5 Popular Songs That Are Actually Covers


Chances are that some of your favorite tunes are drawn from earlier recordings by different artists. There are times when the cover outshines the initial version, with a later rendition becoming so popular that people treat it as the original. However, covering songs is a tricky business, at times leading to controversy and litigation, yet it continues to play an important role in the music industry. This article explores the stories behind five famous cover songs, chronicling their journeys from a first recording to a cover hit.

“If I Were A Boy” – Beyoncé
Original: BC Jean and Toby Gad

Although it was Beyoncé who brought “If I Were A Boy” worldwide fame, holding the number 3 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 and dominating music charts in over eight European countries, the chart-topping track was originally written by American singer-songwriter BC Jean and German songwriter/producer Toby Gad and initially recorded by Jean in 2008. Jean described to the Hartford Courant how the song was born:

“So we were walking through Times Square, and I said, ‘I wish I were a boy,’ and he’s [Gad] like, ‘Why would you say that? That’s very weird to me.’ I said, ‘That pizza smells really good, and I’m trying not to eat carbs, and I wish I were a boy so I didn’t care.’ That’s how the song started, and he was like, ‘What else would you do if you were a boy?’ And I was going through a really hard breakup with my first real love, so I said, ‘I’d be a better man than my ex-boyfriend!'”

Jean and Gad had composed around a dozen songs, among them “If I Were A Boy,” for the former’s debut album, but after her record label dismissed the track and the deal began to unravel, Gad advertised the songs to well-known and recognized artists. According to The Daily Telegraph, Mathew Knowles, Beyoncé’s father and manager at the time, then vigorously went after the publishing rights to “If I Were A Boy,” believing the record could become a smash hit. The same year that Jean originally recorded the song, Beyoncé released the track as a double A-side single on her third album I Am…Sasha Fierce, with the original songwriters contributing to its production. However, Jean was not too thrilled when she found out Beyoncé had recorded “If I Were A Boy,” and the record underwent a period of legal entanglement before, as reported by Fox News, the two parties agreed on a deal: Jean and Beyoncé would sing a duet for the former’s first album after she secured a recording contract. Although it appears that the two artists have yet to release a duet, Jean now collaborates with her husband Mark Ballas as the indie-pop duo Alexander Jean.

“Valerie” – Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse
Original: The Zutons

For many, “Valerie” belongs to Amy Winehouse. The connection between Winehouse and “Valerie” is so strong that Liverpool indie-rock group The Zutons, the band behind the original version, revealed that their performances of the song are seen as Amy Winehouse covers. The record was based on celebrity makeup artist Valerie Star, an American woman frontman Dave McCabe had befriended. Star was having run-ins with the law due to drinking under the influence, nearly going to jail. “Valerie” chronicles how these events thwarted her plans to join McCabe in Britain, with drummer Sean Payne revealing how “She’s [Star] in trouble for drunk driving. She was a friend Dave met over in the US. It’s his musical postcard to her, saying he’s having a hard time and can she come over and see him.”

The Zutons initially released the song on their second album Tired of Hanging Around (2006), and it became a top-ten track in the United Kingdom. English producer Mark Ronson then selected the number for his second album Version, a collection of covers that recalled the Soul tunes of the sixties and seventies.

“At the time I’d just finished Amy’s album [Back to Black], and I’d almost finished mine and I really wanted her to do a song for me,” Ronson explained to Liverpool magazine. “I kept asking her if she knew any new songs. I explained that it was Soul covers of guitar records. She only listens to things made before 1967, she didn’t know any indie songs. Then one day she came up and said ‘I like Valerie by the Zutons.’ At the time I couldn’t hear her voice singing it in my head. I wasn’t sure how it would work, but she went into the studio and tried it. I loved it.”

Ronson and Winehouse’s collaborative version, driven by the beat from English punk rock act The Jam’s 1982 track “Town Called Malice,” reached number 2 on the UK Singles Chart, staying within the top 20 for 19 consecutive weeks. A solo recording by Winehouse for Radio 1’s Live Lounge was released simultaneously with the collaborative version, also appearing on numerous music charts around the world.

“I Love Rock ‘N Roll” – Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
Original: The Arrows

Although Joan Jett and her band The Blackhearts brought “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” mainstream recognition, British pop group The Arrows were the first to record it. Frontman Alan Merrill and guitarist Jake Hooker composed the number, and the band recorded it in 1975. Speaking to Dutch television program Top 2000 à Go-Go, Merrill explained how the song was a reaction to the Rolling Stones.

“It had to have three chords, it had to have a monumental and memorable riff, it had to be melodic in the verse, and it had to have the chorus that everybody would sing,” Merrill discussed. “I thought about the Rolling Stones’ ‘It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll,’ and I thought, That’s cheeky. I knew the people that Mick Jagger was hanging around with — they were bankers and international movers and shakers. They weren’t rock ‘n’ rollers. So I thought, ‘It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll,’ but it’s like an apology — no! I love rock ‘n’ roll.”

