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CARLTON FLETCHER: John Prine ... John Denver ... There's a difference?

OPINION: Cover songs -- good and bad -- are a staple in music

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

This song, as far as I know, doesn’t infringe on anyone’s copyright … oh.

— George Harrison

I stopped counting at 17 the emails, calls and squawks I received informing me that the lyrics I attributed as a prelude to a column last week to John Denver were actually written by John Prine.

Thank you.

At the risk of cheesing off Prine fans, though, I will say for the record that I knew he wrote “Spanish Pipedream” and had recorded the song first. But I happen to like John Denver’s quirky version better. (Sorry, Ron, Thomas, anonymous emailers and the rest if that lessens your opinion of me even further, but I have to be true to my own musical tastes, such that they are.)

I truly appreciate feedback from the purists who’ve reached out, but I want to remind you all of a couple of things: 1) The lyrics I quote for the columns I write are chosen because they — at least in my mind — have something to do with the content of the columns. The attribution is to the singer. 2) I got over my own righteous indignation about covers when I discovered some of the greatest artists in the history of music — The Beatles (“Twist and Shout”), Led Zeppelin (“Nobody’s Fault But Mine”), Aretha Franklin (“Respect”) — at least partially owe their early success to their versions of other artists’ songs.

A very long chapter in the book of music history — particularly music from the rock and roll era — could be devoted to cover songs. The whitebread versions of R&B hits (Pat Boone’s “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Long Tall Sally,” originally recorded by Fats Domino and Little Richard, respectively, come to mind) from an era when the raucus originals were considered too raunchy for the pristine ears of refined young listeners (i.e. whites) will forever be a stain on popular music’s past.

There’s even the sordid tales of 100 percent royalties from the Verve’s wonderful “Bittersweet Symphony” going to the Rolling Stones’ former manager because five notes of the Verve song’s musical intro were taken from an orchestral version of the Mick Jagger/Keith Richards-written “The Last Time,” and late Beatles guitarist George Harrison having to fork over a tidy sum in royalties because his “My Sweet Lord” had a passing resemblance to the Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine,” which was written by Ronnie Mack. (Doo-lang, doo-lang, doo-lang indeed.)

Most artists, from what I’ve gathered, consider covers of their songs tributes. The writers of those songs consider alternate versions paychecks, since they’re the ones who get paid when the songs get played.

I took a few minutes to think about some of my favorite cover tunes, the ones that are as good as, if not better than, the originals:

— Wyclef Jean’s amazing “Wish You Were Here,” a Pink Floyd gem

— Santana’s “Black Magic Woman,” a Fleetwood Mac original

— The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” which was first done by Todd Duncan

— Van Halen’s “You Really Got Me,” first recorded by The Kinks

— Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Higher Ground,” a Stevie Wonder original

— Bananarama’s “Venus,” first done by Shocking Blue

— The Black Crowes’ “Hard to Handle,” an Otis Redding tune

— Manfred Mann’s “Blinded by the Light,” a Bruce Springsteen original

— The Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly,” an original hit for Roberta Flack

There are even some pretty great covers — Dare we risk charges of blasphemy and hint that they’re maybe even as good? — of Beatles originals: “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” done by Elton John (although it should be noted that “Sir Winston O’Boogie,” whose “twanging guitar” is credited on the record, is actually John Lennon); “Across the Universe,” recorded by Fiona Apple; and “With a Little Help From My Friends,” famously copped by Joe Cocker.

Taking things a little deeper, here are 10 covers that — again, in my opinion — surpass the originals:

  1. “The Man Who Sold the World” — Nirvana’s “uncovered” cover of a David Bowie classic

  2. “Smooth Criminal” — Alien Ant Farm’s wonderful reimagining of the Michael Jackson original

  3. “The Mighty Quinn” — Manfredd Mann’s version of a Bob Dylan tune

  4. “Because the Night” — Patti Smith doing supreme justice to Springsteen

  5. “All Along the Watchtower” — guitar great Jimi Hendrix doing Dylan

  6. “I Shot the Sheriff” — Eric Clapton out-reggaeing Bob Marley

  7. “Last Kiss” — Pearl Jam giving fans their version of a J. Frank Wilson classic

  8. “Proud Mary” — Ike and Tina Turner surpassing the great original by Creedence Clearwater Revival

  9. “Hallelujah” — Rufus Wainwright one-upping the amazing Leonard Cohen

  10. “Hurt” — country legend Johnny Cash digging deeper even than Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails

Thanks to songs like these, I gradually got over my aggravation at hearing country radio playing “Hee-Hawed” takes of some of my favorite rock classics. Maybe others will see the light and join me now in becoming kinder, gentler — and more forgiving — music lovers.