Unlikely sources and other people's hits
Unlikely sources and other people’s hits
When Marilyn Mason covered the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This),” some listeners sought out the original song. Radio stations that wouldn’t play the darker Manson version added Annie Lennox’s madcap vocals back into steady rotation. There was a slight rush on the Eurhythmics’ Greatest Hits CD as record stores clamored to prominently stock it over a decade after the song’s original release. The record label might even have capitalized with an enticing sticker slammed on the front that read, “The original recording of Marilyn Manson’s Sweet Dream!”
The effect of cover songs is further reaching than just a resurgence of the original version being heard. It can also turn those listeners into fans of original artists they otherwise wouldn’t have known of. Not that we’re seeing Mason fans lining up for Annie Lennox shows, but they automatically gained a musical education just by listening. The next time they heard the original while hanging out at the mall, they could say, “Hey, I know this song.”
When most people think of Olivia Newton-John, they recall her performance in Grease or her hit song “Physical.” Few people know that in the late ‘60’s and through the ‘70’s, Newton-John filled albums with covers of songs that were uncharacteristic of her then-country-pop sound. Hits like “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys, “Me and Bobby McGee” written by Kris Kristofferson, made famous by Janis Joplin, and “Ring Of Fire” written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore, recorded by Johnny Cash, all appear as some album filler by the mild-mannered country-pop singer.
Growing up in a pop radio-filled household, I was a Newton-John fan early on. My mother sang her songs to me as a child and by the time Grease came out I was smitten for life. In my early teens, I began accumulating all of Newton-John’s records on vinyl and hearing her cover songs without knowing they weren’t Newton-John originals. It wasn’t until I began frequenting a local vintage vinyl shop in downtown Toronto that I discovered many of the songs she sang on those early records were made famous by someone else. I spent hours browsing a massive and well-thumbed yellow Muze book looking up each of ‘her’ songs, title-by-title uncovering Newton-John’s puppetry. I now credit the songs Olivia Newton-John covered as an introduction to music that would become essential listening as I grew to become a music journalist. The history I uncovered is now the foundation of my musical knowledge.
Until I started searching, I didn’t know that “Air That I Breathe” was a Hollies song, or that “Gimme Some Lovin’” was by the Spencer Davis Group- I only knew the Newton-John versions. I was a young teen in the mid-‘80’s when I landed a full time job at that second hand record shop I sunk most of my weekly allowance into. I soon learned that of the hundreds of songs Newton-John recorded in the ‘70’s, most of them where not hers. My coworkers at the record shop, a group of misfit wannabe musician types, got a good laugh when I’d say things like, “Olivia did this song,” while George Harrison’s “What Is Life” was playing throughout the store. At the time I saw no humor in it, but I now giggle at myself when something comes on the radio that I know Newton-John covered. I always think of her version first, but moments later I segue into the original in my mind.
Many of the songs Newton-John recorded early in her career were written expressly for her or with her type of voice in mind, but since she wasn’t a superstar yet it was hard to have a new record out every year of all originals especially since she wasn’t a prolific songwriter herself.
In the summer of 1971, Newton-John had her first U.S. hit with an unlikely cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You.” It was from her debut from her first Uni record (an MCA imprint), Let Me Be There. On that record, she also covered “Me And Bobby McGee,” “Love Song” by Lesley Duncan, “Take Me Home Country Roads” by John Denver, “Angel of the Morning” written by Chip Taylor, performed by Merrilee Rush and others, “If I Could Read Your Mind’ by Gordon Lightfoot, “If” and “Everything I Own” both by Bread (the latter was made into a huge hit by Boy George), and “Help Me Make It Through The Night another Kris Kristofferson song, performed by Sammi Smith. To date, Newton-John is the only artist to have a hit out of “If Not For You,” which was also recorded by George Harrison on All things Must Pass. It was on the charts the day I was born, and years later I learned that my grandmother made a tape for me of a couple of songs that were on the radio the afternoon I was born: “If Not For You” was one of them, Dolly Parton was another.
In an interesting twist, Newton-John also covered Parton’s “Jolene.” The country music community in the ‘70’s didn’t like the idea of an import like Newton-John (who was born in Cambridge, England and raised in Melbourne, Australia) closing in on their territory. In 1973, Newton-John won the Grammy for Best Country Vocal Female and the Academy Of Country Music’s Most Promising Female Vocalist award. The mud began flying as soon as Newton-John was nominated. When Newton-John won the awards Parton got her panties in a bunch and nearly everyone in Nashville hated Newton-John, deeming her not worthy of such merit. The day after the Grammy award ceremony Newton-John offered to give her statue back, but the board wouldn’t have it. In 1975, as an act of faith or maybe sibling rivalry, Dolly’s sister Stella Parton recorded a self-penned song, “Ode To Olivia,” to rebuke the criticism Newton-John received for not fitting the country mold. Dolly and Newton-John made up not long after the much-reported Grammy event, and Newton-John moved into the poppier sound she became known for. The opening track to Newton-John’s 1976 record, Come On Over, is a straight forward rendition of Parton’s “Jolene,” which Newton-John still performs live today.
