Some of the rock era’s biggest hits were so big, it’s easy to believe that these songs — many of which are the artists’ signature tunes — are all original versions. It might come as a surprise to learn that these 20 songs are all covers, each one first recorded by someone else.
In every case listed here, the remake far exceeded the first release of each title, especially Billboard’s most successful Billboard Hot 100 entry of all time.
Here are 20 songs you might not know were covers:
“The Twist,” Chubby Checker (1960/1962)
Chubby Checker’s recording, released on the Parkway label, is the only single in history to top the Hot 100 in two different runs: first in 1960 and again in 1962. The song originated in 1958, recorded by the Detroit-based Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. Ballard wrote the song after seeing some teenagers in Tampa, Florida, doing a new dance. His version ended up as the B-side of the group’s first pop hit, “Teardrops on Your Letter.” When the Twist became the hottest dance on American Bandstand, Dick Clark told Danny and the Juniors of “At the Hop” fame they should record a cover version. They didn’t go for the idea, so Clark called his friends at the Philadelphia-based Cameo/Parkway Records and suggested one of their artists cut the song. Clark had previously asked the label’s newest artist, Ernest Evans, to record an audio Christmas card. The song Clark sent to his friends for the holidays was “The Class,” which then became the first Hot 100 entry for Evans, who was renamed Chubby Checker. Chubby went into the studio, and 35 minutes later, he had recorded three takes of “The Twist,” backed by a vocal group known as the Dreamlovers. Hank Ballard was floating in a swimming pool in Miami the first time he heard Checker’s version on the radio. It was such a sound-alike to his recording that he thought the station was playing his own single.
Hank Ballard and the Midnighters:
“Nothing Compares 2 U,” Sinéad O’Connor (1990)
In the hours after Prince’s death on April 21, many news anchors talked about the songs he had written for other artists, including “Manic Monday” (No. 2 for the Bangles), “I Feel for You” (a No. 3 hit for Chaka Khan) and “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which was reported as being written for Sinéad O’Connor. But that’s not accurate. In 1985, Prince’s Paisley Park label released an album by The Family. The first single was “The Screams of Passion,” which scraped into the Hot 100, peaking at No. 63. Another cut, “High Fashion,” was sent to radio but failed to chart. One track that was not released as a single was the original version of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Five years later, talent manager Fachtna O’Ceallaigh brought the song to his client, O’Connor, for her second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. The single topped the U.K. chart for five weeks before debuting on the Billboard Hot 100, where it spent four weeks at No. 1.
“Hound Dog,” Elvis Presley (1956)
Elvis Presley’s third No. 1 single was a two-sided hit: “Don’t Be Cruel” backed with “Hound Dog.” The latter song was composed in 1952 by two East Coast songwriters who had relocated to Los Angeles. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were asked by Johnny Otis to come up with some hits for the singers in his band, including Little Esther and Big Mama Thornton. After watching Thornton perform at a rehearsal, Leiber and Stoller wrote “Hound Dog” for her, as a country-blues song. They helped Otis produce her recording, and her single went to No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart in April 1953. Three years later, Presley made his Las Vegas debut at the Frontier Hotel. He stopped by the lounge to catch a show featuring Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. He liked their comedic version of “Hound Dog” enough to add the song to his repertoire. He performed the song on Milton Berle’s TV show, and his pelvic thrusting caused a national uproar. As a result, Ed Sullivan announced he would never have Presley on his Sunday night variety show. Steve Allen, whose series aired on NBC opposite Sullivan, booked Presley to perform the song, with one condition: The singer had to stand still. Allen’s ratings went through the roof, and the next day, Presley recorded “Don’t Be Cruel” and, reluctantly, “Hound Dog” at RCA’s studio in New York.
Mike Stoller and his wife were on vacation in Europe and sailed back to New York on the Italian liner Andrea Doria. On July 25, 1956, that ship was rammed by another vessel. Fifty people died or were missing at sea, but the Stollers escaped in a lifeboat and were rescued. A frantic Jerry Leiber rushed to the docks to meet the freighter bringing the Stollers home. Grateful to be alive, the couple disembarked and were greeted by Leiber, whose first words were: “Elvis Presley recorded ‘Hound Dog’!”
