When Joe Cocker burst on the music scene in the late sixties, few ever wondered how this English singer would carve out a successful career as a cover artist. With his bluesy cover version of a Beatles signature tune, Joe served notice that his voice would be delighting fans for decades to come, and mostly with other cover songs. Music lovers hardly cared that these offerings were from other artists’ original material, because Joe Cocker’s voice and unique performance style allowed him take a well-known piece and make it entirely his own. Cocker would go on to a fruitful and lengthy career, carrying on the tradition of superstars like Frank Sinatra before him, as an interpretive voice. In fact, after hearing what he described as a version of his song having more soul, Paul McCartney thanked Joe personally for his rendition of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. All of the Beatles members were delighted to allow Cocker to cover two more songs from their ‘Abbey Road’ record for his own second album. Pouring his heart and soul into every performance, Joe brought fresh resonance to every piece he covered.
Success in covering previously recorded music is hardly a new phenomenon, or unique to only ‘the Golden Age’ of Rock and Roll. Opera houses and concert halls the world over have been hosting sellout crowds by showcasing what are essentially cover bands, for hundreds of years. Our parents and grandparents would dress up on Saturday evenings to witness the latest interpretation of their favourite songwriters; composers that produced iconic symphonies and operas. How different is that really from today’s cover band? Gifted musicians still come together to recreate our favourite artists’ greatest work.
Whether expressed as an altogether unique and creative rearrangement, or as a note by note homage to a classic work, cover musicians keep the heart of our musical past pumping well beyond it’s time of creation. For many of us, it’s the only opportunity we’ll ever have to hear this music in a live setting. We will never know what it was like to see Mozart or any of the great classical geniuses perform their masterpieces for a live audience. We continue to enjoy them however, through the artistry of great musicians.
Think what our descendants a hundred years on or more, will experience when they listen to gifted artists performing the music of our day. The truly great work will always survive that span. Granted, not every cover performance stands up to original quality, but when a band really nails someone’s previous work, what an exhilarating experience that is for the listener. When they have faithfully recreated a classic artist, or they’ve brought a fresh perspective to an old tune, cover musicians deserve our admiration and support. The creative process depends on the recognition of what precedes it, and many times imitation is a necessary ingredient.
The next time someone suggests to you that cover bands are just riding the coat tails of established musicians, remind them that almost every large city around the world has an orchestra that does exactly the same thing; they cover great music. Paintings and sculptures hang in purpose built galleries for posterity. Symphony halls are erected to honour the maestros from our history. So too should settings exist that house the music of our more recent past. Today they are mostly clubs and bars, but they perpetuate a time honoured tradition; telling the stories weaved from human creativity. Cover artists remind us of past great achievements, and propel us to set new heights.
Long live the re-presenters of our rich musical heritage, and may generations continue to benefit from the experience.