It takes guts to find a song you like and change it to make it your own. And it takes brains and a real feel for music to find a song you don’t like and realize it has potential if it were done differently. “Mack the Knife” is one of the great songs recycled from lesser songs. These aren’t covers, tho—they’re rearrangements and extreme rearrangements at that. A cover just remakes the song with the same arrangement and different vocalist and/or instrumentation. A rearrangement fundamentally changes the song’s rhythm, tempo, chord structure, and/or lyrics.
“Mack the Knife”
Originally written by Kurt Weil and Bertold Brecht for The Three-Penny Opera (1927), “Mack the Knife” tells the story of remorseless underworld thug Macheath Messer. The original arrangement was a wry, black-humor German-language waltz (that is, written in 3/4 time).
Jenny Towler was found
With a knife in her chest
And on the wharf walks Mack the Knife
Who knows nothing about all this
Jenny Towler ward gefunden
Mit ‘nem Messer in der Brust
Und am Kai geht Mackie Messer,
Der von allem nichts gewusst
But in the 1950s, Louis Armstrong and then Bobby Darin made the song famous by swinging it and making “Old Mackie” (courtesy of the cleaned up translation by Marc Blitzstein) seem more like a wayward youth than a killer.
From a tugboat by the river
A cement bag’s dropping down;
The cement’s just for the weight, dear.
Bet you Mackie’s back in town.
That’s okay, tho. The whole story was itself lifted from John Gay’s much earlier (1728) The Begger’s Opera, where Macheath is a Robin Hood figure. Since Darin kind of ruined it for use in productions of The Threepenny Opera, the song has been rewritten multiple times since then, making it at least as gruesome as the original.
Aretha Franklin’s 1967 anthem to the liberated woman started as Otis Redding’s 1965 simple plea for peace after a hard day’s work. The arrangement is only subtly different, but the lyrics and feel—and subsequently the meaning—are completely different.
What you want
Honey you got it
What you want
Baby, I got it
She turns all his lyrics around on him, almost in answer, but—perhaps without even realizing it (she seemed shocked by the notion in a 60 Minutes interview decades later)—the words “I’m about to give you all my money” take on a whole other meaning sung from the female point of view. And the next lines—where he merely repeats his intention to give her money because she’s sweet as honey—she implies a whole different sort of financial transaction.
Ooo, your kisses
Sweeter than honey
And guess what?
So is my money
All I want you to do for me
Is give it to me when you get home
And only her version has the lyric:
sock it to me, sock it to me,
sock it to me, sock it to me
Written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd (sic, 1965), “Feeling Good” was a break song for a character who had found love.
Birds flying high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life for me
Nina Simone quickly rearranged the song into an anthem of self-empowerment, with a slow grind and blues vocals that would have made Anthony Newley blush. She changed the last line of the refrain to “And I’m feelin’ good” and put a grungy horn section behind her, and that made all the difference. Every version since hers—and there have been many—have used her arrangement.
The definitive version by Fats Domino wasn’t recorded until 1956, but “Blueberry Hill” was written as a country tune in 1940 for the film The Singing Hill, in which it was performed by none other than Gene Autry. But several covers were immediately produced in swing form by the likes of Glenn Miller and Kay Kyser. Louis Armstrong even did a version in 1949 with different lyrics.
But, even without a lyric change, it was Domino’s trembling blues piano and full voice that made his version the definitive one—and so gratifyingly different from the Singing Cowboy’s. One has to know that the thrill Fats found was not the same one Gene found.
“It’s Now or Never”
Written first as—I kid you not—“‘O Sole Mio” (“My Sun”) by Eduardo di Capua in 1898, the song was an Italian paean to the sun as symbol of a young man’s love (or possibly vice versa, it’s hard to tell with Italians). It was recorded by many opera singers and even some pop singers in operatic style.
But another sun,
that’s brighter still
It’s my own sun
that’s upon your face!
The sun, my own sun
It’s upon your face!
It’s upon your face!
Ma n’atu sole,
cchiù bello, oje ne’
‘O sole mio
sta ‘nfronte a te!
‘O sole, ‘o sole mio
sta ‘nfronte a te!
sta ‘nfronte a te!
A 1949 version by Tony Martin (also recorded by Dean Martin) was called “There’s No Tomorrow” and urged the singer’s best gal to put out, regardless of the consequences.
There’s no tomorrow
When love is new
Now is forever
When love is true
So kiss me and hold me tight
There’s no tomorrow
There’s just tonight
Inspired by the 1949 version, Elvis Presley had new lyrics written by Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold in 1960 and called it “It’s Now or Never.” The new song cast the singer as an an even more impatient loverboy, but now with the plea that “tomorrow will be too late” rather than assuring the girl that it would never arrive at all.
It’s now or never,
come hold me tight
Kiss me my darling,
be mine tonight
Tomorrow will be too late,
it’s now or never
My love won’t wait.
Of course, Elvis didn’t start his redos of rearrangements with “It’s Now or Never.” An early big hit and one of the more important songs of rock and roll was a rearrangement of Freddie Bell and the Bellboy’s 1955 song “Hound Dog.”
You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog
Cryin’ all the time.
Well, you ain’t never caught a rabbit
And you ain’t no friend of mine.
But Bell’s version was a rewritten rearrangement of Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” from 1953, written by great blues writers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. Big Mama sang the blues, and “Hound Dog” was a shifting, grinding invective against skirt-chasing men…. men a lot like Elvis Presley, actually.
