Sunday, May 19, 2013

("Any old way you choose it...")
By Steve Ludwig

Each of the Beatles' first three albums released in Britain contained 14 songs performed by our beloved boys from Liverpool. On each of these 14-song collections, six were songs written by other performers. Three albums, 18 cover versions. 
The reason for so many covers? I suppose it was a combination of feeling they had to rush-release albums before the "bubble burst," constantly touring, and simply not having written enough original compositions.
But they weren't just "throwaways" sung in order to fill an album's grooves; I can't think of a single song recorded by JPG&R that was a waste of time (and don't tell me "Mr. Moonlight"!!!!).
They sang these songs with such reverence. 
In their live shows, they made sure to give credit to the original artist. Fans might be familiar with the Hollywood Bowl concert album (combining shows there from 1964 and 1965, and released on vinyl in 1977...not available on CD or download, except in bootleg [Beatleg?] form); before introducing Ringo's vocal spot for the song "Boys," Paul said, "By a group called the Shirelles...Just a minute, I'm checking..." John quickly let Paul know he was correct: :"Yeah...Yeah!"

So here's what I'm gonna do. I've chosen my Top Eight cover versions by the Beatles. Why eight? There were around 25 cover versions done by the Beatles on their original released albums, so I figured I'd take a third of those 25. Why a third? STOP ASKING SO MANY QUESTIONS!!
 I've decided not to include their Decca auditions (done mostly in one take) nor any cover song from their Beatles At the BBC album (done live and also in one take). Not that there aren't any worthy candidates from those collections, but I chose from the ones the boys took time with in the studio. They could do multiple takes, make their sound better if they pleased (pleased me).

So, here we go, in reverse order, from Number Eight (days a week) to my Number One choice (and all of these, both the Beatles' versions and the original artists' versions, are easily found on YouTube...but make sure you listen to the studio versions!!):

NUMBER EIGHT: "Honey Don't"

The Beatles loved Carl Perkins. "Matchbox," "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby," a slew of others by Carl from the BBC sessions...and "Honey Don't." "Honey Don't" was originally released by Carl Perkins in 1956. It was the B-side of "Blue Suede Shoes."
Ringo sings lead on this one, with some nifty lead guitar from George. But what still makes me smile the same way I did when I first heard it back in 1964 is when Ringo leads George into the song's second  guitar solo: "Aaahh, rock on, George, one time for Ringo..."  It may be a Carl Perkins original, but Ringo borrows it for a few minutes and makes it the Beatles' own.
I also really like the way Ringo and his All-Starrs sing it live, picking up the tempo ever so slightly and adding the "bop shoo opp, bop shoo opp" background from Carl's original version.

NUMBER SEVEN: "Long Tall Sally"

The Beatles, especially Paul, also loved Little Richard. When the Beatles met Little Richard on a tour in 1962 in Hamburg, Germany, Paul told his musical idol that "Long Tall Sally" was the first song he ever sang in public. It was in Germany that Richard helped Paul perfect the "whooo!!" falsetto that makes the Fabs' version of "Sally" so memorable.
The original year of release of "Long Tall Sally" was 1956; it was a bonafide hit by Little Richard.
Because they had been singing "Long Tall Sally" since 1957, they nailed it in the studio in one take!
The Beatles' version (Macca on lead vocal) was released in 1964, and it became the closing number of their live shows. However, the "Long Tall Sally" closer was replaced by the Lennon-McCartney rocker, "I'm Down" (which was obviously inspired by "LTS").

At their last-ever concert on August 29, 1966 at San Francisco's Candlestick Park, "I'm Down" was replaced by "Long Tall Sally." While the Beatles hadn't publicly announced that this was their last concert, I have to believe they knew in their Beatle hearts that this would be a fitting way to close the book on their live shows...

NUMBER SIX: "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby"

Another nod to Carl Perkins, this time with George handling the leads on vocal and guitar. 
Perkins released the song originally in 1957; seven years later it was on a Beatles album.
The technique that was used to produce our Georgie's vocals were, at the time, unique. It's known today as STEED (single tape echo and echo delay), and it was developed by Beatles engineers Geoff Emerick and Ken Scott. In layman's terms (I'm a layman), it's as if George were singing inside a giant tin can.
Even in these early days, it was evident that the Fab Four were looking to turn musical convention on its head.
I also like the false musical ending to the Beatles' version. Just when you think George has strummed that final chord, he repeats the musical ending.
A little side note: Paul's company (MPL Productions) now owns the copyrights to the Carl Perkins song catalogue.

NUMBER FIVE: "Please Mr. Postman"

John's double-tracked vocals and overall exhilirating performance makes this a definite Top Five cover.
The Marvelettes took this song to #1, when it was first released in 1961. (The Carpenters also had a #1 with their version in 1974.) 
But it's the Beatles version, that for me anyway, is the most rockin' and rollin'. From the opening tap on the cymbals by Ringo followed one note later by "Wait! Oh yes wait a minute, Mr. postman," the song never stops its groove. The trademark Beatles background harmonies "oooohhh" their way throughout.
The boys reversed genders in the lyrics for their version.
By the time John pleads, "Deliver thee letter, the sooner the better," we're ready to start it all over and listen again!

