Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Playlist: White singers, black songs

To the degree that Black America and White America have always been two different worlds, music is one big beautiful bridge between them.

On my Vox audio stash I’m streaming songs by black songwriters, as interpreted by white female vocalists. Next week I’ll flip it: black singers, white songs.

Click the song titles below to spin the tunes. Then let me know some of your personal favorite white-singer/black-song combinations.

1. “A Change Is Gonna Come” – The Gits

Only in recent months have I discovered the music of the Gits, a Seattle punk-rock band, after reading about the rape and murder of lead singer Mia Zapata (pictured above) in 1993.

Zapata gives a hard, passionate performance of Sam Cooke’s inspirational ballad. The passion was hard for me to handle at first (not to mention lyrics like “It’s been too hard livin’ but I’m afraid to die”), knowing how her life was taken.

From the 2003 re-issue of the band’s 1994 album “Enter: The Conquering Chicken.” Available on eMusic and iTunes.

2. “Baby, I Need Your Loving” – Phoebe Snow

You can imagine how well-suited this Holland-Dozier-Holland masterpiece would be to a slowed-down, emotion-drenched reading by Phoebe Snow. Simply lovely. From her 2003 CD “Natural Wonder.” Available on eMusic and iTunes.

3. “All Blues” – Ann Hampton Callaway

The late, great Oscar Brown, Jr., added lyrics to this Miles Davis compostition. Cabaret singer Callaway knocked it out the box on her 1997 CD “After Ours.” Available on iTunes.

4. “Pastime Paradise” – Patti Smith

Ms. Smith brings a touch of melodrama to this Stevie Wonder tune, from her recently released album of rock and pop covers, “Twelve.” (Makes me feel old to realize that Stevie wrote this more than 30 years ago.) Available on iTunes.

5. “I’m So Proud/Dedicated to the One I Love” – Laura Nyro

I love Laura Nyro’s singing. She always had so much soul. This is a live-concert two-fer, just Laura and her piano, blending one of Curtis Mayfield’s sweetest songs and a girl-group classic originally co-written by Lowman Pauling of the “5” Royales.

From the CD “Live from Mountain Stage,” recorded in 1990 but not released until 2000, several years after Ms. Nyro’s death. Available on eMusic and iTunes.


DeAngelo Starnes said...

The history of rock and roll was built on white singers covering black tunes - with the white singers becoming stars and making all the money. But a good cover is a good cover. My personal favorite is the Average White Band's cover of If I Ever Lose This Heaven. One of those that equalled, and some ways, surpassed the original.

The art of covering has really been lost since the Disco Era. There was a time when an artist covered their favorite songs and made it into a whole different cut. Check Jimi's Hey Joe or the Isleys Summer Breeze. Billy Paul's Me and Mrs. Jones was baad but the Dramatics culled a hit from the same material a couple of years later. You hear a cover now and screech, "Why did they bother?"
Lauryn Hill's cover of Killin' Me Softly comes to mind. Saw her and Roberta perform a duet. Roberta had to conform her voice to get in tune - and it was her cut!

Anonymous said...

I've always liked another one that Laura Nyro did, "Jimmy Mack". I also enjoyed the way Joan Osborne sang "What becomes of the brokenhearted" in the "Standing in the shadows of Motown" movie.

Two that I absolutely can't stand are the Rolling Stones' renditions of "My girl" and "Ain't too proud to beg".

bill said...

Does the Commitments soundtrack count?

And Sinead O'Connor was pretty good with Prince's Nothing Compares 2U.

Anonymous said...

Great topic, UBM! Not long ago I happened upon a cover of Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody" by The Gossip. It's a'ight.

There was a time when an artist covered their favorite songs and made it into a whole different cut.

I agree. How 'bout Luther Vandross's cover of the Carpenter's "Superstar!"

Undercover Black Man said...

DeAngelo: The Isley's "Summer Breeze" is one of the best covers ever. In this category of making it a whole different cut: Al Green's "How Do You Mend a Broken Heart."

Anonymous said...

I love "Summer Breeze". I have the Seals & Crofts version on my mp3 player. Had the Isley's version as well, but deleted the playlist. I must've let that song loop for days; Ronnie Isley sings the stew out of it!

Re: "White singers, black songs" I like the Red Hot Chili Peppers cover of "Higher Ground." (I think they covered "Love Rollercoaster" too.)

