The Tyranny of “Still”

ELDER MUSIC: Transforming a Song

Tibbles1SM100x130This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.

Musical history is replete with instances of someone taking a song and changing it completely. You don't need me to tell you that. However, it seemed like an interesting idea for a column and it was fun choosing which two versions of songs I should include.

It's really subjective which of the two of each you might prefer. My idea of better and worse is no doubt different from yours. That's okay. It's entertaining to me to hear both versions. I hope it will be for you as well.

I'm afraid that if I start with PAUL ROBESON, it'll be all downhill from here on. Well, so be it.

Paul Robeson

Paul performs the song he's best known for, from the musical "Show Boat,” Ol' Man River. He recorded it a number of times over the years. I've gone with the one from the film sound track.

♫ Paul Robeson - Ol' Man River

It would take a brave man to mess with anything of Paul's, perhaps that's why it took five of them, THE TEMPTATIONS.

The Temptations

They put an interesting twist on the song. Their bass singer would do Paul proud. Let's hear what they do to Ol' Man River.

♫ The Temptations - Ol' Man River

I was sorely tempted to go with Stan Freberg's version of the song but decided against it. Another time maybe.

Speaking of transformation, Steven Georgiou transformed himself into CAT STEVENS and became a successful recording artist and performer. He later transformed himself into Yusuf Islam and became a nutcase.

Cat Stevens

It's the middle incarnation of himself we're concerned with today. Cat was quite a decent writer of songs and he usually interpreted them pretty well too. On the song The First Cut is the Deepest he did an adequate job, but that's about it.

♫ Cat Stevens - The First Cut Is The Deepest

ROD STEWART took Cat's song and turned it into a rock & roll masterpiece.

Rod Stewart

Rod did that with many songs. He also wrote several of the finest songs from the seventies, but he's not usually credited with that. Anyway, here's what he does with The First Cut is the Deepest.

♫ Rod Stewart - The First Cut Is The Deepest

Many of the songs that BING CROSBY first performed have been transformed by other performers, sometimes for the better but usually not.

Bing Crosby

The song I'm including today is Try a Little Tenderness. It was written by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly and Harry Woods and was first recorded by Val Rosing fronting the Ray Noble orchestra.

Bing followed quickly on the heels of that one (as did Ruth Etting but she's not the one we're interested in today).

♫ Bing Crosby - Try a Little Tenderness


Otis Redding

It was one of his biggest hits and the version of his I've chosen is one taken from the Monterey Pop Festival. This was one of the very last concerts Otis performed before he was killed in the plane crash.

It's an interesting version of Try a Little Tenderness with Booker T and the MGs and the Memphis Horns supplying the backing. Interesting? Lordy, this is magnificent.

♫ Otis Redding - Try a Little Tenderness (Live)

MICHAEL NESMITH wrote the song Different Drum before he was in The Monkees.

Mike Nesmith

Okay, he didn't look like that at the time. Michael was (no doubt still is) an accomplished song writer and he eventually got some of his creations recorded by the group. Later he had a solo career as a really good country rock performer.

Here's Different Drum, the way he first thought of it.

♫ Mike Nesmith - Different Drum

Mike's song was the first hit by a trio called THE STONE PONEYS.

The Stone Poneys

The group, and that song, was the first time most of us got to see and hear Linda Ronstadt. It was far from the last time that happened.

Their version was a huge success and I think one of the finest musical moments of the sixties. For those who don't remember that decade, here they are with Different Drum.

♫ Linda Ronstadt - Different Drum

Some might say that everyone who performs one of BOB DYLAN's songs transforms it for the better - someone who occasionally graces this column could be included in that category. I refute this. I will, however, admit that now and again someone does improve on his version.  Even the man himself has recognized this.

He has said that after hearing Jimi Hendrix perform All Along the Watchtower, from then on that's the version he (Bob) would play in concert. Even earlier than that, one of his songs was transformed and the group who did it created a new genre of music.

Before we get to their version, let's hear Bob perform Mr Tambourine Man, a song apparently written about the great unsung guitar hero, Bruce Langhorne (who plays lead guitar on this version).

Bob Dylan

♫ Bob Dylan - Mr Tambourine Man

Most of you would know who I'm talking about by now. It is, of course, THE BYRDS with their most famous song and possibly the best cover of one of Bob's songs ever.

The Byrds

The Byrds made a career of taking Bob's songs and putting their stamp on them, usually improving them no end. Another great musical moment from the sixties, Mr Tambourine Man.

♫ The Byrds - Mr. Tambourine Man

ELVIS is usually the one who transforms songs but in this case it's the opposite way round.

