Monday, October 22, 2007

Obscure Originals, Vol. 1

This is the first installment in a series. Here, we’ll take a look at songs that are best known by artists who didn’t record them originally. You might be surprised to learn how many songs fall into that category, so let’s start with just a few examples. But first, a fair warning: the stories presented herein are not meant to be exhaustive or unbiased!

Song: “Louie, Louie”

Best known by: The Kingsmen
Originally recorded by: Richard Berry & the Pharaohs
The story: The short version is as follows. Richard Berry appropriated the riff from a Latin dance tune called “El Loco Cha Cha” and turned it into “Louie, Louie.” Berry’s 1957 recording, done in an R&B doo-wop style with some calypso influences, made some local noise in his stomping ground of Southern California. The song made its way to the Northwest via R&B hitmaker Ron Holden, who wowed audiences with his live rendition. Tacoma-based singer Rockin’ Robin Roberts teamed up with pioneering Northwest rockers The Wailers to record a proto-garage rock version which became a huge regional hit in 1961. The song was now a Northwest standard, and in 1963, Portland’s Kingsmen made a poor attempt to copy The Wailers’ version. Despite being in direct competition with a more accomplished take by another Portland-based band (Paul Revere & the Raiders!), The Kingsmen’s version became THE “Louie, Louie.” The full story is best told in the music and liner notes of the fantastic CD Love That Louie: The Louie Louie Files (Ace Records). Incidentally, “Louie, Louie” is an innocent love song about a lonely Jamaican sailor; the allegations of pornographic lyrical content stemmed from the raunchy sound of The Kingsmen’s version, in which Jack Ely’s indiscernible babbling raised a few too many eyebrows.

Song: “You’re No Good”
Best known by: Linda Ronstadt
Originally recorded by: Dee Dee Warwick
The story: Another one with a complex history. Written by prolific songwriter Clint Ballard, Jr., the original version by a nose belonged to Dionne Warwick’s younger sister Dee Dee. Her 1963 recording was done in a bombastic heavy soul style, and there was another soul version on the market that same year. Betty Everett’s sleek, sophisticated reading of the song charted towards the end of 1963, eventually reaching the middle of Billboard’s Hot 100; Billboard had temporarily discontinued its R&B chart at the time, but some sources show Everett’s version making the Top 10 on R&B charts published by other organizations. At any rate, it peaked on the charts in early ’64, during the start of the British Invasion, and indeed the British beat boom brought yet another version. The Swinging Blue Jeans’ moody Merseybeat take on this tune made the UK Top 3 but just barely charted in the US in 1964. Linda Ronstadt's flamboyant 1974 reimagination (produced by Peter Asher of British Invasion duo Peter & Gordon) became a #1 pop hit the following year, establishing her as one of the hottest singers of the 1970s.

[Note: If you’re looking for The Swinging Blue Jeans’ version on iTunes or Napster, forget about it; you’ll only find re-recordings. You’ll have to seek out the old vinyl or locate the 1964 recording on CD—if you’re fortunate enough to get your hands on EMI’s fascinating UK release Beat at Abbey Road 1963 to 1965, so much the better.]

Song: “Respect”
Best known by: Aretha Franklin
Originally recorded by: Otis Redding
The story: Otis Redding wrote this song. His pounding, insistent 1965 recording was pure Memphis soul, and the lyrics portrayed a man who was willing to take a lot of abuse from his woman (“Do me wrong, honey, if you wanna/You can do me wrong, honey, while I’m gone”) but he had his limits: “All I’m asking is for a little respect when I come home.” It was a Top 5 R&B hit and it also made the pop Top 40. Interestingly, the song began attracting covers from white garage rock bands. The Rationals, based in Ann Arbor, had a regional hit with their minimalistic reading in 1966, while New York City’s Vagrants almost made the charts with the tune in 1967—until Aretha’s version shut them down. As she usually did with covers, Aretha altered the song almost beyond recognition: instead of “You can do me wrong, honey, while I’m gone,” she sang, “I ain’t gonna do you wrong while you’re gone.” Instead of “What you want, honey you got it,” she sang, “What you want, baby I got it.” Instead of “You’re sweeter than honey/And I’m about to give you all of my money,” she sang, “Your kiss is sweeter than honey/And guess what? So is my money!” Here, she managed to refashion “Respect” into a feminist anthem, and the addition of the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” bit at the end was so ingenious that Otis Redding began to sing it himself when he did the song live.

Song: “Got My Mind Set On You”
Best known by: George Harrison
Originally recorded by: James Ray (as “I’ve Got My Mind Set On You”)
The story: James Ray was homeless when a record mogul discovered him. He went on to have a couple of hits and then he died shortly afterwards of a drug overdose. Now, that’s a rock ‘n’ roll story if ever there was one! But James Ray was actually a soulful R&B singer who had the questionable luck of getting paired with the eccentric arranger Hutch Davie. On Ray’s biggest hit “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody,” Davie’s bizarre arrangement made the record that much more enjoyable. On “I’ve Got My Mind Set On You”...not so much. Both songs were written by Rudy Clark, and though a brief edit of “Mind” was issued as a single in 1962, George Harrison heard the gloriously awful two-part mix included on James Ray’s self-titled LP. Oh, Ray sang the song just fine, but that arrangement! The drumming veered from Latin to jazz to rock ‘n’ roll and back to Latin again. Misplaced big-band horns and a Vaudeville banjo drove the track. Part 2 had Ray doing vocal battle with a screechy, histrionic chorus. To be fair, Clark must take some of the blame, as the song originally included a deviant passage with the lyrics, “Everywhere I go, you know, bad luck follows me/Every time I fall in love, you know I’m left in misery”—kind of a downer considering the upbeat nature of the rest of the piece. Thankfully, George’s 1987 revival was based on how The Quiet Beatle heard the song in his head. While James Ray’s version was a bona fide flop, George’s version was a #1 hit. Speaking of The Beatles...

