Covers Uncovered

Origially posted May 9, 2007

Cover versions of popular songs have a different function these days than they used to, it seems. They’re tributes, much more often than not, with a group of musicians being recruited to record versions of songs by, oh, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Silver Convention. (Well, maybe not the last, but I wanted to see if you were all awake.)

Such tributes, and I have a few of them in the vinyl and CD stacks, can be fun. It’s always interesting to hear other folks’ versions of songs I’ve come to enjoy over the years, although it sometimes seems that the new versions either adhere a little too slavishly to the original recording or go so far afield in an attempt to avoid slavishness that the song itself gets lost.

But cover versions used to compete with other covers of the same song for the ear of the audience. I seem to recall several mentions in Anton Myrer’s novel, The Last Convertible, of big bands recording the same songs and competing with each other. (The book, a tale of love, loyalty and time first published in 1978, is a quite good read for those interested in the years that bracketed World War II.) I also seem to recall a scene in John Farris’ classic novel, Harrison High, during which several of the characters compare the merits of various versions of songs during a stop at a local teen hangout.

Hearing different versions of popular songs competing with each other was fairly common until sometime in the late 1950s. A look through reference books like The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits shows numerous songs from that decade with multiple versions that hit the Top 40 at the same time. The “Banana Boat Song,” for instance, was on the charts in four versions in 1957: by the Tarriers, the Fontane Sisters, Steve Lawrence and Sarah Vaughan. The same year, versions of “Fascination” were hits for Jane Morgan, Dinah Shore and Dick Jacobs. A year earlier, Dean Martin and Jerry Vale recorded competing versions of “Innamorata.” And the year before that, in 1955, versions of the movie theme “Unchained Melody” by Les Baxter, Al Hibbler, Roy Hamilton and June Valli all made the Top 40. (I collect versions of that tune, but I have never heard the June Valli version. If anyone out there can help me with that, leave a comment, please.)

I’m sure there are many more examples of competing songs from those years. It’s worth noting, though, that the four examples above, like most of the songs with multiple versions listed in the Top 40 book, are songs in pre-rock styles. The growing popularity of rock ’n’ roll in the mid-1950s pushed aside the primacy of the song. The performer began to matter more than the material. As the Rolling Stones sang early in the next decade, what mattered was “the singer, not the song.”

(A different, less pleasant form of competing cover version was also prevalent in the 1950s, of course. That was the practice of having white acts rush versions into the market of hits originally recorded by African American singers or groups. The Crew Cuts covered the Penguins’ “Earth Angel” in 1955. Pat Boone recorded bland versions of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That A Shame” and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally.” And those are just the easiest examples to find of that egregious practice.)

My dad, with his sensibilities rooted in the years surrounding World War II, could never quite grasp the change in emphasis from the song to the singer. Being the odd urchin that I was, I was intrigued in late 1964 with Lorne Greene’s recording of “Ringo,” a recited tale of mercy and death in the Old West that topped the charts for a week. I wanted the album. And Dad brought home from the drug store a record on the Wyncote label titled “Ringo.” As performed by the Deputies, whoever they were. (The other songs on the LP were “Darling Nelly Gray,” “Bonanza,” “Hi Ho,” “Bill Bailey,” “Big Bad John,” “Shenandoah,” “Auld Lang Syne,” “College Life” and “The Drummer and a Cook.”) I was eleven and not very well practiced at hiding my disappointments, which mystified and – I’m sure – saddened my dad. “It’s the same song,” I recall him saying. “Isn’t that the song you want?”

I wanted the singer, not the song. I played the record a few times, but not with the joy I would have found in having Greene’s version on the turntable. (Although it’s kind of fun forty years later to have that odd LP in my collection.)

As the rock era went on, there were occasional cover versions of rock recordings, hits and album tracks alike. I think of the fall of 1969 and the Underground Sunshine’s version of “Birthday” from the Beatles’ White Album. It reached No. 26 on the charts during that autumn when I discovered pop and rock music, and it was the first version of the song that I’d heard. Some time later, when I heard the Beatles’ version, my first thought was that the Beatles were more creative than that! Why would they want to record another group’s song? (I’m thankful that I never voiced that opinion to my friends.)

Then there was the Assembled Multitude. There’s not a lot of information out there about that studio group,* which had an instrumental hit in the summer of 1970 with the “Overture from ‘Tommy’,” taken from the Who’s rock opera. All I can glean from the back of the record jacket was that a fellow named Tom Sellers was a large part of the group, as he arranged all but one of the record’s cuts, wrote two of the songs on the album himself and co-produced the record – on Atlantic – with someone named Bill Buster. Sellers’ tunes on the record were “Where The Woodbine Twineth” and “Mr. Peppercorn.” Another cut was titled “The Princess and the Soldier,” written by Tony Hazard.

After that, the song list on the record gets a lot more interesting, and explains why I’m writing about cover versions today. The other eight instrumentals are: “Overture from ‘Tommy,’” “Woodstock,” “Ohio,” “Singalong Junk,” “MacArthur Park,” “Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” That’s a fairly good cross-section of songs from 1970 or so (with the exception of the older “Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa”). And the performances have some nice moments. I thought it was kind of a fun listen when I plopped it on the turntable the other day.

Track list
Overture from “Tommy”
Woodstock
Where the Woodbine Twineth
Ohio
Singalong Junk
MacArthur Park
The Princess and the Soldier
Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Mr. Peppercorn
I Want You (She’s So Heavy)

The Assembled Multitude – The Assembled Multitude [1970]

*There was some information out there, but I was digging in the wrong direction. As noted at Wikipedia: “The Assembled Multitude was an instrumental ensemble, consisting entirely of studio musicians, which music producer Tom Sellers organized in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1970. . . . Many of the musicians in the ensemble were regulars at Sigma Sound Studios, where the album was recorded. Those musicians became the backbone of Philadelphia soul, working with producers Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell, and artists such as The O’Jays, Billy Paul, The Stylistics, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.”

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