Bob Lefsetz, that erstwhile critic of the music scene (whose musical talent is, by his own admission, mastery of playing – the radio, cd player, iPod, etc.) has recently savaged James Taylor for releasing a new album of cover songs. While Lefsetz makes a salient point (as usual) in accusing Taylor of doing the “covers” album for the money (which seems as good a reason to do an album as any in these times), he misses something that maybe one such as I, an actual musician, can enlighten all you lovely readers about – why musicians like to play covers even if they write their own material.
Lefsetz takes Taylor to task, for example, for the obviousness of some of his covers – particularly for covering “Summertime Blues,” “Not Fade Away,” “Hound Dog,” “Wichita Lineman,” and “On Broadway.” Lefsetz’s point that these seem too obvious and motivated more by Taylor’s knowledge of what a Boomer audience might want has merit, but it ignores something – these are songs that Taylor probably admired and played for himself over his decades long career.
I’m reminded of Paul McCartney’s wonderful (and slightly obscure now) album of about a decade ago, Run, Devil, Run. McCartney, grieving the loss of his beloved Linda, turned to the music he’d played as a teen to revive himself - when he and band mates John Lennon and George Harrison (also, alas, gone) had run through a series of names – The Quarrymen, Johnny and the Moondogs, until finally coming up with that one we all know. The covers are songs they played in their shows at The Casbah (the Liverpool club owned by drummer Pete Best’s mom), in Hamburg, and at The Cavern (where Epstein found them). Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” Elvis’ “All Shook Up,” and Gene Vincent’s “Blue Jean Bop,” all huge hits in their time, are on the album.
That’s the point. That’s why The Fabs covered those songs. They were huge hits that their audience would know.
So James plays an Elvis song, “Hound Dog” - which was itself a cover of the original by Big Mama Thornton, the old Drifters’ tune “On Broadway” (continuing James’ long history of R&B covers, so why should Lefsetz be grousing), Eddie Cochran’s anthem “Summertime Blues” (although it’s hard to comprehend any cover meaning much after The Who version), and a cover that Lefsetz excoriates but that I find interesting (and right up JT’s alley), Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” (made famous by Glen Campbell in one of those great schlock pop/country performances from the late 1960′s).
This topic begs for some discussion of great covers, of course. The ultimate would be, to me, a toss up between The Who’s staggering version of “Summertime Blues” and Hendrix’s epic take on Dylan’s ”All Along the Watch Tower.” But Hendrix also does a killer version of “Come On, Pt. 1″ (originally by Earl King) on the Electric Ladyland album. And I love the Dave Clark 5′s version of “I Like It Like That.” Oh, and The Cowboy Junkies’ version of Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.” And Tom Petty’s wonderful love letter to the Byrds, “Feel a Whole Lot Better.”
And there’s The Beatles’ version of The Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout.”
My own band is doing some covers, too. We’ve been through dozens in the last year, but right now we’re doing “Michelle” by The Fabs, “Play With Fire” by the Stones, and “Itchycoo Park” by The Small Faces. These are songs we love. So we’re covering them.
And maybe that’s why Taylor is singing the songs he’s singing. Because he loves them. So Lefsetz should lay off him for his song choices.
Nothing wrong with that…