The puzzling story of the Cover as opposed to the Standard.
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This month the title track of my CD At Last will be featured on the MusicWeek sampler of unsigned acts for May. I know it’s out, as Keith Ames from the Musician’s Union spotted it and kindly sent me an email. Click on the image to link to the Music Week Presents page on the Playlist menu.
When I was selected, I got an email from the young girl co-ordinating the 14 artists, asking me “Please forgive my ignorance but are they all covers, do you have an original?”
The album is all classic standards: love songs. I replied that yes, by modern parlance they were all covers – did that make me ineligible for the CD? It seemed not because happily they placed my song in the first position on the CD which goes out to all industry subscribers of Music Week.
It did make me think about the modern phenomena of the ‘cover’.
When people sing a Mozart Aria they don’t change the notes or words – the difference they bring to the music is their own interpretation by nuance, use of language, dynamics and ultimately, the colour and tone of their instrument – their own voice.Is that a cover?
In Jazz it goes a bit further – it’s the same song, but the artist will improvise around the melody, perhaps alter the chord voicing, even replace the chords. They will definitely alter the rhythm, probably each time they perform it to put their own feel on it. Is that a cover?
When I recorded my album of popular standards, at the end of two days we had fifty-four complete tracks to chose from. We chose eighteen and eventually whittled that down to fourteen because of the time constraints of the CD format. For some songs there were as many as six versions. Each one was completely different from the previous version. David Newton was driving the changes as the accompaniment, which he improvised on the spot, was very different in feel and musical content. This prompted me to respond with different vocals. In my opinion, his arrangements crossed over towards composition.
So was it technically an album of covers?
I was musing on this phenomena with my bass player Steve Thompson, who was recently asked by a young girl singer at a rehearsal “Is that right?” when she sang the tune of a Gershwin song. “What do you mean by right?” he asked. “Like the singer?” she replied.
How interesting that her idea of the correct version of a song was the singer’s version of a standard song (or cover). This recording went quite far away from the printed sheet music. Does that make the young singer’s new version a cover of a cover? Surely Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra could be said to have recorded the definitive cover versions of many of the popular standard repertoire. I don’t think that makes them less valid or indeed, any less fantastic.
I looked up the definition of the words cover and standard: here are the general and then specifically musical definitions:
Standard: a level of quality or attainment.
A tune or song of established popularity
Cover: put something on top of or in front of (something) in order to protect or conceal it.
Record or perform a new version of (a song) originally performed by someone else.
Wikipedia have a very good page going into depth of the history of the term Cover Version which you can peruse at your leisure.
Originally it referred to a rival version of a recording on another label in competition with the original. The Chicago Tribune described the term in 1952 as “trade jargon meaning to record a tune that looks like a potential hit on someone else’s label.”
Dionne Warwick suffered from that phenomena in the UK as Cilla Black raced to release versions of Burt Bacharach songs before Warwick’s record company could release her version. Most noteably Anyone who had a heart, which went to number one. Warwick famously said “I told her that You’re My World would be my next single in the States. I honestly believe that if I’d sneezed on my next record, then Cilla would have sneezed on hers too. There was no imagination in her recording.” Indeed Black did recorded “You’re My World” shortly after that meeting but it was not released as a single by Warwick. (It did eventually appear on the 1968 album, Dionne Warwick in Valley of the Dolls.)
There are of course many examples of cover versions becoming more successful than the originals. Whitney Houston’s 1992 version of I Will Always Love You was originally written and recorded in 1974 by Dolly Parton. You don’t hear Dolly complaining though, as she would have reaped the rewards by publishing the song.
Which leads me to the reason NOT to record cover versions – the hefty MCPS/PRS bill which you have to pay to manufacture the CDs. For my first one-thousand copies printed, the bill was over £560 – and that was with 250 promotional copies that were exempt from a licence fee.
Incentive indeed to write your own standards and let other people do the covering!
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