Big Mama Thornton:
“Someday We’ll Be Together,” Diana Ross & the Supremes (1969)
When Motown announced that Diana Ross would be leaving the Supremes for a solo career, the world waited for the trio’s final single. When the title was announced, it seemed like the perfect way to close out this phase of their career. But “Someday We’ll Be Together” wasn’t written for the Supremes. The only one of their 12 No. 1 singles to be a remake, the song was written nine years earlier by Johnny Bristol, Jackie Beavers and Harvey Fuqua. Bristol and Beavers were friends who had served in the military together. After their discharge, they wrote “Someday We’ll Be Together” and released the song on Fuqua’s Tri-Phi label as Johnny and Jackie. Tri-Phi was later absorbed by Motown, and Bristol joined Berry Gordy’s company as a writer and producer. At the end of the 1960s, Bristol thought it was time to revive Johnny and Jackie as an act and took a tape of their one hit to Gordy. “He said, ‘Oh, this is a smash for the Supremes!’ His decisions were usually right on,” Bristol told Billboard in 1984. “He and I went into the studio with Diana.”
Diana Ross & the Supremes:
Johnny and Jackie:
“Bette Davis Eyes,” Kim Carnes (1981)
Lyricist Donna Weiss drove to her friend Jackie DeShannon’s house with the words to a new song, “Bette Davis Eyes.” “Too many words,” Weiss told Billboard. “It had more verses than we ended up having. We started work on it — it sounded real good — so I left her house. She called me the next morning real early and had it finished.” DeShannon recorded the song for her 1975 album New Arrangement. It had a honky-tonk feel, with little resemblance to what would be producer Val Garay’s 1981 production for Kim Carnes. Producer George Tobin, who helmed Carnes’ remake of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “More Love,” gave “Bette Davis Eyes” to Carnes, but she wasn’t crazy about it. When Carnes later teamed with Garay, Weiss sent her the song again. Carnes credits synthesizer player Bill Cuomo with changing the chords and turning “Bette Davis Eyes” into a hit. The single spent nine weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100.
“Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” The Temptations (1972)
A new Motown trio made its debut on the Hot 100 in June 1972. The Undisputed Truth had a top 10 hit their first time out with “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” which peaked at No. 3. The group was produced by Norman Whitfield, who originally recorded “Smiling Faces Sometimes” as a 12-minute, 42-second album track on the Temptations’ 1971 release, Sky’s the Limit. It was a common Motown practice to record the same song with multiple artists from Berry Gordy’s roster, and turnabout proved fair play, as the Temptations’ No. 1 hit “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” was a cover version of the original, recorded by the Undisputed Truth as a single in 1972. Their version peaked at No. 63 on the Hot 100 in July, five months before the Temptations’ track topped the chart.
The Undisputed Truth:
“What’s Love Got to Do With It,” Tina Turner (1984)
EMI signed Tina Turner to Capitol Records in the U.K. at the end of 1983 and released her first single, a cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” With a Hot 100 peak of No. 26, it was her highest-charting single since Ike & Tina Turner’s “Nutbush City Limits” in 1973. But it was the follow-up that gave Tina her biggest hit of all time: “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” written by British songwriters Terry Britten and Graham Lyle. The song had been around for a while. The composers intended it for Cliff Richard, who turned it down (and then later recorded it on his 2001 album Wanted). The tune found its way to the U.K. quartet Bucks Fizz, who recorded it with lead vocals by Bobby G. (one of the group’s female members, Jay Aston, wanted to sing lead, but the producers told her the song was meant for a male lead). The track was intended for their album I Hear Talk, but then Tina cut the song and released it, and the Bucks Fizz version went on the shelf until it was issued as a bonus track in 2000. Three other Bucks Fizz originals were covered by American artists. Barry Manilow recorded “Keep Each Other Warm” (No. 7 on the Adult Contemporary chart in 1989), Cher cut “Heart of Stone” (No. 17 on the Hot 100 in 1990) and the Four Seasons remade “You and Your Heart So Blue” (a non-charter in 1992).
