In the US the Copyright Act of 1909 gave artists the right to cover other people’s songs provided appropriate dues were paid and credit given to the song writer and publishers. Under the Act composers could not deny anyone a mechanical license for a cover version but did have the right to decide who would release the first recording of a song. Since song writers wanted to give their works the best launch possible then preference was given to more established artists as the principle performer. In the event of a cover version outselling the original neither the principle artist nor their record company were compensated. Popularity of recorded songs was once measured by the sales success of the published tune and not just the recordings. Later when airplay became a factor the greater the number of cover versions defined the true success of the song. It was common place in the record business music for rival companies to record their version of already successful songs in the hope of cashing in on the tune's success. In the absence of major promotion or advertising record buyers frequently bought the tune and not necessarily sung by the principle artist. In this sense cover versions are defined as a new rendition (performance or recording) of a previously recorded and commercially released song. By implication cover versions inferred the original rendition were considered the definitive interpretation of the song.
In simpler times when distribution was very slow it was common practice for local record companies to rush release cover versions by lesser known acts in order to compete with the original version. This was marked in places like the UK and Australia where the US record company had already released the single in the States but due to distribution delay was unable to simultaneously release the works in other countries. It would also happen in reverse but prior to the English Invasion this was rather the exception. Local talent and smaller record companies took full advantage of the situation and regularly covered hit songs with many artists building successful careers as a result. Early examples in the UK were: Teddy Johnson with his UK hit “Tennessee Waltz.” (1951) which had previously been recorded by Roy Acuff then later popularized by Patti Page and by Les Paul and Mary Ford in 1950; and Jimmy Young with Too Young (1951) which was simultaneously a US hit for Nat King Cole.
Often cover versions would compete for chart position with the originals and it was not uncommon to have the same song by different artists in the charts at the same time. In 1952 this happened with “Tell me why “ with versions by Four Aces and Eddie Fisher in the US Top Five. Later the same year, Eddie Fisher vied with Don Cornell with “I’m yours” in the US Top Five.
Until the mid fifties people listened to their favorite artists either playing live or via the radio. Gradually as the average age of record buyers dropped then kids became more insistent they bought the tune played by their favorite artist. This trend was reinforced with the introduction of record sale charts (Hit Parades). Radio stations stratified popular music into different genres to according to their listening demographic e.g. pop, classic, jazz, r&b and country and western. It was rare for an artist to reach a mass audience and hence different versions of the same song would often appear. In many cases the same record company would release these and promote them through paid for ‘air time’ on commercial stations. Instrumental versions of popular songs were common as the cross cover version where female artists would record songs previously recorded by male artists or visa versa. For example ‘I wanna be loved’ was recorded both by the Andrews Sisters and Billy Eckstine who both enjoyed hits in 1950.
Reworking non-English language tunes and lyrics also became a lucrative source for cross over hits such The Happy Wanderer in 1954.
Gradually record producers realised the attraction of recording successful songs from ‘race music’ for ostensibly ‘white’ pop consumption. Systematically successful R&B songs were re-recorded by white male artists like Pat Boone and soon attracted large sales. Pat Boone’s versions of Fats Domino’s “Aint that a shame” and Little Richard’s “Tootie Fruitie” among many others outsold the originals but inevitably the mainstream audience wanted to buy and listen to the original versions.
This was actively encouraged by DJs such as Alan Freed and Dick Clark and when combined with increased availability of personal record players, portable radios (transistors) and television this meant greater freedoms for white kids in the US. Artists like Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry responded by producing more complex vocals and rhythms all of which added to the rich mix of new wave R&B music. At the same time cross over cover versions from country music had ensured the basis for Rockabilly and together these forged Rock’n’Roll.
By the sixties there were more one hit wonders and if they made an album it was often fleshed out with cover versions. The vast majority of which were standards in the style of the particular artist such as Acker Bilk who had a major hit with the instrumental Stranger on the Shore. His subsequent albums would contain his version of particular favourite well known songs.
When the sixties beat groups emerged there was a dearth of songwriters in the idiom which meant performers played a stable fare of old rock’n’roll and r&b standards. This included bands like The Beatles who would inevitably include their cover versions of old standards like “Chains,” “Words of Love” and “Matchbox” on their earlier albums.
At the same time there was a fertile blues revival in the UK with groups like the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Them and Pretty Things among many others dedicated to the music of R&B from Chicago and the Delta Basin. As part of meterioric rise of the English Invasion the white boy blues bands reinterpreted the original works of T B Walker, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters etc meant their cover versions introduced a completely new generation to blues music. The knock on effect to US garage bands like the Doors et al ensured their early success as well as relaunching the forgotten originals.
In the UK from 1954 until 1965 Embassy Records legally made cover (tribute) versions of contemporary pop hits. This were produced and manufactured by Oriole Records and sold through F.W. Woolworth & Co.Ltd. Each single contained two hit songs from the hit parade and their long playing albums (33 rpm) had between ten to twenty tracks. Professional session musicians were engaged to replicate the original songs and the product was offered as a cheaper alternative to the full price recording by the original artists. Many well known musicians worked on Embassy recordings usually under nom de plumes. One popular singer who went onto make his own hits was Tony Christie [I did what I did for Marie (1971) and Is this the way to Amarillo? (1971)]. Embassy cover versions sold in their millions.
The popularity of the composers like Lennon and McCartney and Bob Dylan etc meant there was a plethora of cover versions throughout the sixities and beyond. Occasionally new interpretations would however stand so apart from the original versions and make them definitive. “With a little help from my friends’ by Joe Cocker for example is considered to be better than the original Beatles recording.
Some cover versions had such radically different styles it meant the songs were almost unrecognisable. Joe Feliciano’s version of The Door Light my Fire; or Melanie’s version of the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday is but two examples.
Although artists do continue to reinterpret previously recorded material to popular acclaim the onset of TV adverts and movie scores with a retro flavour have seen many old songs renewed. Indeed some artist like David Bowie, Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart have reinterpreted their own works and re-recorded them. A good example of this is the popular Unplugged series which present acoustic versions of the original recordings. Paul McCartney has even reinterpreted the original mix of Let it be (produced by Phil Sectre) by reproducing it in the album ‘Naked.”
As copyrights are beginning to run out on many of the earlier music of the 50s and 60s and companies are releasing bargain basement CDs many are re-recorded (cover versions). These may not always involve the original artists either because they are unavailable, dead or no longer performing. Whilst there is no intention to deceive uninformed consumers might easily confuse them with the original recordings.