The title track from that album was also a cover. “Come On Over” was a Bee Gees original. As I dug deeper I found that Newton-John recorded covers early on when she was a back-up singer for Cliff Richard on his British TV show in the ‘60’s. As her first single ever, in 1966 she covered Jackie DeShannon’s “Till You say You’ll Be Mine,” that was originally recorded by The Searchers in 1965.
In 1970, southern soul group Delaney & Bonnie covered the Barbara Keith song “Free the People.” A year later, in 1971 Barbra Streisand covered it for her wannabe-rock record Stoney Road album. In 1974, Newton-John then remade it too, sounding like a combination of the two other versions but not quite country, and not really pop.
The covers kept coming throughout the ‘70’s. She did the Lennon/McCartney penned Beatles classic, “The Long and Winding Road,” Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” another Hollies original, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” The Band’s “In A Station,” and the Fred Rose song Willie Nelson made famous “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” Also covered were “Boats Against the Current” by Eric Carmen, “Lifestream” by Rick Nelson, “If We Try” by Don McLean, “Follow Me” and “Goodbye Again,” by John Denver, “Loving Arms” by Tom Jans, “The Right Moment” by Gerry Rafferty.
Even her rendition of Peter Allen’s ballad “I Honestly Love You,” was technically a cover. He had recorded the song but was more like a demo. Newton-John made the song a hit. She also recorded “Every Face Tells A Story” around the same time Cliff Richard did, it’s unclear who’s came first though. In 1977, she was probably the first singer to cover the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice song “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from the original stage production of Evita. It was a dead ringer for the Julie Covington original that debuted a year earlier.
In 1978, Newton-John was a part of what can be called the ultimate highest grossing cover album of all times: the songs from the Paramount movie Grease were all covers of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s Broadway musical of the same name. “We Go Together,” “Summer Nights,” and “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee (reprise),” were all cover songs too. The rest of Newton-John’s tracks from the film were written for her by her longtime friend and producer John Farrar. Her performance in the film and on the soundtrack turned Newton-John into music superstar and a movie star. The movie version introduced listeners to the Bee Gees, Frankie Valli, Frankie Avalon, and most importantly Sha-Na-Na.
Even for her film flop Xanadu she managed to sneak in a cover. Used as a B-side, Newton-John sang “You Made Me Love You,” the song Judy Garland made famous, written by Joseph McCarthy Sr. and James Monaco. Her involvement in the film gave fans a reason to hear Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) and to see old dance moves by Gene Kelly.
While on tour, Newton-John would mix her shows up with a cover or two. Some memorable ones include, “Love Is Alive,” the Gary Wright hit, “Hollywood Nights,” by Bob Seger, the Irving Berlin standard “What’ll I Do,” and in the ‘80’s she sang Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World,” with Cher, Bette Midler and Meryl Streep on a TV special called Mothers and Others.
By the time her hugely popular album Physical came out in the early ‘80’s, Newton-John didn’t need to remake other people’s songs as much. At the end of that decade, she did make one album of lullabies with a hipper cover of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David song originally made famous by Dionne Warwick, “Reach Out For Me,” Judy Garland’s Wizard Of Oz favorite, “Over the Rainbow,” and the Hammerstein and Rodgers song from the musical Carousel, You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
In the ‘90’s, she wrote and produced her own material and made a country comeback. In 2002, she was still sprinkling in the odd cover. Her last project, (2), is a duets record that was only released in Australia (although it’s rumored that there are two more coming; one American, one British). Though it’s mainly new material the does two posthumous duets: “Tenterfield Saddler” with Peter Allen and “I’m Counting on You” with Johnny O’Keefe.
In a career that’s lasted five decades, Newton-John has performed countless covers. From classics to jazz to country to rock, Broadway showtunes, folk and traditional songs, Christmas songs and lullabies. Newton-John might be an unlikely professor for the history of music, but her entire career is built on the backs of great artists and songwriters.
I’ve looked up every song she ever covered to learn more about who originally recorded it, who wrote it and how her version stands up. Musically, most of Newton-John’s covers are note-for-note the same as the original versions. In some cases, like on “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” poor production and a bad arrangement made the song almost unlistenable. But, it was a huge hit in England gaining more notoriety there then the John Denver original.
Curiosity led me on the journey to finding the original song-makers Newton-John covered: Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, The Band, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and many others. It was like my own private six degrees of Olivia Newton-John quest. Although Newton-John is an unlikely source for such a musical history, it’s all there to be heard and learned from.
I’ll never hear a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” the same again. Some kid is out there listening and getting turned on to the rest of Mitchell’s catalog, the same way I became a fan of most of the original artists Newton-John covered. And that is what makes it worth while, even as album filler.
For more information on covers, visit coversproject.com. And, to read more about Zoë Gemelli’s lifelong record collecting bug, pick up Brett Milano’s new book Vinyl Junkies. Zoë Gemelli is an arts writer based in the New York City area.