Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Thirteen Great Blues Cover Songs

Following up on Thirteen Great Cover Songs, I thought I'd continue the series with a few great blues covers. As with the previous list, I suppose I should include a caveat just to keep the conversation honest.

As far as the blues, I am sure everyone is by now quite aware of the amount of outright thefts of songs by white rock/blues bands in the 60's that all but trampled on the original artist's copyrighted material; however, one should be also aware of the cannibalistic nature of the blues idiom throughout its history, and the inveterate 'borrowing' of material from one blues artist to another dating back to the early 20th century. In addition, the reverence and deference shown to many older blues artists by their younger idolaters saved many a broke musician and rejuvenated many of their careers (like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon, for instance). So cannibalism can be a good thing -- as long as you share body parts with the less fortunate.

But I digress (and I digress at the drop of a hat). The blues covers I offer here all exhibit virtuoso musicianship, but they also take the next step and transform the original song into something altogether different and exceptional. There are thousands of variations of these tunes, but these are the ones I cherish (both the originals and covers).

P.S. For an additional bunch of blues covers, go here... Thirteen More Great Blues Cover Songs

WHEN THE LEVEE BREAKS by Led Zeppelin (originally recorded by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy)

Memphis Minnie version
Led Zeppelin version

-- Zeppelin has covered many blues tunes, but most are just electrified reiterations of previous material -- not so on 'When The Levee Breaks'. This version is a tour de force of studio mastery: eerie phased blues harp, monstrous drumbeats and downright evil slide. This was the song one listened to at three a.m. in the morning -- just before losing consciousness and then waking up on the neighbor's front lawn covered in early morning dew. Not that that ever happened to me, of course.

I AINT SUPERSTITIOUS by The Jeff Beck Group (originally recorded by Howlin's Wolf)

Howlin' Wolf version
Jeff Beck version

-- A great pairing of Beck and Rod Stewart make this version special. Beck's masterful use of the wah-wah, inducing sounds unheard of from a guitar at the time, still gives me chills a hundred years later. Okay, I was exaggerating. Fifty years.

CROSSROAD BLUES by Cream (originally recorded by Robert Johnson)

Robert Johnson version
Cream version

-- I could have used Cream's rendition of 'Spoonful' here or even 'Rollin' and Tumblin'', or anything from Clapton's Bluesbreakers period, but I've already included a few tunes from 'Slowhand'. But the inclusion of 'Crossroads' recognizes that the song was a phenomenon at the time of its release. It was a huge hit, and based on the limited amount of research I did, most likely one of the biggest selling blues tunes up to that point. The song itself was enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as historically significant, which one has to take with a grain of salt, as both the Bee Gees and Abba are in the Hall as well.

SHAKE YOUR MONEYMAKER by Fleetwood Mac (originally recorded by Elmore James)

Elmore James version
Fleetwood Mac version

-- The original Fleetwood Mac (with Peter Green, Danny Kirwan, Jeremy Spencer, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie) were one of the first and most authentic British blues bands, not merely stealing old blues tunes, but recording with blues masters such as Otis Spann, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy, recording the seminal 'Fleetwood Mac in Chicago/Blues Jam in Chicago, Vols. 1-2' in 1969. 'Shake Your Moneymaker' is a raved-up bit of exuberant blues, just as fun on the Mac version as it was on Elmore James' original.

HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED by Johnny Winter (originally recorded by Bob Dylan)

Bob Dylan version mimicking Johnny Winter's version of the original Dylan version
Johnny Winter version

-- The Sony Corporation is a greedy, moneygrubbing bunch of proliferate wankers. But then you knew that, right? I would offer you the original (and very interesting) Dylan version of 'Highway 61 Revisited' from the stellar album of the same name, but Sony has removed all free recordings of the song from the internet for their own sordid purposes. Instead, I offer you a later live version that obviously owes more to the superlative Johnny Winter's bad-ass slide version than Dylan's own original.

KEY TO THE HIGHWAY by Derek & The Dominos (originally recorded by Charles Segar)

Charlie Segar version
Big Bill Broonzy version
Derek and the Dominos version

-- Okay, Charlie Segar originally penned 'Key to the Highway', but Big Bill Broonzy somehow got credited along with Segar for writing the song, because, as Broonzy put it, "Some of the verses he [Segar] was singing" were the same as Broonzy had sung in the south. Broonzy then made the ultimate comment about blues music: "You take one song and make fifty out of it...just change it a little bit." Broonzy was an early Clapton influence, and the Derek and the Dominos version reflects Big Bill's recording. The Dominos' jam offers stunning exchanges of burning blues riffs between Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, who trade guitar salvos like armies trade bazooka and mortar fire.

COME ON (LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL) by Jimi Hendrix (originally recorded by Earl King)

Earl King version
Hendrix version

-- Naturally, anything Hendrix decided to play that was originally played by someone else would end up transformed, dwarfing the original (see Dylan's 'All Along the Watchtower'). I had considered 'Hey Joe' as appropiate for this list, but I think 'Come On' has more guitar virtuosity and the song's inflections and nuances were influential to later blues legends like Stevie Ray Vaughan (who also covered this tune).

GIVE ME BACK MY WIG by Stevie Ray Vaughan (originally recorded by Hound Dog Taylor

Hound Dog Taylor version
Stevie Ray version

-- Another fun blues tune. I've always loved Hound Dog Taylor, the legendary but dirt poor Chicago Bluesman with the cheap Silvertone guitar, buzzing amp and a cigarette dangling from his lip who died before receiving international recognition. Stevie Ray's version is a tribute and a damn good one.

