10 Cover Songs That Became Bigger Than the Originals

Some songs find their time and place, and legacy, in another artist. Cover songs are the truest test of the prowess of a song, how words can evolve from soul to punk, country to pop or move from some quieter folk setting into classic rock history. Here, we take a look at just 10 cover songs that left a bigger imprint long after the original was recorded.

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Aretha Franklin / Otis Redding

Originally written and recorded by Otis Redding in 1965, off of the soul singer’s third album Otis Redding Sings Soul, “Respect” was never the same once Aretha Franklin rearranged the song making it her signature chant. Earning her two Grammy Awards in 1968 for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording and Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance, Female, the song in its original form, played out as a more male-dominated union, until Franklin flipped it as a call for more “respect” towards women—and as a running anthem for the feminist movement throughout the 1970s—even adding her signature with her trademark sock it to me and spelling out R-E-S-P-E-C-T just to make sure the message was loud clear. Still part of the late singer’s legacy, “Respect” is also the title of the upcoming biopic on Franklin’s life, starring Jennifer Hudson.

“I Will Always Love You”
Whitney Houston / Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton famously wrote “I Will Always Love You” within the same day as one of her other biggest hits “Jolene.” Originally written in 1973 by Parton as a farewell to her former mentor and business partner throughout the ’60 and ’70s, the late Porter Wagoner, nearly 20 years later Whitney Houston embraced the country croon and transformed it into the staple of one of the top-selling film soundtracks of all time for the 1992 film The Bodyguard, starring Houston and Kevin Costner. To date, Houston’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You” has surpassed 1.1 billion views on YouTube.

“All Along the Watchtower”
Jimi Hendrix / Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan was telling the story of a joker and a thief—There must be some kind of way outta here…There’s too much confusion / I can’t get no relief—exploring shifting societal roles and the desire to escape one’s “rank” in life and references to the book of Isaiah weaved around more abstract imagery. Released six months after Dylan’s rendition appeared on his eighth album, John Wesley Harding in 1967, Jimi Hendrix’s electrified version, recorded for the guitarist’s third and final album Electric Ladyland, and released prior to his death in 1970, shifted the original folk-rock track into classic rock history. The Jimi Hendrix Experience recording also features Rollings Stones’ late founding member Brian Jones on various percussive instruments. “It overwhelmed me, really,” said Dylan of Hendrix’s take on the song. “He had such talent, he 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.”

Johnny Cash / Nine Inch Nails

“I wasn’t prepared for what I saw, and it really wasn’t my song anymore,” said Trent Reznor upon hearing Johnny Cash’s 2002 cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” Emotionally shattering in his delivery, Cash took The Downward Spiral track, broke it down, and reconstructed it into something more stirring than NIN could ever imagine. Releasing “Hurt” on his final album American IV: The Man Comes Around, Cash recorded it nearly a year before his death on Sept. 13, 2003.

“Twist & Shout”
The Beatles / The Isley Brothers

Originally titled “Shake It Up, Baby,” Phil Medley and Bert Berns eventually renamed the song they penned “Twist & Shout.” First recorded by the R & B duo The Top Notes in 1961, the song was later reworked by the Isley Brothers a year later, and finally reached the Top 20. By 1963, The Beatles had one day to record their debut album, Please, Please Me, and had one more track to go: a cover of “Twist & Shout.” John Lennon’s voice was raw from singing all day, so he gargled milk, downed cough drops, and powered through its shouts, making it one of The Beatles’ most famous recordings of all time.

“I Fought the Law”
The Clash / Bobby Fuller Four

Following the 1959 death of Buddy Holly in a plane crash at the age of 22, Sonny Curtis, Holly’s bandmate in The Crickets, penned the rock anthem “I Fought the Law.” First recorded by The Crickets following Holly’s death, the song was later revived by The Bobby Fuller Four. Fuller also died tragically at the age of 23, and throughout the years the song was later covered by Roy Orbison, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and even Rita Coolidge and Kris Kristofferson, before The Clash gave it a punk rebirth on their 1979 EP The Cost of Living.

“Nothing Compares 2 U”
Sinead O’Connor / Prince

In 1985, Prince released “Nothing Compares 2 U” on his side project The Family’s self-titled debut. By 1990, when Irish singer Sinead O’Connor released her rendition off her second album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, it became an international success, topping the charts worldwide. Prince later re-recorded the track with Rosie Gaines in 1993 for a compilation, and his original 1984 recording was recently released on the posthumous Originals in 2019.

“Because the Night”
10,000 Maniacs / Patti Smith

Living in New York City, Patti Smith was working through her long-distance romance with MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, who was still living in Detroit and waited hours to hear a payphone ring and talk to him. Smith began writing “Because the Night” because the distance became unbearable, and connected with her friend Bruce Springsteen to help her complete the lovelorn tale about her relationship with Fred, her husband until his death in 1994. An evocative ballad off The Patti Smith Group’s 1978 release Easter, the song jumped the charts then gained newfound admiration once Natalie Merchant belted it out with 10,000 Maniacs on an episode of MTV Unplugged in 1993. Produced by Jimmy Iovine, the original “Because the Night” remains one of Smith’s all-time classics, but Merchant hit some special notes and made curious Gen-Xers explore more of Smith’s work back in the ’90s.  

“Higher Ground”
Red Hot Chili Peppers / Stevie Wonder

All the soul and funk of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” off his 1973 album Innervisions, served as the perfect base for funk-rockers Red Hot Chili Peppers’ explosive rendition nearly 15 years later. Recorded for the band’s fourth album Mother’s Milk, the RHCP’s “Higher Ground,” written entirely by Wonder, has been featured in video games, television, and film, ascended the charts, and was even the song the band chose to perform when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.

Jeff Buckley / Leonard Cohen

Captivating in its poetic storytelling, Jeff Buckley burst Cohen’s beautiful bomb of ache, pain, glory, desire, and resurrection. Originally written by Cohen and released in 1984 for his seventh album Various Positions, the Velvet Underground’s John Cale would later offer his stripped down piano rendition, sparking then-newcomer Jeff Buckley to craft his own tranquil echoes of the song. Re-released exactly a decade after Cohen’s on Buckley’s sole album Grace in 1994, his Hallelujah” is considered one of the greatest songs of all time and was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2014. Sadly, Buckley passed away in 1997 and didn’t live to see the fuller glory of his “Hallelujah.” 

One Comment

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  1. Tina,

    Great article! I just shared it with my fans because I love every song on this list. Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” has to be my favorite because it is such a new and unique imagining of the song.

    ❤ Sarah Jane

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