Anonymous said...

Forgot to mention The Pretenders' cover of the Persuaders' "Thin Line Between Love and Hate."

Eric said...

It may be a little obvious, but I do love the Rolling Stones' version of "Love in Vain."

Anonymous said...

You had me at hello with this topic.

One of my favorite renditions (not really a cover per se) of “Amazing Grace” is by the Blind Boys of Alabama. The group set the lyrics to the tune of the “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals. To me, it’s extremely affecting.

A cover that I absolutely love is Vanilla Fudge’s reworking of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by the Supremes (recently featured in the Sopranos finale). I actually prefer it to the original: It seems more soulful and has this undercurrent of desperation and foreboding that is absent from the Supremes reading.

I’ll also give honorable mentions to Maxwell’s cover of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” and Alicia Keys’ cover (featuring Adam Levine) of “Wild Horses” from her MTV Unplugged special.

One of the more interesting covers of recent memory for me was Tori Amos’ reimagining of Eminem’s “Bonnie & Clyde ’97,” the rapper’s lurid serio-comic fantasy about murdering his ex-wife, her new boyfriend, and her stepson, and enlisting his young daughter as an accomplice in the disposal of their bodies.

Tori adds moody orchestral backing music and atmospheric sound effects and “raps” Em’s lyrics from the perspective of the dying woman in the trunk. It’s visceral and cinematic and gives me goose bumps when I listen to it.

I went back and listened to Eminem’s version only after I heard Tori’s cover. Her cover is light years beyond the original. I know this doesn’t exactly fit the cross-racial theme, but I figured that Em’s kind of considered an “honorary brother” given his affinity for hip-hop music and culture and his street-cred as an MC. Right…? Anyone…? "crickets"

Anonymous said...

George Thorogood's rendition of Bo Diddely's "Who do you love..." I especially like how Thorogood salutes Bo with a mid verse ..." Good timin' music with the Bo Diddely beat..."

Jimi Hendrix doing Bob Dylan's "All along the watchtower". Best version, very definitive.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of blacks covering white tunes, one of my favorites is Aretha Franklin's version of "96 Tears". I played it for my wife and she didn't recognize the song until the chorus. That's how much Aretha makes it her own.

It's on the album "Aretha Arrives".

bill said...

Next week I’ll flip it: black singers, white songs.

Don't forget Stevie Wonder singing Tennesse Ernie Ford's "16 Tons."

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the History Carnival, which cites Attack of the GIANT NEGROES?

I love the blogosphere when my favourites cross-reference beyond the usual borders.

quirkychick said...

Al Green covering Hank Williams "I'm so Lonesome I Could Cry" is one of my most favorites - I like it better than the original.

And thanks for including Mia Zapata - I loved The Gits.

Anonymous said...

Phoebe Snow is WHITE??

Anonymous said...

Another vote here for Al Green; this one is for his cover of Kris Kristofferson's "For The Good Times." I can remember my Mom wearing out that 8-track tape (yeah, I'm dating myself) of I'm Still In Love With You, which is one of my favorite Al Green albums to this day.

Pheobe Snow's cover of Barbara Acklin's "Love Makes A Woman" is pretty good too. And Swing Out Sister's cover of Acklin's "Am I The Same Girl" always makes me smile.

Anonymous said...

Another vote here for Al Green; this one is for his cover of Kris Kristofferson's "For The Good Times." I can remember my Mom wearing out that 8-track tape (yeah, I'm dating myself) of I'm Still In Love With You, which is one of my favorite Al Green albums to this day.

"For the Good Times" is a Kris Kristofferson joint?!

ISILWY is an awesome album. It NEVER leaves my mp3 player.

Anonymous said...


I don't know if Kris Kristofferson sang "For The Good Times, but I do believe he wrote it. I think FTGT was done as a country song first, but I don't know who sang it.

Jeff Vaca said...

I'd nominate the Talking Heads version of "Take Me to the River," the Rolling Stones version of "Stop Breaking Down," and the Clash covering "Police and Thieves."

bill said...

Can't believe this wasn't the first song I thought of, Duran Duran's version of Public Enemy's "911 is a joke." A lot of people select it as one of the worst covers ever, but it is so bizarrely upbeat and over-produced, and so removed from any connection to the original, that I think it's a big ball of fun to listen to.

