A cover version (or cover) is a new rendition (performance or recording) of a recently recorded song. A re-record by comparison takes place long after the original was released. The term "cover version" came to imply rival commercial recordings of the tune aimed at different tastes. Back in the in the 19th century when popular tunes were only available as sheet music, publishers encouraged a variety of artists with song sheet material in the hope they would publicaly perform the works. To gain the greatest public exposure many versions of popular songs and instrumentals were performed. In the absence of radio and the recording industry, people usually heard the works performed at live performances and so many artists simultaneously used the same material as their own.
This all changed with the introduction of radio and recording and when it became apparent the public preferred one artist’s rendition over another, this led in the early fifties to commercial lists of best selling records i.e. hit parade or pop chart. For financial reasons many smaller phonographic companies could not fund innovative artists and would deliberately cover records that had significant commercial success, elsewhere. This led to localized hits and many popular artists in the fifties in the US started their careers this way. The way records were distributed was localized and a quickly recorded version of a hit song from another country or region could reach a local audience long before the original artist(s) was widely available. This was particularly evident in the UK and Australia where local artists would “cover" a "hit tune,” from the USA. Recently Chubby Checker commented on the lack of his commercial success in Australia, was due to the popularity of Johnnie O’Keefe’s cover versions of his hits.
Until the fifties most recorded music was heard via radio and juke boxes. Radio programs catered for wide audiences with conservative tastes and legal restrictions on broadcasting coupled with sponsored needle time, meant certain artists (and their versions of music) were only promoted. The introduction of rock’n’roll in the fifties was in actuality the introduction of Black music to popular white culture. This was seen by many as an affront and to pacify white audiences many originals works were re-recorded by other artists with a more toned-down style. Pat Boone for example covered Fat’s Domino’s “Ain’t that a shame” (1957) and the song went to number one in the charts. Pat Boone’s version outsold the original by thousands of copies.
Arguably Fats Domino’s version is superior but at the time black music in the US had limited radio outlets. Commercial radio stations were prevented from playing formats outside their own target audience group's taste because it would be financial suicide in a highly competitive industry. In this way popular cover versions were a compromise considered more palatable for the mass audience of both parents and children.
The basis for the English Invasion of the early sixties was cover versions of American artists' work. Distribution of recorded materials was slower then making it possible for English artists to rush release cover versions in a race to outsell the original. Gradually however record producers like Mickie Most and others reworked the songs to not only echo the originals but indeed improve on them thereby increasing the appeal to a wider audience.
As the 60s progressed there was a greater acceptance of musical styles boasted mainly by availability of record players, niche, radio stations and discotheques. Improved record distribution and greater media exposure for acts reduced the financial advantage in simply duplicating other artist’s work. Instead covers often became radically different from the original style, which could at times be almost indistinguishable from the original. Good examples of this include: Jose Feliciano's version of the Door’s "Light My Fire"; Joe Cocker’s version of the Beatles’ “With a little help from my friends,” and Whitney Houston’s version of Dolly Parton’s “I will always love you. “
More and more original artists publically acknowledge a cover was better than their original. Bob Dylan was knocked out by Manfred Man’s rendition of Quinn the Eskimo, and Paul Anka writer of My Way, felt Sid Vicious’s punk version was the business.
Worth a listen:
Pat Boone and Fat’s Domino’s versions of “Ain’t that a shame.”
The Doors and Jose Feliciano's versions of “Light My Fire.”
The Beatles and Joe Cocker’s versions of “With a little help from my friends.”
Sutherland Brothers (and Quiver) and Rod Stewart’s version of “Sailing.”
Chubby Checker and Fat Boys (with Chubby Checker) versions of “Lets do the twist.”
Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston’s versions of “I will always love you.“
Frank Sinatra and Sid Vicious’s versions of “My Way.”
Prince and Tom Jones versions of "Kiss."