You ain’t nothing but a hound dog
Been snoopin’ ’round the door
You can wag your tail
But I ain’t gonna feed you no more
In 1956, Elvis asked Bell’s permission to record his version and then recharacterized the song as an even more upbeat, frenetic, rockabilly shout-out than Bell’s—and one that one imagines could only have been delivered into a mirror. Who else could he be talking to?
“Hound Dog” will have to stand for all the blues songs converted to rock and roll by Elvis, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, and others, including “That’s All Right,” “Backdoor Man,” “You Shook Me,” “Crossroads Blues,” and many more.
UPDATE: Bonus—“Blinded by the Light”
I completely forgot one of the greatest rearrangements of all. A young Bruce Springsteen wrote what perhaps he meant to be a psychedelic journey and recorded it for his debut album in 1973 as an awful bluesy jumble whose most meaningful lyrics seem to concern a young man and the pretty girl he meets at a carnival, the chorus refering to a moment of indiscretion under the flashing carnival lights. But then the song’s hero meanders into a recording contract, trouble with the police, and a motorcycle trip thru Zanzibar, and each person he meets is subsequently blinded by a light, which is—as the man says—where the fun is.
Manfred Mann (and his Earth Band) picked up the song in 1976 and left the most ridiculous lyrics and the most sensible lyrics on the floor and evened out the stumbling-drunk meter. Their version disposes of any continuity and just rambles thru the verses as a kind of vocal exercise. But it is vastly more melodic and went straight to #1.
For the record, Manfred Mann’s chorus (slightly different from the Boss’s) goes:
And she was blinded by the light
Revved up like a deuce another runner in the night
Blinded by the light
She got down but she never got tight
She’s gonna make it through the night
Sometimes, just a change in instrumentation or performance makes all the difference in a song. Here are some songs that are similar to the originals, and yet very superior.
“The Star-Spangled Banner”—The tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written as an anthem called “The Anacreontic Song,” an English gentlemen’s club song celebrating the pleasures of alcoholic beverages, with the same arrangement.
To Anacreon in heaven where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent a petition,
Francis Scott Key probably had the popular tune in his head when he composed his poem in 1814, because the meter fits it better than the original lyrics. Reusing old tunes with new lyrics was a tradition in the British Isles.
“Unchained Melody”—Ever wonder why The Righteous Brothers’ great ballad has that odd name? The song was originally written by Alex North and lyrics by Hy Zaret as the theme song for the 1955 prison film Unchained. It was covered by various artists in the 1950s and early 60s. But Phil Spector got Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield to sing his own version in 1965, and it has remained the definitive version.
“Hallelujah”—Leonard Cohen’s 1984, aching, slightly-confused exploration of hope and disillusionment has been recorded by many, but almost always with the same quiet arrangement, altho the lyrics change because Cohen recorded a variety of them. It has appeared in many movies and TV shows in which someone ends up very, very sad or dead. John Cale’s throaty 1994 piano version is probably the best known (it was in Shrek), but Jeff Buckley’s reedy 1991 guitar version and Rufus Wainwright’s nasally 2001 piano version (it’s on the Shrek soundtrack) are also well known.
“Tainted Love”—Gloria Jones’s 1964 strained and frightened original (by Ed Cobb) pales in comparison to Soft Cell’s 1981 nearly identical arrangement infused with desire and genuine fear. Gloria’s guy is a heel; Soft Cell’s girl is a psycho.
“Kiss”—This was written and recorded by Prince in 1986 after taking it back from funk band Mazerati when he heard their take on it. His “Kiss” is a strange, mumbled falsetto ditty with a weird video (except for Wendy Melvoin’s priceless “dude, I’m a lesbian” fright take). The song was borrowed in 1988 by avant garde mix group The Art of Noise with Tom Jones providing the vocal, rearranged somewhat into a playful seduction that became more popular, partly for Jones’s tongue-in-cheek performance in the video.
“Nothing Compares 2 U”—Prince’s ode to girlfriend Susannah Melvoin (Wendy’s less-gay sister), written for The Family in 1985 was picked up by Sinead O’Connor in 1990 and turned into a powerhouse of personal grief and determination to move on (in her case, with regard to her mother), not to mention one of the simplest and most compelling music videos ever.
“Love Hurts”—The Everly Brothers recorded this blues lament by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant in 1960 and performed it with their typical lush harmony. But in 1975 Nazareth slowed it down a little and added a solo vocal infused with pure agony that disguised some of the sillier lyrics.
…To take a lot of pain
Take a lot of pain
Love is like a cloud
Holds a lot of rain
“After Midnight”—Written by JJ Cale in 1966, whose own matter-of-fact, moderately-paced, country blues version went nowhere, “After Midnight” was picked up by Eric Clapton, who did a a fast-paced and upbeat country rock version in 1970 that was, for a long time, the definitive one. Then in 1985, Clapton was persuaded to provide a version for a Michelob beer commercial and topped himself. The new version was slowed down again, but even more than Cale’s, and made harder and spoiling for a fight.
“Layla”—Clapton also gets a mention for rearranging his own rock anthem “Layla” into a pure and simple blues lament for his Unplugged performance. In great style, Clapton begins by challenging: “See if you can spot this one,” and the audience responds with the applause of false recognition. Then a few bars in, when the lyrics begin, they’re forced to applaud again when they finally really do recognize his signature song. Is it greater than the original? No. But it’s great.