“Twist and Shout,” The Isley Brothers (1962) and the Beatles (1964)
It’s common knowledge that the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” was a remake, but most people believe the Fab Four were covering the American R&B group the Isley Brothers, whose recording of the Phil Medley/Bert Berns composition peaked on the Hot 100 at No. 17 in August 1962. The Isley Brothers’ version was itself a cover, of the original 1961 recording by the Top Notes. Phil Spector was a staff producer at Atlantic Records when he helmed the Top Notes’ recording. That single failed to gain any traction, and Berns didn’t care for the production. He had a chance to do it his way a year later when he produced the Isley Brothers’ version. The Beatles recorded “Twist and Shout” a mere six months later for their first U.K. album, Please Please Me. In America, their single peaked at No. 2 on April 4, 1964, the famous week when the Beatles’ captured the top five spots on the Hot 100. In the U.K., the Beatles’ single didn’t chart until November 2010, after the group’s catalog became available on iTunes.
The Top Notes:
“Respect,” Aretha Franklin (1967)
“Respect” is Aretha Franklin’s signature song and the first of her two No. 1 singles on the Hot 100. But the song was not written for her, nor was she the first artist to cut the composition. “Respect” was written and originally recorded by Otis Redding. His single, issued on Stax’s Volt imprint, peaked at No. 35 in November 1965. In April 1967, Aretha Franklin’s first single on Atlantic (after years of languishing on Columbia) soared to No. 9. Because “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” was such a big hit, Franklin was rushed into the studio to complete an album in one week. Engineer Tom Dowd had also been the engineer on Redding’s original version of “Respect.” “During that week when we had to cram an album together,” he told Billboard in 1984, “Aretha said she liked that song. Her sister Carolyn was instrumental in the tempo aspect of it, the way they did it with the R-E-S-P-E-C-T lines.”
“Chapel of Love,” The Dixie Cups (1964)
When George Goldner launched the Red Bird label with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in 1964, he turned to the writing and producing duo of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich to create most of the label’s releases. The husband-and-wife team had a number of hits under their belts, including many of Phil Spector’s recordings, like the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me.” The last track on the Ronettes’ 1964 LP for Spector’s Philles label was “Chapel of Love,” but it was never released as a single. “Phil didn’t like the recording he made,” Barry told Billboard this week. “As I recall, I didn’t either. It was OK.” Barry and Greenwich told Spector they were going to record the song with three girls from New Orleans, known as the Dixie Cups. Their version of “Chapel of Love” was Red Bird’s first single and first No. 1 on the Hot 100. “It was good for radio at that time,” Barry said. “The British Invasion was in full swing. Everyone had long hair and played an instrument. And then along came these three black girls who didn’t play instruments. Radio welcomed a different sound.”
“Here You Come Again,” Dolly Parton (1978)
You could be forgiven for thinking that Dolly Parton wrote her first Hot 100 chart entry. After all, the woman from Locust Ridge Hollow, Tennessee, is known for composing one of the biggest pop hits ever, “I Will Always Love You.” Her own version topped Hot Country Songs, and then Whitney Houston’s single reigned on the Hot 100 for 14 weeks. “Here You Come Again” was written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, the husband-and-wife team responsible for some of the most classic songs of the rock era, including “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” “On Broadway” and “Somewhere Out There.” “We originally wrote the song for B.J. Thomas, and his was the first recording,” Weil recently told Billboard. “There were a few more after that, including a great singer named Barry Mann. Then Roger Gordon, who was working at Screen Gems/EMI, showed the song to Gary Klein, who was producing Dolly. He made a great record and Dolly delivered a Grammy-winning performance.”
“(They Long to Be) Close to You,” Carpenters (1970)
Richard and Karen Carpenter’s chart run on the Hot 100 began with a cover version. Their remake of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” peaked at No. 54 in 1970. A few months later, the follow-up, also a cover version, spent four weeks at No. 1. Burt Bacharach asked the brother-and-sister duo, newly-signed to A&M, to open for him at a charity dinner. Richard searched through the Bacharach catalog for some obscure songs and A&M founder Herb Alpert suggested a tune written seven years earlier by Bacharach and Hal David. Actor Richard Chamberlain, TV’s Dr. Kildare, recorded “They Long to Be Close to You” in 1963. It was released as the B-side of his single “Blue Guitar.” Dinah Washington also recorded the song that year, as a duet with Lionel Hampton. The demo recording was by Dionne Warwick, who later recorded her own version for her 1964 album Make Way for Dionne Warwick. For the Carpenters’ release, Richard “shortened” the title by putting parentheses around the first four words, so many DJs simply referred to the hit as “Close to You.”
