Born To Cover Steppenwolf

Originally posted July 24, 2007

It’s an interesting list, with the first real recognizable name being that of Blue Öyster Cult. Further down the alphabetical listing, we find the Countdown Singers and Crowded House, the Cult, Doro and a group named Ebba Grön. There’s John Kay, which makes some sense. There are also Kim Fowley, Jeff the Drunk, the Leningrad Cowboys and the Enoch Light Singers.

On down the list we go. Raven, Slade and Elvis Schoenberg. Suicide Commanders, Joe Lynn Turner and Twisted Sister. Leslie West and Link Wray. The Ventures. Along the way, we passed by Steppenwolf, Mars Bonfire and Wilson Pickett.

It’s a fascinating list. Just think about it for a second. What in the name of Little Richard would bring those names together on a list?

A while back – when I was writing about Tom Jans’ song “Loving Arms” – I made a reference to cover versions that bring about the question “Who in the world though that was a good idea?” One could ask the same question about some of the names on the list I was looking at this morning. It’s a list from All-Music Guide of performers who have recorded “Born To Be Wild,” the song Steppenwolf took to No. 2 in 1968.

Look back at that list. I don’t know who Ebba Grön is, or Joe Lynn Turner, for that matter, so let’s dig a little: Turner was in Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow and has carved out a decent hard rock career, including a couple of albums of cover songs. And Ebba Grön is a Swedish punk band that included the song on a live album. Fair enough.

Still, some of those names in connection with “Born To Be Wild” give me the willies. I mean, the Enoch Light Singers? The same Enoch Light album, from 1968, has the singers covering the Doors’ “Hello, I Love You” and “Light My Fire” as well as Gary Puckett’s “Lady Willpower.” Those aren’t quite as bizarre as “Born To Be Wild,” but still, there’s some cognitive dissonance there. It’s almost as surreal as the Ray Conniff Singers of that era recording “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Or maybe Pat Boone recording “Smoke On The Water.” (Oh. Never mind, then.)

Some of the names belong there. John Kay was the lead singer for Steppenwolf, so I guess he’s got the right to re-record the tune whenever he wants, even if he’s unlikely to touch the quality of the original. And the wonderfully named Mars Bonfire – who began life as Dennis Edmonton – wrote the song, so he’s cool.

But the least likely name on that list – with the exception of the Enoch Light Singers – is probably Wilson Pickett. Now, Pickett was both prolific and adventurous. He recorded a lot and was willing to try a lot of different things. But “Born To Be Wild”? That seems like a real stretch.

On the other hand, Pickett could stretch. He recorded the Steppenwolf song during the same sessions at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals that found him recording the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” According to Tony Glover’s account in the booklet that accompanied the album Duane Allman: An Anthology, Allman himself talked Pickett into recording “Hey Jude” as the title track for his next album. And despite Pickett’s reluctance, with the help of Allman and the famed Muscle Shoals rhythm section and horns, the singer did a bang-up job on the Beatles’ tune.

His work on “Born To Be Wild,” didn’t quite reach the same level. I mean, it’s a good track: Pickett delivers the song with his typical gusto, and the backing he gets is good. It’s always dangerous, however, for a singer to attempt a song that’s achieved anthemic status. It’s rarely possible for such a cover to overcome the inevitable comparisons. And during those sessions in 1968, I don’t think Pickett got to the heart of the Steppenwolf song the way he did with “Hey Jude.” Still, it’s worth a listen.

Wilson Pickett – Born To Be Wild (1969)

Note: When I unexpectedly found a CD of Pickett’s out-of-print Hey Jude album online last month, I had planned to share the entire album here. But between the time I ordered the CD and the time it arrived, I learned that the CD is once again in print, which is good news. Look for it at Amazon or your favorite online retailer.

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