Elvis Presley

His song for a makeover is Burning Love, a song from the seventies when he was trying to make good music again.

♫ Elvis Presley - Burning Love

A group with the rather esoteric name of THE MEAT PURVEYORS took Elvis's song and ran with it. Or, more to the point, rather dawdled with it.

The Meat Purveyors

The Meats are an alternative country/bluegrass/whatnot group from Austin who started out as The Texas Meat Purveyors. However, there was an actual company called that so they changed their name. Here is their version of the Elvis classic.

♫ The Meat Purveyors - Burning Love

In 1938 Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson wrote September Song for WALTER HUSTON (father of John, grandfather of Anjelica).

Walter Huston

This was for the Broadway musical "Knickerbocker Holiday.” Walter was playing that aged despot Peter Stuyvesant and it was thought he required a song, one that would suit his rather limited singing range.

That might be the reason that so many others have successfully recorded this song. Here's Walter's version.

♫ Walter Huston - September Song

Another singer that some say had a limited vocal range who tackled the song is LOU REED.

Lou Reed

Lou was once quoted saying that he'd like to be known as the Kurt Weill of rock & roll. I think he came close. He gave the song the full Lou treatment.

♫ Lou Reed - September Song


Enjoying great music this morning! Thanks, Pied Piper!

And I would encourage listeners to try a different tune of the Meat Purveyors. Odd name but I love me some fiddle and banjo done right.

Otis would take a song to its height.
Great selection today!

Recently I received an e-mail with a link to a DVD, "The National Anthem as you've never heard it before"

They got that right because it was done by a country/western singer who held the first few notes 4 or 5 beats beyond the normal count. It made me crazy. I did not find that an improvement and he was sometime off a half beat and spoiled the rhythm of the song. I wondered how the orchestra was able to match his mucking it up.

A song as beautiful as "Old Man River" and sung by a man with a voice as wonderful as Paul Robson can't be topped and I am sorry that a group tried to improve on it. While they put their imprint on it, I did not find it enjoyable.

I really dislike having a beautiful ballad like "September Song" played in a different tempo. A Latin beat does not fit it to my way of thinking.

Some songs do lend themselves to different tempos. "Misty" is one - I heard a great jazz pianist play it and it was fantastic. I then sat down at the keyboard and played it as a rumba, a waltz and my poor jazz interpretation. I liked it in all renditions.

But that's just me.

Eva Cassidy's version of 'Over the Rainbow' is very different to Judy Garland's. I think it is wonderful.

I seldom have commented on here but I do love listening to your Sunday music! Thanks so much!

I also like Karla Bonhoff's version of "The First Cut is the Deepest." In fact, i like a lot of her songs, both the ones she wrote and the covers she sings!

"Eva Cassidy's version of 'Over the Rainbow' is very different to Judy Garland's. I think it is wonderful."

Ian, I completely agree about Eva. I love her interpretation of other songs, too--"Who Knows Where the Time Goes" is only one that comes to mind.


I enjoyed hearing Cat Stevens on the bio pic of Steve Jobs that came out a year or two ago. "Peace Train" of course, but at the end of the movie what I believe was a new composition as well. I'm still a fan of Cat's after all these years.

I think of Tom Whiteman who sang OMR in the 1951 movie version. In searching for this I was amazed at all who have recorded this song - Sinatra, Cher(??), Beach Boys, and more. Also interesting to read of the lyrical, racial-pertaining controversies,mostly from Robeson's time on.

As a youngster, this album and a few other musicals (Damn Yankees-stage)were the contents of comfort for me, rather than foods, and for hours on end took me to exhilarating, or darkly emotional places within myself. There was only vague understanding at that age; feelings only, etched in me still.

Although Paul Robeson is credited for setting the benchmark for "Ol' Man River" in the stage version of "Showboat" and deservedly so, I have always been partial to William Warfield's version which was performed in the film version of "Showboat".

Ciao, Peter. I always enjoy your posts and always learn from them. Some are very good, some are great and some are just plain special. I really liked the idea of two versions of each song and found that, in most cases, I preferred the cover. The one that kept me coming back was Linda Ronstadt's. I didn't think I was familiar with it but as soon as it started up, so did the memories. Thank you so very very much.

Ah, Alan - thanks for the correction - Warfield was whom I meant. What a voice!

late to the party here. one quibble of mine is the version of mr tambourine man by the byrds. perhaps i might agree with peter, if the byrds had included all 4 verses, but i still give the nod to the master here. also, how about the version of sweet dreams by marilyn manson? a remarkable job with the hit song the eurythmics recorded.

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