TERRY GROSS, host:
Dobie Gray, in his hit, "The In Crowd," famously sang: The original is still the greatest. But is that always true? Rock historian Ed Ward puts that statement to the test with a review of the new compilation �You Heard It Here First,� featuring 26 original versions of hit songs. It's on the British label Ace Records.
(Soundbite of song, "Rock Around The Clock")
SUNNY DAE AND THE KNIGHTS (Rock Band): (Singing) One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock, rock. Five, six, seven o'clock, eight o'clock, rock, nine, ten, eleven o'clock, twelve o'clock, rock. We're gonna rock around the clock tonight. Put your glad rags on and join me, hon. We'll have some fun when the clock strikes one. We're gonna rock around the clock tonight. We're gonna rock, rock, rock, till broad daylight. We're gonna rock, gonna rock, around the clock tonight.
ED WARD: When Bill Haley's manager handed him Sunny Dae and the Knights' record of "Rock Around the Clock," he and his band, the Comets, just knew they could do a better job. They weren't sure exactly how, but by listening to the arrangements rhythm-and-blues bands used, they eventually came up with something that worked. It all seems pretty obvious to us now, but in 1954, they were just figuring rock and roll out.
The same goes for the original version of Jerry Lee Lewis's, "Great Balls of Fire," a clunky, meandering song recorded by Roy Hall in 1955, which isn't on this album. You'd hardly recognize it. And the same goes for the original Big Mama Thornton version of "Hound Dog" and Arthur Crudup's version of "That's All Right Mama," both of which Elvis Presley is tiresomely accused of ripping off note for note. But as time went on, rock �n' roll acts stopped having to reinvent songs and concentrated on just improving them. As it turned out, there was a lot to improve on.
(Soundbite of song, "Let's Get Together")
THE KINGSTON TRIO (Folk Band): Love is but a song we sing and fear's the way we die. You can make the mountains ring or make the angels cry. Though the dove is on the wing and you need not know why. C'mon people, now, smile on your brother, hey, let's get together and love one another right now.
WARD: There was nothing wrong, per se, with the Kingston Trio's recording of Dino Valente's "Let's Get Together," and the hustling young San Francisco songwriter was probably very happy to have sold something when the band recorded it in 1964. But the tune had a life of its own, and by the time the hippie era started a couple of years later, it was in the repertoire of loads of local bands, including the Jefferson Airplane and the Youngbloods, both of whom understood the harmonies and the message even better.
In 1965, Arthur, the New York discotheque owned by Richard Burton's wife, Sybil, was all the rage in some circles, and its house band, the Wild Ones, figured they could raise their profile and the club's if they could make a record. Their manager approached Chip Taylor, a prolific Tin Pan Alley songwriter, for a song. He knocked it out in an hour.
(Soundbite of song, "Wild Thing")
THE WILD ONES (Rock Band): (Singing) Wild thing, you make my heart sing. You make everything, groovy, wild thing. Wild thing, I think I love you, but I wanna know for sure. So, come on and hold me tight, yeah, I love you.
WARD: Needless to say, even a band which considered themselves troglodytes � the Troggs � could improve on that, but it was up to Jimi Hendrix to reach way down inside the song and turn it into a masterpiece. In England, plenty of bands began by recording American blues tunes, but some, including the Beatles, also looked to early soul music for inspiration. One of those bands was the pre-psychedelic version of the Moody Blues, whose first hit was the result of one of their managers being a record collector who'd just come back from the States with a record he couldn't stop playing. Good thing, too, or Bessie Banks would've slid into total obscurity.
(Soundbite of song, "Go Now")
Ms. BESSIE BANKS: (Singing) We've already said goodbye. And since you've got to go, oh you had better go now. Go now, go now, go now. Before you see me cry.
WARD: Nor did the practice of finding obscure soul records stop in the �60s. One of the longest-charting records the American charts have ever seen was a remake of a total flop by Gloria Jones from 1965 - that's Glen Campbell there on guitar � that became a club hit in England in the �70s.
(Soundbite of song, "Tainted Love")
Ms. GLORIA JONES (Singer): (Singing) Sometimes I feel I've got to run away I've got to get away from the pain that you drive into the heart of me. The love we share seems to go nowhere and I've lost my light, for I toss and turn I can't sleep at night. Once I ran to you, I ran, now I run from you. This tainted love you've given, I give you all a girl can give you. Take my tears and that's not nearly all. Oh, tainted love. Tainted love.
WARD: Hmmm. sometimes the original is the greatest.
(Soundbite of song, "Tainted Love")
Ms. JONES: (Singing) Now I know I've got to, run away. I've got to get away. You don't really want any love from me to make things right. You need someone to hold you tight. And you'll think love is to pray. Well I'm sorry I don't pray that way. Once I ran to you, I ran�
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the south of France and blogs at wardinfrance.blogspot.com. He reviewed "You Heard It Here First" on the British label Ace Records.
I'm Terry Gross.
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