When a song receives a Grammy nomination for song of the year, it’s as if the voting members of the Recording Academy are saying, “This song could have a long life, one that extends beyond just this one recording.”
Not all songs that have been nominated in that marquee category since the Grammys got underway in 1958 have met that test, but many have. “Fast Car” is the latest example. Luke Combs’ version of Tracy Chapman’s song motors from No. 11 to No. 9 in its eighth week on the Billboard Hot 100. Chapman’s original version, which brought her Grammy nominations for both record and song of the year and a win for best female pop vocal performance, reached No. 6 in 1988.
“Fast Car” is just the 11th song of the year nominee to have two versions that reached the top 10. (This doesn’t count songs that were sampled or interpolated in subsequent songs.)
For the record, voters aren’t asked to evaluate a song’s potential for having a long life, though many voters do just that. The rules for song of the year simply state: “Songs entered for consideration in this category should represent the best achievement in songwriting. Songs that contain samples or interpolations are eligible. A song must comprise melody and lyrics to be eligible in a songwriting category and must have been released on a recording for the first time, or achieved prominence for the first time, during the current eligibility year.”
Here are all 11 song of the year nominees that have had two versions make the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. All chart references are to the Hot 100.
“Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)”
Songwriter: Domenico Modugno
Top 10 Hit for: Modugno, Bobby Rydell
Notes: Domenico Modugno’s version, a lounge classic, logged five nonconsecutive weeks at No. 1 in August and September 1958. It won Grammys for both record and song of the year. “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare),” written and sung in Italian, is the only foreign-language song to win song of the year. Amusingly, the title was spelled out phonetically right under the title on the single: “NELL-BLUE-DEE-PEENTO-DE-BLUE.” The song of the year Grammy went only to Modugno, but most sources list Franco Migliacci as a co-writer.
Bobby Rydell’s swinging remake, which was sung in English and titled simply “Volare,” hit No. 4 in September 1960. The high school in Grease was named Rydell High in a nod to Rydell, a teen idol of the late ’50s and early ’60s whose other hits included “Wild One” and “Forget Him.”
Songwriters: John Davenport & Eddie Cooley
Top 10 Hit for: Peggy Lee, The McCoys
Notes: Peggy Lee’s smoldering version reached No. 8 in August 1958. It received Grammy nods for both record and song of the year, but lost in both categories to “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare).” The McCoys’ rock and roll cover version, which is in the vein of hits of the era by Paul Revere & the Raiders, hit No. 7 in December 1965. It was The McCoys’ follow-up to the Hot 100-topping “Hang on Sloopy.”
“He’ll Have to Go”
Songwriters: Joe Allison, Audrey Allison, Charles Randolph Grean
Top 10 Hit for: Jim Reeves, Jeanne Black
Notes: This is a special case. Jim Reeves’ classy country ballad “He’ll Have to Go” reached No. 2 in March 1960. Chet Atkins, who, like Reeves, is in the Country Music Hall of Fame, produced the smash. Jeanne Black’s quickly-recorded answer song, “He’ll Have to Stay,” using the same melody, but with new lyrics (in which the woman in the story makes it clear that she’s moved on), reached No. 4 in May 1960. Charles Randolph Grean was credited alongside the husband-and-wife team of Joe and Audrey Allison, who co-wrote “He’ll Have to Go,” on “He’ll Have to Stay.” The Grammys credited all three writers as co-writers of “He’ll Have to Go.”
“Bridge Over Troubled Water”
Songwriter: Paul Simon
Top 10 Hit for: Simon & Garfunkel, Aretha Franklin
Notes: Simon & Garfunkel’s power ballad logged six consecutive weeks at No. 1 from February to April 1970, becoming their third of three No. 1 hits. It went on win record and song of the year on the first live Grammy telecast in March 1971. Aretha Franklin, who had recorded the song in August 1970, sang it on the Grammys. Her version, which transformed the song into a soul/gospel tour-de-force, was released three days after the Grammy telecast. It reached No. 6 in 1971 and won a Grammy for best R&B vocal performance, female the following year. S&G’s version had hymn-like qualities, but Franklin’s version really took it to church.
