blown. As great as the original is, this instantly became my go-to version of this song and led me down the early-Stevie rabbit hole.
10 ) “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” by Donny Hathaway from Donny Hathaway (originally by the Hollies)
There are few artists who could turn seemingly any song into a slow-boiling soul anthem the way Donny Hathaway could. Like “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” this song lent itself well to a gospel-infused approach anyway, but it took Donny’s distinctive vision to first bring that to fruition.
Honorable mention: “Country Roads (Take Me Home)” by Toots and the Maytals from Funky Kingston (originally by John Denver)
Does reggae fall under the umbrella of soul? If it’s Toots Hibbert doing the singing does that make it so even if it otherwise wouldn’t be? I don’t know, hence its exclusion from the actual Top 10, but my word is this a lesson in how to inject soul into a song
If you’re interested to understand how I narrowed down my list then it’s worth noting some of the many things I purposely left out. These include covers that are so different that the song is kind of obscured (Otis Redding doing “Day Tripper”) and, conversely, covers that are so similar that the main different is the vocal approach (James Carr doing “To Love Somebody” and Swamp Dogg doing “I’ve Got to Get A Message to You,” both originally by the the Bee Gees, the Staple Singers doing “The Weight” by the Band). I also omitted songs written by White songwriters for Black artists and thus not technically cover songs (Carole King and Gerry Goffin writing “A Natural Woman” for Aretha Franklin) and “standard” folk songs that became part of the civil rights movement (Staple Singers doing “If I Had A Hammer”). I left out White artists putting soul twists on songs by other White artists (Joe Cocker doing “With A Little Help From My Friends” by the Beatles) both for the obvious reasons surrounding representation and because of the greater access they had to mainstream/rock audiences. I kept my “classic soul” window to things in the 1960s/70s which thus leaves out more electronic-sounding work (such as the Neville Brothers’ take on Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire”) and classic-style soul throwbacks from subsequent decades (such as Bettye LaVette’s covers of British rock songs). And finally I left out soul artists crossing over in the other direction stylistically (James Brown going into crooner mode to sing “It’s Magic” by Doris Day, Marvin Gaye singing “Strangers in the Night,” Tin Pan Alley standards sung in a relatively gentle style by Sam Cooke), instrumentals (whether soul-jazz like Ramsey Lewis playing “Hang On Sloopy” or pure soul instrumentals like all of Booker T and the MGs’ rock covers), and various other things that were a bit off-center stylistically (Nina Simone singing the Beatles, Ray Charles singing country songs, etc.). 10 songs make for a small list so I had to draw the line somewhere!