Music at Home: Behind the British Invasion
When the British Invasion arrived in America in the mid-1960s, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other bands introduced songs like “Little Red Rooster” and “Road Runner” to American teenagers who assumed they were originals. In fact, those bands’ catalogs were full of American R&B and blues classics from years in the past, originally written and recorded by black musicians such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, and others. Singers like John Lennon and Mick Jagger took more interest in this music than many listeners had at the time, covering classic songs that had been largely ignored by white Americans in the previous decade. While some of the artists they covered benefited from the publicity boost, others remain sadly under-recognized. In celebration of Black History Month, here are 10 original songs that were covered by British Invasion bands.
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Roy Lee Johnson, “Mr. Moonlight”
Johnson’s rumbling R&B classic was introduced to a wider audience when the Beatles began performing it live in their early years, eventually releasing it on 1964’s Beatles for Sale. The original, recorded under the name Dr. Feelgood and the Interns, is incredible — especially the iconic opening wail that Lennon replicated with the Beatles. And while Beatles fans have underrated this cover of “Mr. Moonlight” for years, 2021 seems like a good year to change that.
Arthur Alexander, “Anna (Go to Him)”
Alexander was covered by everyone from the Stones to Bob Dylan, but he remains a cult artist who never got the acclaim he deserved. This shattering soul ballad about setting a love free is an example of just how great a songwriter he was, as he relays his conversation with Anna in just a few words to convey the emotional intensity (he even tells Anna to return her ring, politely). The Beatles released “Anna (Go to Him)” on their debut, Please Please Me, but their take on Live at the BBC Volume 2 is equally, if not more, fantastic.
Slim Harpo, “I’m a King Bee”
The Stones covered so many great songs by black artists that it’s difficult to choose just one, but Slim Harpo’s bluesy “I’m a King Bee,” which they released on The Rolling Stones No. 2, stands out. Harpo’s original is a swampy, seductive stomper, as he prompts the guitar with “Sting it, then!”
Solomon Burke, “Can’t Nobody Love You”
Burke released this R&B ballad, written by Prince Phillip Mitchell, in 1963. The Zombies included a tender version of the song on their 1965 debut, but Burke’s powerhouse vocals make a much more convincing argument to the lover in question. Just listen to the way he belts out the names of desserts — “Sam bought you cake and ice cream/And he called you cherry pie/Ray Charles called you his sunshine/But you’re the apple of my eye” — and you’ll get the idea.
Chuck Berry, “Beautiful Delilah”
The Kinks attempted to cover the father of rock & roll on their 1964 debut, which is like trying to paint The Starry Night on your first try. The original is as classic as it gets, with a jittery piano closely following Berry’s tight riffs. Also, he mentions pie.
Nina Simone, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”
Written by Horace Ott, Bennie Benjamin, and Sol Marcus, this Simone track has been covered by a variety of artists, from Eighties Elvis Costello to the Latin disco outfit Santa Esmeralda. But it’s best known because of the Animals, whose cover became a massive hit just months after Simone released Broadway-Blues-Ballads in late 1964. Her version is far more mystical, opening with a twinkling piano and swirling instrumentation that has you hanging on to every word.
Doris Troy, “Just One Look”
Troy’s biggest hit received cover treatment by the Hollies, Linda Ronstadt, Anne Murray, and many more, but her original is the definitive one. Troy co-wrote it with Gregory Carroll in 1963, and her emotion gets increasingly palpable with each and every oh oh.
Chris Kenner, “I Like It Like That”
“I Like It Like That” was a big hit for Kenner in 1961, and the Dave Clark Five’s version — released four years later — did well, too, climbing to Number Seven on the Billboard 100. The original, which Kenner co-wrote with Allen Toussaint, is quintessential Sixties R&B, even making it on the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.
Bo Diddley, “I’m a Man”
The Yardbirds’ decision to speed up their version of Diddley’s 1955 tune means the spelling of “man” is far less meaningful than the original. Diddley admitted to Rolling Stone in 1987 that his slow-burning spelling of the word resulted in 30 takes. “We’d get to that spot in the song, and they’d say, ‘OK, now spell it — m-a-n,'” he recalled. “Real quick, like that — you know how some white guys is out of time? They couldn’t tell me exactly what the hell they were talkin’ about. So I said it the way they had: ‘M-a-n.’ They said, ‘Goddamn, just spell it.’ This went on all night. Finally, I was getting tired, and I said it real slow: ‘M … a … n.’ And they said, ‘That’s what we’re talkin’ about!’ I said, ‘Why in the hell didn’t you coulda told me that the first?’ That’s the truth, I ain’t lyin’.”
Muddy Waters, “Rollin’ and Tumblin'”
Cream came onto the scene in 1966 with Fresh Cream, which included covers of Skip James, Robert Johnson, and Willie Dixon. It’s no surprise that the English blues fans also covered this Delta tune, first recorded by Hambone Willie Newbern in 1929, and performed by Waters on 1969’s After the Rain. Come for the twangy guitar, stay for the walloping percussion.