‘I’ll Try Not To Sing Out Of Key . . .’

Originally posted January 8, 2008

It’s not unheard of – in fact, it’s actually pretty common – for a cover version of a song to become more famous than the original version (or the composer’s version). Carl Perkins wrote and released “Blue Suede Shoes” in early 1956, reaching No. 2 on one of the major charts of the time, but people remember the song as Elvis Presley’s. (Elvis’ version of the song came out two months later and reached No. 20.) Harpers Bizarre made the charts in 1967 with Paul Simon’s “59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” from the previous year. Joni Mitchell wrote “Both Sides Now,” and Judy Collins’s version was a hit in 1968, a year before Mitchell’s version was released.

I could fine many more similar examples, but the record I’m thinking of today is, I think, the only Beatles’ recording with a cover version that is more prominent than the original. I think for those who were kids and adolescents in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Lennon-McCartney tune “With A Little Help From My Friends” belongs to Joe Cocker. And that stems from the six years that the television series The Wonder Years used Cocker’s performance of the song as its theme.

Even before that, Cocker had laid a pretty good claim to the song. It was the title track of his debut album in 1969, and his performance of the tune at Woodstock in August of that year is one of the iconic moments of 1960s music. To be sure, Ringo Starr’s performance of the song on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is another iconic performance of the 1960s, albeit without the compelling visuals. I don’t know whether Ringo toured during those years immediately following the break-up of the Beatles; I certainly don’t recall hearing about it. So at that point, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, call it a draw, what with Cocker having the song as a regular part of his set list.

And then add the six years of The Wonder Years, and I would guess that more people identify the song with Cocker than with Ringo or the Beatles. I’m not saying they don’t know where the song came from. What I am theorizing is that when people think about the song, most – not by a great margin, but still a majority – hear Joe Cocker’s version in their heads rather than the Beatles’.

All-Music Guide lists more than four hundred CDs on which one can find a recording of “With A Little Help From My Friends.” About a hundred of those – that’s a quick eyeball estimate – are of Cocker’s version and another fifty or so are the Beatles’ version or later versions recorded by Ringo. There are some interesting names attached to some of the remaining versions.

Some of those names are familiar: Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass (the first version of the song I ever heard), the Beach Boys, Bon Jovi, guitarist Larry Carlton, Steve Cropper of Booker T & the MG’s, Richie Havens, Arthur Fiedler of Boston Pops fame, Steve Lawrence, Rita Lee, Sergio Mendes, Carlos Santana, Toto and Ike & Tina Turner.

Some are not so familiar: Karol Kidd, the Kool Kats, Don Latarski, Lisa Lauren, Maxwell’s Magical Mustard Band, Sam & Mark, Jackie Trent, Wet Wet Wet and Young Idea, just to grab a few of the other names off the long list. (It turns out, I learned as I was researching this, that Sam & Mark and Wet Wet Wet had versions of the song reach No. 1 in Britain in 1988 and 2004, respectively. I’m nevertheless still unfamiliar with their work.)

And there’s one name on the list that I find intriguing. I first heard of Joe Brown at the time of the 2002 George Harrison tribute that was released on CD and DVD as The Concert For George. Brown was a contemporary of the Beatles and was a moderately successful British rocker in the early 1960s, with eleven Top 40 hits in Britain. He was also a good friend of George Harrison’s, serving as Harrison’s best man at his second wedding in 1978, says Wikipedia.

At the memorial concert, Brown performed three times, singing Harrison’s “Here Comes The Sun” and “That’s The Way It Goes” and then closing the concert with a moving version of the long-lived standard, “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” a tune that was recorded by, among many others, Louis Armstrong sometime between 1923 and 1925. (Brown had included the song on his 1997 album, 56 & Taller Than You Think.)

One wonders if, when asked to prepare a closing song for the tribute to George Harrison, Joe Brown considered, even if just for an instant, singing “With A Little Help From My Friends,” the tune written by Harrison’s old band mates that Brown took to No. 32 on the British singles chart in 1967. If he did think of it, I imagine he came to the conclusion that if the song were to be performed that evening, Ringo Starr would have a prior claim. But back in 1967, Brown had done a pretty good job on the tune himself.

Joe Brown – “With A Little Help From My Friends” [Pye 7N17339, UK, 1967]

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