As an artist, it’s always great to be original, an innovator. And sometimes, the best artists are the best thieves. Art is all about recycling—taking something old and reforming it into something new and original. Sometimes the original stands, and sometimes it just has to take a knee to its successors. Here’s our list of covers that ended up surpassing the originals.
“The Man Who Sold the World”
Original: David Bowie
Now how are you going to cover a Bowie song? You’ve definitely got to have some guts to take on a hit from one of the most influential artists out there. Still, Nirvana did it at the band’s historic MTV Unplugged show, and it became one of the band’s popular hits. Some even forgot that the song was a Bowie original. When Bowie performed the song on his 1995 with Nine Inch Nails, many of the young fans didn’t know it was a Bowie original; they thought he was doing a tribute to Nirvana. Ouch.
“All Along the Watchtower”
Original: Bob Dylan
Cover: Jimi Hendrix
Here we have two great artists with two very different sounds who both tackled the same song. Hendrix’s version came out just six months after Dylan’s original was released in December 1967, and Dylan himself gave Hendrix props on his version. Years later, in an interview, Dylan said, “[Hendrix] could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”
Original: Dolly Parton
Cover: The White Stripes
The country queen released this song back in 1973. The song, which is a woman’s plea to a seductress not to steal her husband, became a hit for Parton, and the White Stripes took it over and revamped it in 2000.
Original: Nine Inch Nails
Cover: Johnny Cash
Let’s start out by saying that Trent Reznor has a lot of feelings. Sure, the original was a sincere song about depression and pain. But then Johnny Cash took it. And he brought pain to a whole different level. “Tears started welling up,” Reznor said, recalling the first time he saw Cash’s video for the song. “I realized it wasn’t really my song anymore. It just gave me goose bumps up and down my spine. It’s an unbelievably powerful piece of work. After he passed away, I remember feeling saddened, but being honored to have framed the end of his life in something that is very tasteful.”
Original: Leonard Cohen
Cover: John Cale, Jeff Buckley
It’s the song that launched 1,000 covers. This classic Cohen song wasn’t initially a super big hit, but it gained popularity with John Cale’s cover and, ultimately, Jeff Buckley’s version. Both Cale’s and Buckley’s versions have become known as the best-known versions of the song.
Original: George Gershwin
Cover: Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Al Green, Janis Joplin, Billy Stewart, Frank Sinatra, the Zombies
This song started out as an aria for Gershwin’s popular Porgy and Bess nearly 80 years ago, and since then, it has been covered a countless number of times (the best estimates say it’s been covered at least 2,500 times). It’s hard to pick the best, but there are plenty of contenders in every genre.
“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”
Cover: Joan Jett
Here’s a Joan Jett classic—the big hit that Jett became known for. But it’s not a Joan Jett original. Jett got this song from British band Arrows and recorded her own version in 1981.
Original: Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton
Cover: Elvis Presley
Blues singer/songwriter Willie Mae Thornton was nicknamed “Big Mama” for both her size and her big voice. Thornton sang, danced, played multiple instruments and was known for contributing to the “Texas blues” style. One of her songs, “Hound Dog,” was later covered by the King, and the rest is history.
“I Will Always Love You”
Original: Dolly Parton
Cover: Whitney Houston
Here’s another Dolly number for the list. And again, Parton had the honor of creating a hit song—for someone else. But this time, that someone else was epic songstress Whitney Houston. “I Will Always Love You” became one of Houston’s signature hits and was forever associated with the star.
Original: Tom Waits
Cover: Rod Stewart
Tom Waits originally released the song on his album Rain Dogs in 1985, and Rod Stewart released his popular cover version four years later. Stewart’s cover topped the charts (#3 on the Billboard charts) and even received a Grammy nomination for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
Original: Otis Redding
Cover: Aretha Franklin
This song wasn’t always the anthem of strong, independent women that it is now known to be. Otis Redding’s original song was about a man pleading with a woman to give him a little “respect” when he gets home from working to provide for her. If you hadn’t guessed, he’s not just talking about just a pat on the back and a “thank you.” When Franklin took over this song in 1967, she truly tackled it. She won her first two Grammy Awards for the song the following year, and the song became a bona fide classic.
“Twist and Shout”
Original: The Top Notes
Cover: The Isley Brothers, The Beatles
No, the original wasn’t Matthew Broderick’s rendition in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Good guess though. “Twist and Shout,” originally entitled “Shake It Up, Baby,” was first performed by The Top Notes and was then picked up by the Isley Brothers, who recreated it as the popular “Twist and Shout.” But of course, it was the ever-popular Fab Four who really did a number on this number. “Twist and Shout” came off of the Beatles’ 1963 LP Please Please Me, which was cut in a single day. The song was the last song the four recorded, and Lennon, who had a cold, barely made it through the song. But the result is that raw, rocking sound that’s so memorable today.
Original: Tom Waits
Cover: Bruce Springsteen
Yes, he’s from Jersey. Yes, this sounds like a total Springsteen jam. But you’re mistaken. Even though is a definite favorite among Springsteen fans, this song is not a Springsteen original. Tom Waits recorded the song for his 1980 album Heartattack and Vine.
“I Fought the Law”
Original: The Crickets
Cover: Bobby Fuller Four, The Clash
Here’s a little bit of revolution for the list. This song was an original by the Crickets, a band of four formed by Buddy Holly. The Crickets became one of the first rock and roll bands to write, play, produce and record its own material. The song got picked up by Bobby Fuller Four and became one of their most successful songs. Then, of course, the Clash took over the song and hit the U.S. with it in 1979.