Monday, 26 March 2012

Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Little Richard - and the singers who "flattered" them

On the whole I’d rather have my eyeballs waxed than listen to any form of musical “tribute” act – I really don’t get the point. Of course, I enjoy really good parodies (like the Heebeegeebees classic “Meaningless Songs in Very High Voices”) but the attempt to recreate the sound made by another artist simply in order to be allowed up on stage or into a recording studio strikes me as potentially tawdry.

At least it did, until election night in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1992, where the Democrats had laid on a brilliant Jerry Lee Lewis impersonator from Tennessee who simply tore up the enormous barn-like structure where I and the rest of the world’s non-American media were running around like blue-arsed flies (I did a brilliant job grabbing interviewees for David Dimbleby to quiz via satellite from London – the letters “BBC” worked like an absolute charm on all Clinton’s lefty supporters in the entertainment industry: so well that a tiny Italian radio reporter threatened to beat me up for pinching Richard Dreyfus off him… zif!)

Shamefully, I can’t remember the singer’s name, so you’ll have to make do with The Killer’s cousin, Mickey Gilley, who grew up with Lewis and does a remarkable job covering the old nut-job, singing "Don't All the Girls Get Prettier". But even more remarkable is Matthew Lee, who, despite his name, is Italian:

A few years back, I heard Elvis singing “Sweet Home Alabama” on the radio. I was suprised that he'd ever considered covering it, but his version was good, and I wondered why I’d never heard it before. When that was followed by his version of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, even I began to suspect that all was not as it seemed. Turned out to be an Ulsterman named Jimmy Brown, recording as “The King”. I actually went out and bought the LP at a record store (remember those?), but I have no idea what happened to it - perhaps I threw it out in a fit of shame.

What must be galling is when an unknown singer covers a song from an album by an established star, sings it in the style of that star  - and proceeds to have a monster smash with it! That's exactly what happened when Terry Stafford covered the Pomus-Shuman classic, “Suspicion” in 1964, two years after Elvis had recorded it. It reached No 6 the same week The Beatles held the first five slots on the Billboard chart, then climbed to No 3. I don't expect Himself lost too kmuch sleep over it - especially if he was hitting the barbiturates at the time - but nevertheless...

I was listening to Don Covay’s “Mercy Mercy” last night, when it struck me that the chap sounded suspiciously like Mick Jagger. Then realised that it had to be the other way round. Note the similarities - especially on words like “gypsy”, “mercy” and read” - on the Stones' version here. Jagger had already recorded lots of vocals before Don Covay's first solo hit came out, so it may just be that their voices are naturally similar - but I can't help suspecting that Covay had a big effect on old liver-lips' singing style from that moment on. (As Jagger soon afterwards gave up his pathetic attempts to dance like James Brown, we'll forgive him for "borrowing" Covay's voice.)

Obviously, there have been myriad instances of singers deliberately trying to "pass" for someone else. For instance, you have three seconds to identify exactly who the splendidly-named Dane Stinit is imitating on “Don’t Knock What You Don’t Understand”.  Lloyd Dockery is even more blatant on “Dream Girl”. Talk about identity theft!

Of course, when a truly great singer unashamedly copies the style of another great singer, the results are sometimes rather wonderful, as in Otis Redding’s tribute a certain fellow Georgian on the great “Shout Bamalama”:

I'll leave you with another example of a deliberate tribute paid by one star to another - although Paul McCartney's "Let Me Roll It" might be slightly closer to parody.

1 comment:

  1. I always thought that Jagger had been ..ahem heavily influenced by Don Covay. This is particularly evident on the excellent It's Better to Have and Don't Need. Added to which, Don C was backed by people who could play their instruments. My favourite cover is Marshall Crenshaw imitating the Beatles covering Soldier of Love by Arthur Alexander, a cover of a cover in some one else's style. I always rather liked Viv Stanshall's cover of Suspicion, which contains the added lines "and darling, if you have been deceiving me, well, it's a neat bit of jiggery pokery".