ONE WAY OUT by The Allman Brothers (originally recorded by Elmore James)

Elmore James version
Allman Brothers version

-- Perhaps my favorite blues tune of all time. The rhythm is infectious and the raccous style seems to reincarnate Sonny Boy Williamson jamming in some crowded roadhouse. 'One Way Out' is from The Allman Brother's 'Eat A Peach', the posthumous album in honor of the fallen Duane Allman, who drove his motorcycle into a peach truck, and thus literally 'ate a peach'. Great guitar work from both Allman and his sidekick, Dickey Betts, and great growls from brother Gregg Allman.

BALL AND CHAIN by Janis Joplin (originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton)

Big Mama Thornton version
Janis Joplin version

-- Divorce yourself from the absolutely dreadful, cliche-acid-trippy 1960's sloppy musicianship of Big Brother and the Holding Company and just listen to Janis Joplin's booming, whispering, plaintive and powerfully pained voice. In fact, find a way to superimpose Big Mama Thornton's tight band over Big Brother, and Joplin's version of 'Ball and Chain' would be the greatest blues tune of all time. As it is, a document of the 60's and the height of Joplin's craft, it is awesome. I considered 'Summertime' here, but that is a Gershwin tune, and not necessarily blues in its first inception.

I DON'T NEED NO DOCTOR by Humble Pie (originally recorded by Ray Charles)

Ray Charles version
Humble Pie version

-- It is politically correct in America to revere Ray Charles. Yep, apple pie, Chevrolet and Ray Charles' Ray-ban sunglasses. Unfortunately, Brit Steve Marriot's howls and growls makes Humble Pie's 'Live at the Filmore' version of 'I Don't Need No Doctor' the definitive rendition of the song. I still crack up hearing Peter Frampton singing background vocals. This is the same guy who recorded the dreadfully sappy love song 'I'm In You' in the mid-70's.

SHAKE YOUR HIPS by The Rolling Stones (originally recorded by Slim Harpo)

Slim Harpo version
Stones version
ZZ Top theft

-- The Stones' 'Exile on Main Street' is their bluesiest album. It is also their best album. It is also the last Stones' album I give a damn about. So, in honor of actually giving a damn about the Rolling Stones, I offer up their excellent and reverent take of Slim Harpo's 'Shake Your Hips'. I also give you the direct lift of the song by ZZ Top, who merely changed the words and made it louder, and in the process neglected to give Slim Harpo his just due as the Stones did.

BACK DOOR MAN by The Doors (originally recorded by Willie Dixon)

Willie Dixon version
Doors version

-- When Jim Morrison bellows "I am...the back door man!" it is quite believable. One can imagine Jim, horny as usual and stoned out of his mind, dressed in just his leather pants and hippy beads, trying vainly to climb through a bedroom window while barely clutching a half-empty whiskey bottle. He has no idea where he is, or whose house he's breaking into, but that's beside the point. In any case, save for Ray Manzarek's sinuous organ, The Doors version is totally dominated by Morrison's roaring, growling vocals (Robbie Krieger never seemed to have actually finished his guitar lessons, but neither did half the guitarists in the 60's). It is over-the-top and campy, but no one could vamp like Morrison.

~Honorable Mentions~

GOOD MORNING LITTLE SCHOOLGIRL by Ten Years After (originally recorded by Sonny Boy Williamson)

Sonny Boy Williamson version
Ten Years After version

-- I actually prefer the version of Sonny Boy Williamson's 'Help Me' from Ten Years After's excellent 'Recorded Live' (1973), but couldn't find a good version on the net. So, as a place marker, I offer you the naughty 'Good Morning Little Schoolgirl'. Whereas Williamson uses sly innuendo to tell us what he'd like to do to the 'schoolgirl', Alvin Lee comes right out and screams "I want to ball you/baby want to ball all night long". Of course, I was quite impressed hearing this song for the first time as a teenager, as that is precisely what I had in mind regarding schoolgirls -- every 3 seconds or so throughout my high school years and straight into college.

STORMY MONDAY BLUES by Jethro Tull (originally recorded by T-Bone Walker)

T-Bone Walker version
Jethro Tull version

-- There are literally a million-bajillion covers of 'Stormy Monday'. I really enjoy the jazzy take offered by Tull from the BBC's 'John Peel Sessions' in 1968 (love Peel's comment comparing Tull and the Stones). And dig the flute solo! Man, that Jethro Tull dude is far out!


Randy said...

With my slowest version of DSL this is going to take me a while to listen to. So far it's been the first song -- Memphis Minnie vs. Led Zeppelin -- and wow! What a difference!

This one, I wouldn't even call stealing -- back in those archaic days a copyright only ran for 27 years anyway -- and most real artists want their work to be seen, heard and read. Recall Salieri bemoaning in Amadeus how his music is never played anymore? One got the feeling that it was more about the posterity than the profit.

Anyway, I'm enjoying this. Thanks for the series!

Morthoron the Dark Elf said...

Glad you're enjoying it, Randy! And sorry for your sorry DSL.

But for all the differences between the two 'Levee Breaks', the melody 'remains the same'; so the seed of the orignal grew a lush jungle in the cover version.

The one thing you can say about Jimmy Page was that he was a studio master, like George Martin or Alan Parsons. The instument tracking, overdubs and sound quality of the first 6 or 7 Led Zep albums are simply amazing. 'When the Levee Breaks' is one of those songs that simply cannot be recreated properly in a live environment (much like many Beatles tunes).

Carly D said...

These are all great covers!!! We'll defintely use them, Thanks for the help!

Take a listen to Canada's First Blues radio station


Thanks again!

Morthoron the Dark Elf said...

Thanks for coming by Carly. I'll definitely listen to 101.9 Dawg FM!

Although I live in Michigan, I've been out around Ottawa many times. We used to go Algonquin Provincial Park. Ever been there?

Anonymous said...

Check the original Black Betty by Leadbelly.