Can Cover Songs Be More Popular Than The Originals?

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Can a cover song be more popular than the original? I mean, you’d think it was blasphemy to out-do the artist that originally came up with the song you’re just covering, right? But not only does it happen, it happens a lot! 

Cover versions of songs can definitely become more popular than the original. It might be luck, or timing, or just a variation in how a song is performed that elevates a remake’s popularity to a higher plateau. And in some cases, the only reason a song becomes popular at all is due to a remake by a different artist. 

I’m about to give you some basic definitions of what a cover artist is, the variations on the type of musician you can find, and then we’ll go into the meat of the article: cover songs that did much better than the original. 

In popular music, a cover version, remake, cover song, revival, or simply cover, is a new performance or recording by someone other than the original artist or composer of a song. Therefore a cover artist is a musician or band of musicians that is known for remaking or “covering” music that is not their own original song. There are actually different varieties of cover artists out there.

Tribute Acts are performers that make a living by recreating the music of one particular artist or band.

Cover Acts or Bands are entertainers who perform a wide variety of cover versions of songs to please their audience. Usually, these songs chosen are well-known crowd-pleasers.

Revivalist Artists are inspired by an entire genre or era in musical history, therefore they focus on curating or recreating such music to introduce younger generations to it and keep it alive.

These bands or musicians help bring about a sense of nostalgia whenever they perform, even though they may add their own flavor to the music. But the type of artist that most often winds up covering a top hitmaker is usually an already known professional that happens to hit paydirt with their version of a previously released song.  

Keep in mind, a cover song can actually become a defining song for a musician’s career. This can be either fantastic or extremely disappointing for the hit-making artists. In some cases, it’s the cover song that is remembered and not the artist’s own work. For example, Soft Cell had 12 singles hit the English charts, but they are considered a one-hit-wonder and that hit happens to be the cover they made of Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love”.

For an opposite example, “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a Sinead O’Connor cover recorded from a song that Prince had tossed aside and used on an album he made with The Family (a funk band he formed). It shot straight up the charts and swept the MTV Music Awards in 1990.  Lucky for us, both O’Connor and Prince had successful musical careers and other hit songs beyond this one. 

So what are some of the best cover songs of all time? The ones that not only were more successful than the original release, but those that are truly legendary? I have a listing of them, or at least the one I have time to mention. Some of these shocked me. 

1. Blue Suede Shoes

Did you know Elvis Presley’s version of “Blue Suede Shoes” is actually a cover of Carl Perkins’ original song? Mr. Perkins was a pioneer of the rockabilly genre of music. The song was just about actual shoes, as they were a luxury item that was difficult to take care of in those days, and having a pair meant a lot. Carl Perkins had another song “Honey Don’t” that was later covered by The Beatles. Here’s the original version:

Here is the cover sung by Elvis Presley:

2. RESPECT

It’s so hard to believe that one of the most well-known feminist anthems of all time was actually a song originally written and performed by a man! Redding’s version was a call from a desperate man who will give his woman anything she wants, as long as he gets his respect when he brings money home. However, Aretha’s version was a from a strong, confident woman, who knows that she has everything her man wants, and demands his “respect”. She also added the ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’ chorus.

Original done by Otis Redding:

The cover done by Aretha Franklin:

3. I Will Always Love You

Who could forget Whitney Houston’s versions of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”? I know I never will. It was used in a movie soundtrack and wound up remaining at the top of the Billboard Charts for 14 weeks. The song had already done Dolly Parton proud, because with it, she was the first singer to hit #1 with the same song twice.  Whitney also had another cover that hit big – George Benson’s “The Greatest Love of All”.

Original done by Dolly Parton:

Cover done by Whitney Houston:

4. All Along the Watchtower

Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” made musical history. It originally was released by Dylan and 1967 and is included on most of his “Best Of” and “Greatest Hits” albums. The Hendrix version, released six months after Dylan’s original recording, became a Top 20 single in 1968, received a Grammy Hall of Fame award in 2001, and was ranked 47th in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. it’s been in multiple movies and television shows and the guitar solo in the song is one of the greatest of all time. Bob Dylan had a lot to say about it.