Song: “Twist and Shout”
Best known by: The Beatles
Originally recorded by: The Top Notes
The story: New York music biz hustler Bert Berns co-wrote this song, originally cut by an obscure R&B group called The Top Notes in 1961. Producer Phil Spector and arranger Teddy Randazzo were two of the geniuses of American popular music, but somehow they didn’t get this one right. The Top Notes’ version wasn’t bad, but it didn’t sound anything like, well, “Twist and Shout.” Upon hearing it, Bert Berns is believed to have said to Spector, “Phil, you fucked up my song!” The secret to this song’s success seems to be simple: cut it in a hurry at the tail end of a session. The Isley Brothers did just that (with none other than Berns producing), and their endearingly sloppy treatment hit the pop Top 20 and nearly topped Billboard’s R&B chart in 1962. But The Beatles’ rendition—cut at the end of a day-long recording marathon for their first album in 1963—eclipsed the Isley’s version upon its release as a US single amidst the Beatlemania of 1964.

Song: “Mandy”
Best known by: Barry Manilow
Originally recorded by: Scott English (as “Brandy”)
The story: Scott English was a successful and prolific American songwriter who had also enjoyed a regional hit as a singer in 1964 with the haunting, doo-wop flavored “High On A Hill.” He was based in England when he co-wrote and recorded a dopey-but-irresistible love song called “Brandy” in 1971. The light and airy arrangement was pleasant enough, but English’s vocal sounded like a drunken Randy Newman attempting to impersonate Gene Pitney while choking on his own vomit. In the United States, the record crawled into the bottom of the charts and quickly departed; however, British audiences welcomed it into their Top 20. Its hit status in the UK is probably what prompted Clive Davis to suggest that the then-hitless Manilow cover it in 1974. Manilow wasn’t terribly keen, but after some trial and error he adapted it to suit his style, slowing it down, cranking up the melodrama, and cutting out the rather silly coupling “Riding on a country bus/No one even noticed us.” Since Looking Glass had recently scored with a totally different song called “Brandy,” Manilow changed the title to “Mandy.” His sweet, wistful voice certainly fit the sad lyrics, and his recording became a #1 hit in the US, making Barry Manilow a household name once and for all. But wait—there’s more! In between English’s original and Manilow’s remake, there was an engaging cover by New Zealander Bunny Walters (a male singer, by the way). Walters’ version was based on English’s and was also titled “Brandy,” and it reigned supreme on the New Zealand hit lists in 1972. Since most New Zealanders were unaware of English’s original, they assumed that Walters wrote the song and that Manilow stole it from Walters!

[Note: Barry Manilow’s box set The Complete Collection…And Then Some includes a monaural excerpt of Scott English’s “Brandy”—the most you’ll find on iTunes, but Napster has the full Scott English track in stereo. Bunny Walters’ version can be streamed at this website; just click on Walters’ picture. Also worth noting is that this song is NOT about a dog, as rumored. See this webpage for more details.]

Song: “Can’t Get Enough Of You, Baby”
Best known by: Smash Mouth
Originally recorded by: The Toys
The story: Record producer, songwriter, arranger, recording artist, mogul—Bob Crewe did it all. Two writers in his cadre, Denny Randell and Sandy Linzer, came up with a catchy little pop ditty with Motown influences and called it “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby.” Girl group The Toys (of “A Lover’s Concerto” fame) cut the tune in 1965 in a New York-meets-Detroit pop/soul style, and The 4 Seasons recorded a similar version later that year. However, punk pioneers ? & the Mysterians gave the song a fresh coat of paint in 1967. The hypnotic alternating organ chords and riffs of their breakthrough hit “96 Tears” still loomed large, and they tried to recapture some of the magic by doing “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby” with a “96 Tears” feel. This entailed changing the chord sequence, altering the melody, and removing a number of the lyrics just to make the new arrangement work! But it hit the charts, peaking at #56 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Smash Mouth recreated The Mysterians’ arrangement with a ‘90s flair; their version hit #27 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Airplay chart in 1998.

[Note: If you’re looking for ? & the Mysterians’ version, be sure to get the one on ABKCO’s Cameo Parkway 1957-1967, as other versions floating around are either incomplete or latter-day re-recordings.]

More coming soon…meanwhile, check out The Originals Project. Not perfect, but getting better all the time:

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.


  1. i would just like to say that i thought the scott english version of 'brandy' was wonderful. he had a fab sound and hearing it evokes memories of being 17. manilow's version was embarassing.

  2. This is my first time visit at here and i am genuinely
    impressed to read everthing at single place.

    my web page; reputation management for individuals

  3. Keep on writіng, grеat job!

    Alsο ѵisіt my site - link building service

  4. Hi, this ωеekend is fastidіous in
    favor of me, sincе thiѕ ρoіnt in timе і аm readіng this іmprеsѕive educational pаragraph heге аt my home.

    Heгe is my web blоg; reputation management


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.