Watching Justin Timberlake on the Grammy Awards show last Sunday, I was finally won over; his calculated campaign to remake his career from boy-band heartthrob into credible artist has worked. For Justin, this has involved earning his street creds as a white musician who can channel black styles like hip-hop and R&B. The beauty part is, he didn’t even have to act like a thug, unlike Eminem (or, if you can remember back that far, Vanilla Ice). And then there was the newly platinum-blond Christina Aguilera, doing her smokin’ version of James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s, Man's, Man's World.”
At least in Grammy land, it seems, black is beautiful in a way that would have astonished Chuck Berry and Little Richard, who had to watch that white boy Elvis Presley hailed as an innovator just for singing the kind of music they’d been doing all along.
How things have changed. Back in the 1960s, it was Berry Gordy’s dream to win over white listeners to Motown. Stax and Muscle Shoals were the guardians of a more “authentic” black sound (never mind that plenty of white musicians were playing down in those Memphis studios), but up in Detroit, Gordy’s sights were trained on selling singles to a mass audience and getting radio play on mainstream radio stations – and “crossover” was the name of the game. Inevitably, Motown artists paid a price for crossover — once white artists appropriated their sounds, they could do with them as they pleased… and it wasn’t always pretty.
Last Sunday on the Grammys, we saw Smokey Robinson trotted out to sing his elegant, soulful “Tracks of My Tears,” so naturally that song comes to mind. It’s sweet, it’s sorrowful, it’s pleading for pity, and I completely buy that this singer is as broken-hearted as he says. Linda Ronstadt’s 1975 cover of it is another thing altogether. It’s as if she’s determined to show off her powerful vocal cords by yelling every chorus at top volume, practically yodeling the lines that Smokey delivered with a delicate frisson. I suppose someone thought the plodding backing arrangement made it sound sadder, or a little more country, perhaps. Who knows? The bottom line is, I don’t buy her sorrow one bit. If I were one of her girlfriends, I’d be saying, “Could you shut up already? He broke up with you two weeks ago – get over it!” Game, set, and match to Smokey.
Or take “Dancing in the Street.” Martha Reeves & the Vandellas made this song a classic, though several other Motowners did fine covers, including the underrated Kim Weston. But in the hands of the Mamas and the Papas – whose hit version brought this song to a mainstream white audience – the dancing definitely slowed down; the streets were swept and strewn with flowers. When I hear the Vandellas’ version, I picture an urban street and a whole community hanging out, perched on stoops, dangling from fire escapes, kids opening up fire hydrants – everyone’s transistors are tuned to the same station and folks get up and dance in the street because music is one thing that brings joy to their lives.
The Mamas and the Papas, though, make me see a band of hippies, parading down a small town’s main street and irritating the local shopkeepers. Handing out beads, jumping on the hoods of other people’s Buicks, blowing bubbles in the faces of shocked senior citizens — high as kites. Now, I’m not saying that’s a bad scene – but it’s a different scene, and it’s only good if you envision yourself as one of the hippies. (Which I did, I must admit, in 1967).
Eventually everybody from the Kinks to Van Halen did covers of “Dancing in the Street,” most of them fairly lame; even the Grateful Dead, though theirs logged in at over 17 minutes, which is a lot of dancing in my opinion. The Carpenters’ version is as bright and hard and clean-scrubbed as you’d expect (I like a lot of the Carpenters’ material, but this one is so not their thing). But my favorite cover of “Dancing in the Street”? Little Richard’s. He speeds it up, throws in whoops and hollers and shout-outs to members of the audience, he gets some words wrong and leaves out entire lines. The whole thing is so charged up, you don’t mind – you find yourself heading for the dance floor, knowing it’s gonna be crowded and sweaty and fine. He puts back the funk, and “Dancing in the Street” needs funk.
Like most of their contemporaries, the Stones stopped doing covers after 1965 or so, when the Beatles upped the ante for everybody to be songwriters as well as performers. By 1972, doing a cover of anything – let alone a Motown song – was a statement of some kind. Still, on It’s Only Rock and Roll, what do we find but a cover of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” that classic Temptations track with the gymnastic lead vocal by Eddie Kendricks. To me, It’s Only Rock and Roll was the beginning of the end for the Stones (could be because it was the last album Mick Taylor played on). That was the moment when they admitted they were turning into cultural artifacts instead of real artists, but they still had a little irony about themselves.