NUMBER FOUR: "Rock and Roll Music"

Another musical idol and influence of the Beatles was Chuck Berry. 
George took the lead vocals on "Roll Over Beethoven" and the Beatles sang more than a few of Chuck's songs live on the BBC.
It's somewhat ironic that it took a band from England to introduce American rock 'n' roll pioneers to young America. I was ten years old when I first heard "Rock and Roll Music," and it was on the Beatles '65 album here in America. (It was on Beatles For Sale in England). I had never heard Chuck's original version; heck, I had never even heard of Chuck Berry himself  when I was a fifth-grader!
John's lead vocals on the Fabs' version were much louder than CB's original recording from 1957. While Chuck's were kind of even-paced, John's was downright raucous (as were Lennon's vocals on Larry Williams's "Bad Boy" and "Dizzie Miss Lizzy").
There've been conflicting stories about the piano-playing on "Rock and Roll Music." Some say it was only producer George Martin playing, others say Martin, John and Paul played simultaneously on one piano, and still others claim the three of them played on three separate pianos. Regardless how many were tickling the ivories, the effect worked marvelously. 

"...So keep a-rockin' that piano!!"

NUMBER THREE: "Anna (Go To Him)"

         "I wanted to be able to sing like Arthur Alexander."   - John Lennon

Only five months after Arthur Alexander released his self-penned beauty of a song, "Anna (Go To Him)," the Beatles recorded it.
Even though the parenthetical request is "go to him," both Arthur's original and the Beatles' version say "go with him."
I like Alexander's recording, but I love the Beatles' version. 
John's lead vocals add a tortured pain just not felt in the original. 
John was battling a nasty head cold during the recording session for "Anna," but it only added to its great sound.
 The Beatles weren't THE BEATLES yet on February 11, 1963 when the song was recorded, so they had to brave on with the sessions despite John's illness; they couldn't just come back another day (quite unlike THE BEATLES could after they become the phenomenon they did. After the Beatles became the world's biggest act, EMI Studios [later renamed Abbey Road Studios] worked around the Beatles' schedules).

For another great cover of "Anna," check out Humble Pie's version:

NUMBER TWO:  "Twist and Shout"

I know that my friend Joe Potente would probably put "Twist and Shout" as his choice for Number One song covered by the Beatles (and it would be tough to argue with him), but it finds itself right here on my list. (OK, I might give it "1A" status...)
It was written by Phil Medley and Bert Russell, and the great Isley Brothers had a hit with it in 1962. (Actually, the Top Notes recorded it before the Isleys, when the song was called "Shake It Up Baby.")
Just as John's vocals were affected by a head cold while singing "Anna," so was his performance of "Twist and Shout." There's good reason for this; "Anna" and "Twist and Shout" were recorded at the same sessions!
The studio rental time was running out. There were fifteen minutes left and the Beatles would have to be on their ways.
Producer George Martin purposely left "Twist and Shout" as the last song to be sung; John had already told Martin he was not going to hold back when he sang it. And, man, did Lennon let go!
His vocal chords were raw by the time they finished the first take. An attempt at a second take was for naught, as John couldn't sing past the first few lines; his voice was shot. So the version we hear is the first (and only complete) take.
Reports of John coughing up blood afterwards have been disputed. All agree he was drinking milk to coat his throat and sucking on cough drops. When redness appeared in the glass of milk, some in the studio assumed it was blood; but most feel it was simply from the red cough drops.
John said he couldn't speak above a whisper for days after singing "Twist and Shout."
A personal recollection...I remember "Twist and Shout" and its B-side, "There's a Place," were released on the yellow Tollie record label. I can remember thinking as I kept playing "Twist and Shout" over and over again on my record player, "This doesn't sound like John!"


NUMBER ONE: "Words of Love"

Buddy Holly (along with his Crickets) was a tremendous influence on the Beatles. 
Aside from the name of the group (Crickets / Beatles), Holly himself and his production techniques showed the young Liverpudlians the possibilities that awaited them.
I assure you the fact that Buddy Holly recorded his original version on my birthday (although three years later) has nothing to do with its Number One position on my list!
It's because of the beautiful Lennon/McCartney harmonies, the wonderful, practically note-for-note-of-the-original lead guitar playing of George Harrison, and Ringo's drumming coupled with his playing of a packing case (to resemble Buddy's original sound of another of his songs, "Everyday,") that puts this song above all the others covered by John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
I was sitting in the upper deck at Yankee Stadium on a sunny summer afternoon, about 45 minutes before game time, more than 25 years ago. The grounds crew was spraying the infield dirt, chalking the foul lines...Over the booming Yankee Stadium speaker system came the Beatles singing "Words of Love." I had never heard it sound  so rich, so beautiful...John and Paul "hmmmm hmmmm, hmmm'ing" through the Bronx air.
It was at that point I decided that "Words of Love" was my all-time favorite cover by the Beatles.

What are your choices for best covers by the Beatles?
I'd love to read them in the "Comments" section.

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As always, thanks so much for taking the time to read my blogs!
Good health to you all, Steve Ludwig


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