“It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”Bob Dylan

Original by Bob Dylan:

Cover by Jimmy Hendrix:

5. Tainted Love

I have Soft Cell’s version of Gloria Jones’s “Tainted Love” on my playlist. I knew it had been recorded by another artist before them, but I had only ever heard their version over the years. Soft Cell’s hit of the song came into the charts about the time I began really listening to popular music – the 1980’s. These two versions couldn’t be more different.

Original by Gloria Jones

Cover by Soft Cell:

6. Proud Mary

John Fogerty wrote and then performed “Proud Mary” with his band Creedence Clearwater Revival as a rock song in 1969, but it is arguably better known for Tina Turner’s cover versions. With CCR it peaked at the #2 spot on Billboard in 1969. She first covered it in 1970 with her husband Ike, transforming it into a funk soul rocker. This version reached #4 and won a Grammy Award. She later re-recorded it for the 1993 movie “What’s Love Got to Do With It”, and it has become one of her signature songs.

Original by Creedence Clearwater Revival:

Cover by Tina Turner:

7. Mad World

The original Tears for Fears track was a truly brilliant dark synthpop tune, the band’s first chart hit. It reached the Top 40 in several countries and #3 on the UK Singles Chart in 1982. But this song wasn’t done there. In 2001, Gary Jules and Michael Andrews recorded Mad World for the Donnie Darko soundtrack. It would become a UK Christmas number one, and win Tears for Fears’ Roland Orzabal a second Ivor Novello Award in 2003.

This version was arguably the song that inspired countless piano covers used in advertisements (including for the video game Gears of War) and movie trailers ever since. You can find it heard on several television shows as well. One of the more recent covers of it was performed by Adam Lambert on American Idol during the show’s 8th season which brought on interest in the song again moving it up the Rock Digital chart to #11.

Original by Tears for Fears:

Cover performed by Gary Jules & Michael Andrews:

8. Walk This Way

“Walk This Way” by Aerosmith peaked at the #10 spot on Billboard charts back in 1977. In the meantime, the rock band had tons of other hits and had become famous worldwide. So, when RUN DMC wanted to further bring Hip-Hop and Rap mainstream, how better to do that than make a cover that was also one of the very first mash-ups of this older song? It became an international hit, revitalizing the original hit and winning a Soul Train Music Award for Best Rap Single of 1987.

Original performed by Aerosmith:

Cover performed by Run DMC ft./Aerosmith:

9. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Amazingly, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was originally written from the male perspective about women in the bedroom by Robert Hazard in 1979. Four years later, Cyndi’s version carried a totally different feminist attitude, portraying that all women really wanted was to have the same experience that men could have. It went on to become one of the biggest hits of the 1980s. I never knew it wasn’t originally Cyndi’s song. She owned it, and for many of us who were just discovering music in the 80s, it was one of our anthems.

Original performed by Robert Hazard:

Cover performed by Cyndi Lauper:

10. Hurt

Originally an industrial metal track by Nine Inch Nails that was written by that band’s lead, Trent Reznor, “Hurt” was covered in 2002 by Johnny Cash, just a year before his death.

The NIN version received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rock Song in 1996. 

 Its accompanying video, featuring images from Cash’s life and directed by NIN collaborator, Mark Romanek, was named the best video of the year by the Grammy Awards and CMA Awards, and the best video of all time by NME in July 2011. 

Reznor became a fan of Cash’s version once he saw the music video.

“Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… wow. I felt like I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore.”Trent Reznor

Original performed by Nine Inch Nails:

Cover performed by Johnny Cash:

11. Hallelujah

So what is the king of the cover song? My opinion is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. There are more than 800 versions of this song that have been recorded and performed live since its release. Rufus Wainwright’s cover version may be the most well-known, because it was included in several television shows and movies. But Jeff Buckley also made a notable cover of the song.

Original performed by Leonard Cohen:

Cover performed by Rufus Wainwright:

Rachel Adams

I would have previously thought of myself as an audiophile. But by gaming and listening to my children and their friends, I've been introduced to an entire realm of artists that are not on the radio.