Musical ‘Covers,’ From Sinatra to Ryan Adams

September 26, 2015

Musical ‘Covers,’ From Sinatra to Ryan Adams
Wall Street Journal, Sept. 26, 2015 (PDF)

This week indie rocker Ryan Adams delivered an unusual release: a full remake of Taylor Swift’s “1989,” consisting of cover versions of all the songs from her top-selling album. While Mr. Adams takes a musical homage to extreme lengths, the “cover” has been a basic bit of music-industry lingo for nearly 70 years.

As the U.S. emerged from World War II, big-band music gave way to pop songs with a focus on vocalists like Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee. Competition heated up among the major labels to capture the burgeoning audience for pop music, as well as for the newly dubbed fields of “rhythm and blues” and “country and western.” The industry magazine Billboard ranked records according to record sales, radio airplay and jukebox spins.

The record labels developed a winning strategy: riding on the coattails of another label’s hit by rerecording it with their own artists. Billboard began referring to this practice as “coverage” as early as 1948, the idea being that labels sought to “cover” the consumer market by peddling different versions of a popular tune.

The term “coverage” soon entered Billboard’s capsule record reviews that attempted to predict which songs would do well on the charts. In 1949, when the Chicago singer and pianist Al Morgan found success on the hit parade with a pop rendition of “Jealous Heart,” Billboard assessed one of the many knockoffs: “ Jeffrey Clay does the solo honors in this good coverage of a current hit.”

As the snappy lingo of Billboard’s record reviewers got even snappier in the early 1950s, they began referring to such remakes as “cover jobs,” “cover versions” or simply “covers.” And the covers themselves were proliferating—now pop artists were covering R&B and country songs as well, as cultural reappropriations gave birth to rock ’n’ roll.

One notable example came in the spring of 1953, when Peacock Records released “Hound Dog,” penned by the young songwriting duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and sung by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. As it shot up the R&B charts, “Little” Esther Phillips quickly remade “Hound Dog” for the Federal label. “This is a cover version of the Willie Mae Thornton disk, which has been one of the fastest breaking hits in some years,” Billboard wrote, adding, “This one will be hard-pressed to compete. It fails to build the same excitement of the original.”

Three years later a new version of the song would build unprecedented excitement, when Elvis Presley released his own rocking “Hound Dog.” It would go on to be one of the best-selling singles of all time.

But was Presley’s version even a “cover”? In her contribution to the 2010 essay collection “Play it Again: Cover Songs in Popular Music,” the sociologist Deena Weinstein argues that one criterion of a “cover” is that listeners know the original, and most Elvis fans were unaware of Thornton’s version. It’s safe to say, though, that anyone listening to Ryan Adams cover “1989” is quite familiar with Ms. Swift’s oeuvre.

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