Anonymous said...

Duran Duran's version of Public Enemy's "911 is a joke."

Oh, snap! I didn't know that.

Here's another; The Black Crowes' version of Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle."

Undercover Black Man said...

Thanks to those who recommended Al Green’s version of “For the Good Times.” I never heard that before. I like it... but not as much as his “How Do You Mend a Broken Heart,” which he released the year before. He was obviously trying to capture that same vibe again. It’s the same arrangement, almost. “Broken Heart” has the magic, though, for me...

Bill: White covers of hip-hop classics is a category unto itself. I like the Gourds’ comical country version of “Gin and Juice” and Royal Crescent Mob’s funk-metal remake of “Mama Said Knock You Out.”

Anonymous said...

Speaking of
"Gin and Juice"
lounge singer Richard Cheese covers it also.

Anonymous said...


I agree that "How Can You Mend A Broken Heart" is better than "For The Good Times", but someone had already beat me to it. Still, both covers are better than most that you'll hear.

Undercover Black Man said...

TWS: It's all good. I need to get deeper into Al Green's album cuts. I've just been spinning the greatest hits.

Jena6: Oh shit! Hilarious! I'm posting that bad boy... right now...

Anonymous said...


I see that the "someone" who beat me to it was you.

That's OK. Dig deep in the Al Green catalog, you'll find plenty of gems (not all covers though). Talking about Al Green made me go get my copy of I'm Still In Love With You. It's still as good as I remember it. I also played "How Can You Mend A Broken Heart"... you are right about the magic.

Anonymous said...

I believe the country singer Ray Price had the hit with "For the Good Times".

Curious Bystander also nominated Vanilla Fudge's "You Keep Me Hanging On" and mentioned it was featured in the final "Sopranos" episode. It's actually used in the very first scene. The second time I watched the episode I realized the joke David Chase was making...the final scene in the diner definitely left everyone "hanging on".

Anonymous said...

Can't believe I forgot this one: Robert Palmer's cover of "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On" (a Cherrelle hit written by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis).

UBM: "White covers of hip-hop classics is a category unto itself."

See also: Dynamite Hack's cover of Eazy-E's "Boyz 'N The Hood."

LindaK said...

The concept of a white girl covering the music/poetry of one of the great black Afro-Centrists, Mr. Oscar Brown Jr., was a concept I struggled with and then decided to give up the struggle and went with my heart - so for this past year I have been touring a tribute show to Oscar Brown Jr., and just released an accompanying CD (http://www.cdbaby.com/kosut2) and getting rave reviews about it - and people knowing I'm a white girl keeping his voice alive. I think with the right intention, covering great music gets the music out there and that's what it is really, ultimately all about.

Undercover Black Man said...

Linda: I wouldn't have guessed that you would tackle "Bid 'Em In"... but the 50-second sample I heard was quite interesting.

I was hoping to see "From My Window" on your track list.

Regardless, thanks for commenting.

I should also let people know that Mr. Brown's daughter -- Maggie Brown -- is out there keeping his voice alive also.

Anonymous said...

Great topic, Undercover Brotha. So how 'bout Ray Charles' "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music"? I play the heck out of that one all the time. Now for the most part "cross-cultural" covers coming back this way (i.e., white artist covering a black artist) just don't do it for me. Something lost in the translation.

Undercover Black Man said...

Thanks, Anon. Ray's "Hey Good Lookin'" is the shit.

The biggest example of "lost in translation" that comes to mind is Joe Strummer's version of "Redemption Song." If he wasn't dead when that song was released, I don't think anybody would've taken it seriously.

Anonymous said...

"The biggest example of "lost in translation" that comes to mind is Joe Strummer's version of "Redemption Song." If he wasn't dead when that song was released, I don't think anybody would've taken it seriously."

Man, I won't even listen if it's that bad. LOL.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm late, but check out Nina Gordon's acoustic version of "Straight Outta Compton" by NWA.

spinning in air said...

I'm late here, too, but just wanted to second the recs of Al Green's early work (C&W covers included) and virtually anything Laura Nyro wrote, at least through the mid-70s. almost all of her work during that time was very soulful, influenced by jazz, gospel, R&B, soul and more. (Though admittedly, Patti Labelle and co. sang rings around her on the album Gonna Take a Miracle.)