On this day in 1970, Elton John's first US hit, “Your Song” entered the Billboard Hot 100, where it went on to reach number eight. The Hollies had been offered the song and Three Dog Night had already recorded a version, which was included on their “It Ain't Easy” album.
I first heard Elton John singing “Your Song” on John Peel's BBC 1 Radio show. It sort of stood out from everything else he was playing — rock, folk, prog rock — but that was that great thing about the John Peel show — you never knew what was coming next. But what I do remember is thinking what a brilliant song it was — a great, honest, sad ballad. I didn’t even know who Elton John was. In my mind's eye he was a cool-looking thin dude with long hair, maybe a little like Nick Drake. When I did first see a picture of Elton I was a little surprised. Anyway, the track launched Elton onto an unsuspecting world. He became madder, camper and the outrageous entertainer we all now know.
But wouldn’t things have been different if Elton hadn’t released the track, but instead the Manchester boys The Hollies had, which could’ve given them a huge global hit. Reg Dwight would now be playing in some cocktail bar in London’s Mayfair, wowing the customers with his brand of colorful cover versions. (Elton used to record as Stevie Wonder amongst others for the British Top Of The Pops albums, which would feature very well-played versions of the current hits).
So what about other acts who’ve had massive hits with other artist's songs? The Beatles always spring to mind, as so many groups would try and be first off the mark releasing their version of a Beatles track. Marmalade struck lucky with their version of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" from The White Album, scoring a UK, Australian, and European No.1 with their version.
Badfinger launched their career with their version of Paul McCartney’s “Come And Get It”. The story goes that McCartney presented his demo to the newly signed to Apple band (then called The Iveys) that it had to be exactly like his demo. His ‘carrot’ for the band was his offer to produce the song and two other Iveys originals for the movie The Magic Christian, since he had a contract to supply three songs for it. The band followed his instructions. The reward was a top 10 hit in both the UK and US. Unfortunately things didn’t work out well for the guys in Badfinger with two suicides after the long-lasting feud over royalties from their own penned (Pete Ham and Tom Evans) “Without You” which had became a worldwide hit for Nilsson and later Mariah Carey.
The Faces also turned another McCartney song, “Maybe I’m Amazed”, into their own. They did a great version, it was almost made for Rod. Jimi Hendrix did the same with “All Along The Watchtower” taken from Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. The guitarist featured it on his 1968 double Electric Ladyland, and what a fine version he did. Dylan was said to be ‘overwhelmed’ by Hendrix’s version and in recent times Dylan performs the song almost like Jimi’s version as a tribute to the guitarist.
Another great version of a great song from the same era is Matthews Southern Comfort's version of "Woodstock", which gave the English group a UK No.1. Joni Mitchell wrote the song from what she had heard from then-boyfriend Graham Nash about the festival. (Joni didn’t appear herself, since she was told it would be more advantageous to appear on The Dick Cavett Show). She wrote "Woodstock" in a hotel room in New York City, watching the reports of the festival on television.
So, there you have it, kids. Just starting out in a band? Get a great song and cover it, it’s a tried and tested method that can strike gold. Even Simon Cowell subscribes to it, but don’t get me started on him.