I Write the Songs … Sometimes
11 acclaimed songwriters who peaked with someone else’s tune.
“Re-Make/Re-Model” isn’t just the title of track one on Roxy Music’s 1972 self-titled debut album. The headline of the glam-rock pioneers’ opening statement, a song that doesn’t actually include the word “re-make” or the word “re-model” in its lyrics, also could serve as something of a pop-music mantra.
For better and perhaps more often for worse, pop would be nothing without the remake. Entire albums, from David Bowie’s Pin Ups to Annie Lennox’s Medusa, have been built around them. Some, like Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable … with Love, Tony Bennett’s MTV Unplugged, Ray Charles’s Genius Loves Company, and Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Album, have gone on to win the coveted Album of the Year Grammy — a prize that continues to elude The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna.
Artists re-make and re-model at their own risk, though. Covers albums are often dismissed as the fruit of lazy artistry, mere placeholders between credible creative statements. Interpretive singing doesn’t get much more respect. To many music snobs, you’re only as good as your best self-penned song.
But let’s not underestimate the power of the musical interpreter. Some of the greatest performers in various genres over the years have been masters not of songwriting but of interpretive singing. Without it, Elvis Presley wouldn’t have become the king of rock & roll, nor would the likes of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Bing Cosby, and Ella Fitzgerald have become 20th-century icons.
If it weren’t for songs sung by someone other than whoever wrote them, there’d be no Great American Songbook, no Tin Pan Alley, no Brill Building, no Motown, no Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, no Leiber and Stoller, no Burt Bacharach and Hal David, no Broadway musical, no Philly soul, no disco, no country, and no gospel. The sound of music would be the sound of silence.
And were it not for the power of interpretive singing, a number of excellent singer-songwriters wouldn’t have scored their greatest hits, like these 10 …
I wonder how a gifted songwriter like Goldsboro feels knowing that two of his three biggest hits — “Honey,” Billboard’s number-three Hot 100 single of 1968, and 1971’s “Watching Scotty Grow”— were written by other talented tunesmiths (Bobby Russell and Mac Davis, respectively).
Oh, well. He saved the best, 1973’s “Summer (The First Time),” for himself. Goldsboro also will forever be the guy responsible for putting Brenda Lee on my map, via “The Cowgirl and the Dandy,” a song he wrote and recorded in 1977 (as “The Cowboy and the Lady”). Lee’s remake, a top-ten country hit, remains an indelible 1980 memory for me and one of the reasons I became truly hooked on music that year. I have Goldsboro to thank for it.
Yes, the man whose band, Roxy Music, is often credited, alongside David Bowie, as being the greatest inspiration for ’80s new-wave music (frequently by new-wave artists themselves), the guy who wrote (or co-wrote) “Re-Make/Re-Model,” “Virginia Plain,” “Love Is the Drug,” “More Than This,” and “Avalon” owes his biggest U.K. hit to a Beatle.
Roxy Music’s cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” topped the singles chart in the U.K. and Australia in 1981, eight years after Ferry’s debut solo album, These Foolish Things, which came out two weeks before Bowie’s Pin Ups, launched the modern covers album.
The most interesting case of a singer-songwriter scoring with a cover — covers — Parton has been on both sides of the creative exchange, a beneficiary as solely the singer and solely the author of a classic record. Though she’s written the bulk of her own material over the years, both her first and her biggest crossover pop successes — “Here You Come Again” and “Islands in the Stream,” respectively — were composed, respectively, by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Bee Gees.
One song she wrote for herself and actually took to number one on Billboard’s country singles chart twice is best known as the ballad Whitney Houston turned into one of the biggest singles of the ’90s. Yep, “I Will Always Love You.”
Once when I interviewed Parton, I happened to mention a few of my favorite ’80s singles by her: “Starting Over Again,” “But You Know I Love You,” “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You” … “Oh,” she said with a laugh. “All songs I didn’t write!” (Fun facts: “Starting Over Again” was co-written by the queen of disco, Donna Summer, while the co-author of “Old Flames” was one Patricia Rose Sebert, aka Kesha’s mom!)
Quick! Name a James Taylor hit!
You probably went with “You’ve Got a Friend,” Taylor sole number-one Hot 100 single. His 1971 signature song was actually written by Carole King, who included it on her groundbreaking ’71 album Tapestry before Taylor turned it into a pop classic. In fact, aside from “Fire and Rain,” every song the 2000 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee placed in the top 10 of Billboard’s 100 — including “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” and “Handy Man” — was written and originally recorded by someone other than Carly Simon’s ex-husband.
After decades of making fellow songwriters look — and sound — good, Taylor finally released his first covers album, titled, simply, Covers, in 2008.