I enjoy this Stones track; the arrangement is tight and pumped-up – it has a good beat and you can dance to it. However, Mick’s overdone accent edged this cover a little too far toward parody, and the speeded-up pace was an exercise in testoterone (really, if you’re begging a woman, shouldn’t you take your time and make it at least sound sincere?). Does it reinterpret the Temptation’s version in any meaningful way? No. Is it more enjoyable to listen to than theirs? No. I’d pick the Temptations’ any time.
You know which white band actually did great Motown covers? The Beatles. Granted, I am a lifelong unreconstructed Beatlemaniac, so I could be prejudiced; but still, one of the things that made the Beat Invasion so potent was the fact that slum kids from Liverpool and Newcastle and North London got the point of American black music the way white American middle-class youth never could – not until it was re-packaged and sent back to them with a trace of a British accent. On top of that, the Beatles Motown covers were worked up for the Kaiserkeller and Cavern gigs, when their audience preferred the music as raw and ripped-from-the-gut as they could get it. I like to think that the Beatles were doing these songs the way the original artists would have done them if they hadn’t been under Berry Gordy’s thumb.
I’m thinking of three songs that made their way onto early Beatle albums, when the record companies were so hot for Fab Four product they didn’t care if it was a Lennon-McCartney composition or not. Play the Beatles “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” next to the Miracles’s original and you’ll see what I mean. That very first line, “I don’t like you / But I love you” seems baffling when sung in Smokey Robinson’s honeyed voice, but John Lennon is simply being crude and honest – face it, lust and affection are two quite different things, that’s the whole premise for this song.
Smokey’s supple vocals may be yearning, but John’s voice is pure unadulterated urgency. The legend is that John went outside the studio and screamed for several minutes until his voice got that ragged edge he wanted for this number, the same rawness he’d have gotten naturally after five or six hours singing in the smokey Kaiserkeller in Hamburg. The tempo’s the same, but the Beatles do it in a lower key, with a doubled vocal that pulls it even lower, as if the guy’s exhausted from his obsessive desire. In the chorus, instead of trading off lines with the girl back-ups, he’s echoed by the other Beatles – and their voices sound so much like his, it’s like he’s talking to himself. The way Smokey tenderly caresses and cajoles every word, you begin to believe that maybe holding IS all he wants; John’s putting “hold” in quotation marks — you know from the outset what he’s really after. Of course Smokey’s after that too, but that British punk’s gonna beat him to it.
“Please Mr. Postman” as originally sung by the Marvelettes is a sweet girl-group song with a Tin Pan Alley-like storyline; as sung by the Beatles it’s a slice of jittery adolescent angst. I picture the Marvelettes surrounding the mailman and flirting with him to get the letter; John, on the other hand, just might get his mates and mug the guy. “I’ve been waiting so patiently,” John claims, but I don’t buy it. Part of this is just a production choice — the Marvelettes are backed by a tinny piano and handclaps, while the Beatles are deep in a mix of jangly guitars and a pounding drum track. But mostly it’s the barely submerged hostility in John’s voice that makes the difference. He isn’t just lonely for his girl, he’s freaked out and jealous, and he despises having to depend on the postal service to communicate with her. Nowadays he’d bombard her with text messages and eventually a camera-phone photo of himself giving her the finger. She had better answer soon or there’ll be hell to pay.
And then there’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” which, recorded by Barrett Strong, was one of the very first Motown hit singles. Barrett, however (never one of Motown’s greatest artists) sang this song in a tentative, almost hangdog voice, as if he’s ashamed to admit to his girl, “Your loving gives me a thrill, but your loving don’t pay my bills.” John Lennon, on the other hand, re-invents that lead vocal with a throat-tearing intensity. “Money don’t get everything it’s true / But what it don’t get, I can’t use,” he spits out with ruthless contempt, and when he lowers his voice to snarl, “Now give me money / That’s what I want,” it’s practically a stick-up.
Covers are always tricky things, especially if the cover version’s the one you knew first, the one engraved on your heart. Some artists cover a song so faithfully they might as well be doing karaoke; others feel compelled to re-interpret that song – which sometimes mean ruining it. In the end, it’s all subjective. But I loved those classic '60s Motown hits, and I’m very skeptical of anybody messing with them. I’m glad to see Christina Aguilera doing James Brown justice. Now if we could just get Justin Timberlake to cover “Standing in the Shadows of Love” or “I’m Losing You”…