Upon its release, however, “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” was unable to garner enough publicity, with a lack of reviews, no newspaper promotions due to a strike, and zero BBC play. Although the track received little promotion, the Arrows were able to perform the number on the British TV program Pop 45, which led producer Muriel Young to offer the group their own television series. Arrows was on for two seasons, and it was through this program that Joan Jett discovered “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” in 1976.

Jett would turn the record into a megahit, but that took more than one try. When Jett listened to “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” for the first time, she was performing with the all-girl rock band The Runaways. She hoped to record the song with the other members, but they turned it down as they didn’t find the track to their liking. Then, in 1979, Jett made a recording with the Sex Pistols’ Paul Cook and Steve Jones, but it wasn’t until the 1981 release of her second recording, this time done with her band The Blackhearts, that “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” climbed up the charts. Jett’s version claimed the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks while dominating music charts around the world, and Billboard ranked it as no. 80 on their list of the greatest Hot 100 songs of all time.

Although “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” wasn’t initially a sensation, Merrill was right when he said, “I knew it was a hit. I knew it was a hit song.”

“Dazed and Confused” – Led Zeppelin
Original: Jake Holmes

Led Zeppelin has a history of taking other artists’ music without giving proper credit, and “Dazed and Confused,” a single from their eponymous debut album and one of the group’s earliest recordings, is an illustrative example. The song was originally written by folk-rock singer-songwriter Jake Holmes, who recorded it for his first solo LP “The Above Ground Sound” of Jake Holmes (1967). In August of that year, Holmes performed the number at New York’s Village Theater, where English rock band the Yardbirds, for whom Jimmy Page was the guitarist, were also set to take the stage. It was at this Village Theater show that the band first heard Holmes’ song.

“That was the infamous moment of my life when Dazed and Confused fell into the loving arms and hands of Jimmy Page,” Holmes described.

Captivated by its descending guitar riff, the Yardbirds decided to arrange their own version. “Dazed and Confused” promptly became a staple in the band’s live performances, and although they never made a recording and eventually broke up, the song did not fade into obscurity, as Page would modify the lyrics and create another version for the debut album of his new group, the New Yardbirds, who later took the name Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin’s take on the song became the group’s most-performed number, clocking in at more than 400 concerts, and was featured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.

Yet Page was the sole artist credited on the album’s back cover, with Holmes’ name nowhere in sight. Although Holmes initially wasn’t too concerned, he eventually took action. During the 1980s, Holmes attempted to contact Page to discuss writing credits, which was unsuccessful, and in 2010, he sued Page and the band for copyright infringement. Holmes’ suit was “dismissed with prejudice” after the different parties settled the case outside of court, and while the terms of the settlement are unknown, Holmes now appears in the writing credits of “Dazed and Confused”; “By Jimmy Page” turned into “By Jimmy Page; Inspired by Jake Holmes.”

However, “Dazed and Confused” remains heavily associated with Led Zeppelin. Speaking to the band’s biographer Mick Wall, Holmes declared, “[Page] is gonna be so connected to that song by now, it’s like if your baby is kidnapped at two-years-old and raised by another woman. All these years later, it’s her kid.”

“Mickey” – Toni Basil
Original: Racey

Toni Basil’s smash hit “Mickey” did not start out as “Mickey”, but rather as “Kitty.” Composed by prolific songwriters Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, who were behind a series of successful songs from artists including Tina Turner and Suzi Quatro, “Kitty” was recorded by British new wave group Racey in 1979 for their debut LP Smash and Grab. The album sold 500,000 copies and was certified 3x platinum in Australia, where it beat the sales of Paul McCartney and ABBA. “Kitty” rides on a clapping beat and features organ sounds and guitar jangles, though the organ and guitar are less pronounced in Basil’s “Mickey.”

In her version, Basil swapped “Kitty” for “Mickey,” adopting a female perspective and addressing a guy instead of a girl. Basil also added the catchy hook “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine, you blow my mind, hey Mickey,” mirroring a cheerleading chant. “I was always a cheerleader and I remember the echoing in the basketball court of cheerleaders, of us, stomping, chanting,” Basil explained. “I said I would do it if I could put the cheerleader chant on it. The record company asked me not to put the chant on because they were concerned it would ruin the rest of the tune.”

Incorporating the cheerleading chant most definitely did not ruin the rest of the tune. Although “Mickey” failed to make the charts when it was initially released in 1981 as part of Basil’s first album Word of Mouth, it became a megahit the following year when it was reissued in the United States and Britain. The track topped the Billboard Hot 100 and went number two in the UK in addition to being certified platinum in the U.S. and Canada, and it arguably stands among the most iconic hits of the ’80s. Just as iconic is the music video, of which Basil was the creator, choreographer, and director. It aligns with the song’s cheerleading beats and chants, featuring Basil in an outfit inspired by her high school head cheerleader uniform, a group of cheerleaders from a high school championship team, and cheerleading dance sequences complete with pom-poms. The music video was among early MTV’s most popular broadcasts, and Basil had actually come up with the concept for the video before searching for an accompanying tune.

Although the original recording belongs to Racey, it was Toni Basil’s “Mickey” that became an international sensation.

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