“You write the beautiful songs,” Kerr’s then-wife Chrissie Hynde sang on The Pretenders’ 1987 single “My Baby.” I’ve always imagined that she wrote that line in deference to her then-husband Jim Kerr.
Those beautiful songs didn’t include his band Simple Minds’ signature hit, “Don’t You Forget About Me,” and the band’s only U.K. number one, “Belfast Child.” When Simple Minds finally topped the U.K. singles chart in 1989, it was with Ballad of the Streets, an EP that included the original “Mandela Day,” a cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Biko,” and the official A-side “Belfast Child,” an Irish folk song for which Simple Minds composed new lyrics.
Those who are familiar with this ’90s one-hit wonder only through her lone smash (1995’s number-four Hot 100 hit “One of Us,” written by Eric Bazilian of The Hooters) and her covers of vintage R&B (most notably in the 2002 Funk Brothers documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown), might not even be aware that she’s so much more than a killer voice.
Over the years, Osborne has released several covers albums, but I enjoy her most when she rocks out on her own material, particularly “Right Hand Man,” a follow-up single to “One of Us,” and her 2000 album Righteous Love.
What does Carnes have in common with Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan? She’s a singing non-one-hit wonder whom most people probably don’t recognize as a gifted songwriter. Though all three ladies wrote a number of their own hits, their greatest commercial successes as performers came with other people’s songs.
In Carnes’ case, they were Smokey Robinson’s “More Love” and Jackie DeShannon’s “Bette Davis Eyes,” her only solo top 10 pop hits and, for me, the definitive versions of both songs. When she wasn’t taking ownership of songs she didn’t write, she was composing big hits like “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer,” her top-five duet with Kenny Rogers and another pivotal part of my 1980 soundtrack, and “Make No Mistake, He’s Mine,” her 1984 duet with Barbra Streisand that later became a country chart-topper for Kenny Rogers and Ronnie Milsap.
The premiere soul balladeer of the ’80s was known for completely overhauling at least one pop or soul classic on every album. Meanwhile, he enjoyed a string of self-penned R&B and pop hits.
Despite his songwriting prowess (he won a Song of the Year Grammy in 2004 for “Dance with My Father”), the man who arranged the backing vocals on David Bowie’s “Young Americans” and co-wrote and co-produced “Jump To It,” Aretha Franklin’s first ’80s classic, went the remake route for his biggest Hot 100 hits. “Endless Love,” his 1994 number-two duet with Mariah Carey, was a 1981 number one for Diana Ross and Lionel Richie, the song’s author, and he tapped a 1968 hit by The Sandpebbles for the second-half of his second-biggest hit, 1991’s top-five “Power of Love/Love Power.”
As is the case with Osborne, those who know Harry Nilsson through his best-known work, know him all wrong. His two biggest hits as a performer — 1969’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” and 1971’s “Without You” — sound like they were sung by a completely different guy than the performer of “Coconut” and “Jump Into the Fire,” his own compositions from Nilsson Schmilsson, the 1971 album that also contained “Without You.”
In between “Everybody’s Talkin’,” written by Fred Neil and featured in the film Midnight Cowboy, and “Without You,” written by Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Tom Evans, Nilsson scored his biggest hit as a songwriter with “One,” Three Dog Night’s 1969 number-five hit.
Like Osborne, a ’90s one-hit wonder (if you don’t count her appearance on Tears for Fears’ 1989 top 40 single “Woman in Chains”) best known for singing someone else’s song (in her case, Brenda Russell’s “Get Here”), and possibly one of the finest interpretative singers by whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of being floored.
She’s also the only performer who has ever made Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” tolerable to me. Hell, she made me love it on par with how much I used to love my former adopted hometown. If you haven’t heard her version of “Evolution” (an Ivan Lins co-write) or Little Feat’s “Long Distance Love,” you’re missing out. But if you aren’t familiar with her originals (which make up roughly half of her three pop-charting albums from the ’90s), you’re missing out even more.
Little-known (or remembered) fact: The former Led Zeppelin vocalist who had a hand in writing some of the most enduring hard-rock classics of the 1970s and one of the few frontmen-turned-solo acts whose work on his own actually holds up, had his biggest Hot 100 success with The Honeydrippers. Their cover of Phil Phillips’s “Sea of Love” went to number three in 1985.
The Honeydrippers, whose other Top 40 hit, a remake of Roy Brown’s “Rockin’ at Midnight,” was basically a pop-revivalist supergroup featuring Plant, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and various other monsters of rock and soul. Twenty-four years later, Plant would win his only Album of the Year Grammy for Raising Sand, a collaboration with bluegrass musician Alison Krauss that included 13 covers, one of which was “Please Read the Letter,” a song Plant and Page co-wrote and previously recorded that won the 2009 Record of the Year Grammy. Re-make/Re-model indeed.