When a song you’ve never heard before emerges as a hit, it’s natural to assume that the recording rocketing to success is the original version. But in the immortal words of Ira Gershwin, who wrote his share of hits in his day, it ain’t necessarily so. You could probably build a whole wing onto the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame filled with crypto-covers — tunes that made pop and rock history the second time around. Here are just a few of the hits that have etched themselves into the collective consciousness via blockbuster covers after the original versions failed to catch fire.
1. Joan Jett, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”
From the signature “Ow!” in between riffs to the growling assertion, “Yeah, me!” Joan Jett seems to make her 1981 Number One hit “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” so much her own that comes as something of a shock to realize the song was written and recorded in 1975 by Arrows, an American glam-rock group that found fleeting fame in England. The band was fronted by Alan Merrill, who is the son of legendary jazz singer Helen Merrill, and had released a cult-classic power-pop solo album, Merrill 1 in 1971. Presumably Merrill’s royalties remain sufficient to keep him from complaining about Jett stealing his thunder, though his position on Weird Al Yankovic’s version, “I Love Rocky Road,” remains unknown.
2. Cyndi Lauper, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”
As a recording artist, late, great Philadelphia New Waver Robert Hazard had his moment in the spotlight with his synth-swathed 1982 single “Escalator of Life.” But as a songwriter he saw his greatest success with “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” — not the original version cut by Robert Hazard & the Heroes, of course, but the 1983 smash that introduced Cyndi Lauper to the world at large. It didn’t hurt that having the song sung from a female perspective shifted it from something slightly creepy to a female-empowerment anthem.
3. Soft Cell, “Tainted Love”
Cyndi Lauper wasn’t the only early-‘80s New Wave icon whose first hit came from an unexpected source. After British synth-pop upstarts Soft Cell’s debut single flopped, they adopted an anything-goes approach, and the savvy soul fans decided to cut a cover of “Tainted Love,” an obscure 1964 recording by American R&B singer Gloria Jones, later the significant other of T.Rex’s Marc Bolan. According to Kurt B. Reighley’s new eBook, Say Hello, Wave Goodbye: The Fleeting Fame and Lasting Legacy of Soft Cell, even the signature “whoa-oh-oh” background vocals on Soft Cell’s version were patterned after another mid-‘60s song – the Yardbirds smash “Heart Full of Soul.” And while we’re at it — anybody hear echoes of Fine Young Cannibals’ “Good Thing” in Jones’ recording?
4. Blondie, “Hanging on the Telephone”
It was the best advertisement for phone sex ever to occupy a rock radio playlist, and it didn’t do anything to deter the male population’s ardor for femme fatale Debbie Harry either, but Blondie’s 1978 single “Hanging on the Telephone” didn’t originate with Blondie — it didn’t even originate with a woman. The song was originally recorded by the Nerves, an L.A. power-pop supergroup-in-retrospect that quickly dissolved as Peter Case founded the Plimsouls, Paul Collins started the Beat (the reason the English Beat had to add the prefix), and “Hanging on the Telephone” writer Jack Lee started a solo career. But none of the Nerves, either together or on their own, ever achieved the renown Blondie’s single enjoyed.
5. Santana – “Black Magic Woman”
This smoldering, 1970 classic-rock staple gave Santana their biggest hit ever — well, at least until “Smooth,” but that doesn’t count — but it was also probably the biggest payday Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green ever had. His band, still solidly in their blues-rock phase, cut the song two years earlier. Since Carlos and company’s recording ended up giving Green rent money for the next several centuries, we’re almost prepared to overlook the fact that the man who sang on the Santana version, the band’s keyboardist Gregg Rolie, would soon go off to start Journey.