With February 2014 marking the 50th anniversary of the Beatles invading America, we have been immersed in commemorative magazines, TV specials and radio stations playing hours of Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison compositions. Throughout their pop culture takeover in the 1960s, when songs like “I Saw Her Standing There” became instant pop classics, I have vague memories of seeing their frenzied fans screeching on television as well as watching ABC’s The Beatles cartoon on Saturday mornings.
Yet it wasn’t until after the 1975 release of Elton John’s splendid cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” that I began to dig deeper through the canon of great songs that the mop-topped geniuses created over their seven-year reign. Soon afterwards, with a little help from my friend and schoolmate Tony (who borrowed a few albums from his sister’s vinyl stash and smuggled them to my crib), I became turned on the magical music of these pop pioneers.
Sitting on the floor in the living room in front of my bulky record player, I became the walrus and slowly drifted into a strange world of paperback writers, yellow submarines and a stunning woman named Michelle. It was only a matter of time, overtaken.
As with most great songwriters—from Burt Bacharach and Carole King to Gamble & Huff and Prince—great pop is not bound by race or class, and can often cross over in a very positive way. Indeed, in the same way the Beatles once offered the world their versions of Isley Brothers (“Twist and Shout”) and Little Richard (“Long Tall Sally”), many Black artists have put their own spin on the music of Liverpool’s greatest.
Last week, watching Lauryn Hill perform “Yesterday” on the Late Show with David Letterman, I thought about the many Beatles’ covers I’ve loved over the years and decided to share a few.
“Yesterday” by Marvin Gaye
A year before releasing his groundbreaking masterwork What’s Going On, Gaye recorded this brilliant cover of “Yesterday” with an aching loneliness in his perfect voice that was inspiring. With the Funk Brothers standing in the shadows, the melodic music was simply beautiful.
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by Natalie Cole
Perhaps one of the most underrated singers of her generation, Cole unleashed her fiery vocals onto this LSD anthem and made it the centerpiece of her funky concert album, 1978’s Natalie Live! Smiling down, daddy must’ve been proud.
“Norwegian Wood” by PM Dawn
A brotherly team more about hanging out at an art-house theater than in a back staircase puffing blunts, PM Dawn was one of the most hated hip-hop duos of the 1990s. To me, they were also one of the most talented. American trip-hop at its finest, their cover of “Norwegian Wood” was quite cosmic.
“Something” by James Brown
While James Brown was the godfather of soul, inspiring a generation of funky folks including Sly Stone and George Clinton, he was also a brilliant bluesman. Taking us to the muddy water, Brown turns the George Harrison-penned ballad into a juke-joint classic. According to those in the know, Harrison loved what Brown did with his song.
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by Bill Cosby
Philadelphia-born jazz fan Bill Cosby has been the king of comedy for years, but critics often miss the fact that he was also a smart surrealist. His bugged version of “Sgt. Pepper,” which sounded like a combination of a New Orleans marching band and a Fellini film soundtrack, was wild and wonderful.
“A Day in the Life” by Wes Montgomery
Released in 1967, the same year the Beatles recorded it, guitarist Wes Montgomery jacked the title to name his own album. Laid back as conked hair, Montgomery’s version has a sense of mystery and noir sensibilities. This is the true soundtrack to Lennon and McCartney’s already cinematic lyrics.
“Eleanor Rigby” by Ray Charles
From the drama of the opening violins to the moment he opens his mouth, Brother Ray turns this track into an angst-filled epic. With the black gold voices of the Raelettes soaring in the background, the music was as haunting as Charles’s voice.
“If I Fell” by Terence Trent D’Arby
“Comparing myself to The Beatles was the same thing as Lennon comparing himself to Jesus,” D’Arby once told a reporter, explaining the American mainstream backlash against his own music. With this stripped down cover that evokes Jeff Buckley as much as the Beatles, hopefully all can be forgiven.
“Come Together” by Ike and Tina Turner
A year after touring with the Rolling Stones (the Beatles’ biggest rivals), Ike and Tina Turner worked their honky-tonk mojo on the Fab Four’s funkiest song and kicked out this gutbucket rendition.
“Revolution” by Nina Simone
Who knew more about the concept of revolution than Nina Simone? A musical chameleon who knew classical, standards and pop, Simone turned this Beatles track into a folksy Malcolm X speech that ends in piano mayhem. Genius.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.