“Killing Me Softly With His Song”
Songwriters: Charles Fox & Norman Gimbel
Top 10 Hit for: Roberta Flack, Fugees (feat. Lauryn Hill)
Notes: Roberta Flack’s superb version of this song topped the Hot 100 for five nonconsecutive weeks in February and March 1973. It was Flack’s second of three No. 1 hits. It won Grammys for both record and song of the year and best pop vocal performance, female.
Fugees’ hip-hop-infused cover version, its title shortened to “Killing Me Softly,” reached No. 2 on the Hot 100 Airplay chart in June 1996, but never charted on the Hot 100 due to eligibility rules on the chart at the time. Flack joined Fugees for a memorable performance of the song on the MTV Movie Awards that same month. Fugees’ track, with its punchy “one-time, two-times” hook, went on to win a Grammy for best R&B performance by a duo or group with vocal. It put a global spotlight on Lauryn Hill, lead vocalist on the track, setting the stage for her smash solo debut two years later.
“Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”
Songwriters: Neil Sedaka & Howard Greenfield
Top 10 Hit for: Sedaka (both times)
Notes: Sedaka’s original, bouncy version of this song topped the Hot 100 for two weeks in August 1962. His torch ballad remake reached No. 8 in February 1976, and brought Sedaka and Greenfield their second song of the year nomination in as many years. They had been nominated the previous year for writing the Captain & Tennille smash “Love Will Keep Us Together.” Grammy voters, apparently, were impressed by the 1962 song’s durability and adaptability. Under current rules, the song would not have been eligible in 1976, because it was by that point already well-known. This is the only case where one artist made the top 10 with two versions of a Grammy song of the year nominee.
Songwriter: Lionel Richie
Top 10 Hit for: Diana Ross & Richie, Luther Vandross & Mariah Carey
Notes: Diana Ross & Richie’s elegant recording, from the film of the same name, topped the Hot 100 for nine consecutive weeks from August to October 1981, becoming Motown Records’ longest-running No. 1 hit to that point. It received Grammy nods for both record and song of the year, but lost in both categories to the Kim Carnes’ smash “Bette Davis Eyes.” Ross and Richie performed the song on the Oscars in March 1982 (see photo above), where it was nominated for best original song. Luther Vandross & Mariah Carey’s cover version of “Endless Love” nearly topped the chart in its own right: It reached No. 2 in October 1994.
“Always on My Mind”
Songwriters: Wayne Carson, Johnny Christopher & Mark James
Top 10 Hit for: Willie Nelson, Pet Shop Boys
Notes: Willie Nelson’s heartfelt version of this ballad, which Elvis Presley had recorded in 1972, reached No. 5 in June 1982. It received a nod for record of the year and won for best country vocal performance, male. Pet Shop Boys took a cool and detached approach to the song on their club-friendly reinvention, which hit No. 4 in May 1988.
“Time After Time”
Songwriters: Rob Hyman & Cyndi Lauper
Top 10 Hit for: Lauper, INOJ
Notes: Lauper’s original version of this heartfelt ballad topped the Hot 100 for two weeks in June 1984. It was her first of two No. 1 hits. A cover version by female R&B singer INOJ, with more emphasis on the beat, hit No. 6 in September 1998.
“We Are the World”
Songwriters: Michael Jackson & Lionel Richie
Top 10 Hit for: USA for Africa, Artists for Haiti
Notes: USA for Africa’s original version of this humanitarian anthem topped the Hot 100 for four consecutive weeks in April and May 1985. It won Grammys for both record and song of the year and best pop performance by a duo or group with vocal. A hip-hop-infused remake, “We Are the World: For Haiti” by Artists for Haiti, debuted and peaked at No. 2 in February 2010. It raised money to aid earthquake-ravaged Haiti, just as the original had raised money to alleviate starvation in Africa. The update didn’t have anywhere near the cultural impact of the original, but the talent line-up is impressive, ranging from a 15-year-old Justin Bieber to an 83-year-old Tony Bennett.
Songwriter: Tracy Chapman
Top 10 Hit for: Chapman, Luke Combs
Notes: Chapman’s original version reached No. 6 in August 1988. It received Grammy nods for both record and song of the year, but lost in both categories to Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It won best pop vocal performance, female. Luke Combs’ cover version climbs to No. 9 this week on the chart dated May 27. It is faithful to the original, down to Combs retaining the line “I work in a market as a checkout girl.”