“Don’t Turn Around,” Ace of Base (1994)
The Swedish quartet Ace of Base was signed to Mega Records in Denmark and Arista in the U.S., where they were under the aegis of Clive Davis. That’s why the track listings of their American albums differed from their European counterparts: Davis had his own ideas of which songs would be hits for the group in the U.S. That didn’t always sit well with the foursome. “We didn’t want anybody else involved with our music,” Ulf Ekberg told Billboard. “We thought we could do everything ourselves. There were a lot of heavy discussions with Clive Davis.” The Arista chairman wanted the group to record “Don’t Turn Around,” a Diane Warren/Albert Hammond composition first recorded by Tina Turner. Capitol Records relegated her track to the B-side of the 1986 single “Typical Male,” to Warren’s displeasure. Aswad, a reggae outfit from the U.K., cut the song in 1988 after they heard a version by Luther Ingram. The group’s single topped the British chart. Bonnie Tyler recorded it the same year, and Neil Diamond took the song to No. 19 on the Adult Contemporary chart in 1992. “We all liked the song a lot,” Ekberg elaborated. “After a lot of debate, we said, ‘Let’s record it and see if we can create an Ace of Base song out of it. If we can do that, let’s use it,’ and we all agreed on that. Clive said, ‘Yes, it will be up to you if we’re going to use it or not, but again, I strongly recommend it,’ whatever that means. In the end, it felt great in the studio. We really got the Ace of Base sound. We stretched the melodies and changed things back and forth and it came out very well, so we were all very happy with it. We decided this is a-one off to do this, but obviously it was a smart move because it turned out to be a global hit for us.”
Ace of Base:
“I Love Rock ’N Roll,” Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (1982)
Joan Jett’s signature song is so identified with the Philadelphia-born artist that it may be difficult to believe she didn’t write the song. But when Neil Bogart’s Boardwalk label released what would become a No. 1 single for Jett, the song was several years old. It was originally recorded by the Anglo-American band the Arrows as the B-side of one of their U.K. singles. Group members Jake Hooker and Alan Merrill wrote the song in response to the Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ’N Roll (But I Like It).” Hooker explained to Billboard, “I know they didn’t mean it in a derogatory way, [but] it minimalized what I thought about rock and roll. My gut reaction on first hearing it was, ‘What do you mean it’s only rock and roll but you like it? I love rock and roll!’ And it snowballed from there.” The song took about 30 minutes to write and Hooker and Merrill knew right away they had a smash. They brought it to their producer, Mickie Most, who told them the song was not a hit. The group wanted the song released as an A-side, but the quality of the recording wasn’t good enough and it was relegated to a flip side. While touring England as a member of the Runaways, Jett saw the Arrows perform the song on television. She asked Hooker if he’d mind the Runaways doing a cover. He was fine with the idea, but the rest of the Runaways weren’t enthusiastic and Jett couldn’t convince them to record it. After she left the group, producer Kenny Laguna cut the song with her. “The minute I heard it, I had no doubts,” Hooker said. “I knew it was going to be No. 1.”
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts:
“Louie Louie,” The Kingsmen (1963)
“Louie Louie” is indelibly linked to the Portland, Oregon, band known as the Kingsmen. They spent six weeks at No. 2 on the Hot 100 with their single. But the song was first recorded by its composer, Richard Berry, who was part of the nascent R&B/doo-wop scene in Los Angeles in the early 1950s. Berry’s “Louie Louie” was released as the B-side of “You Are My Sunshine” on the Flip label in 1957. Later that year, the single was re-released with “Louie Louie” as the A-side, backed with “Rock, Rock, Rock.” It was a regional hit but never gained national traction.
Four years later, a cover version by Rockin Robert Roberts from Tacoma, Washington, also became a local hit, in the Pacific Northwest. In April 1963, two groups recorded “Louie Louie,” both at the same studio in Portland, Oregon: The Kingsmen cut the song on April 6 and Paul Revere & the Raiders on April 13. The latter was picked up for national distribution by Columbia Records and did well on the West Coast and in Hawaii. The former was originally issued on the Jerden label in May and then nationally in October on Scepter’s Wand imprint. Two months later, the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” bolted into the top 10 of the Hot 100 with a move of 23-4, and one week later, on Dec. 14, the single began its six-week run in second place, unable to knock the Singing Nun’s “Dominique” and then Bobby Vinton’s “There! I’ve Said It Again” out of the No. 1 spot.
“Midnight Train to Georgia,” Gladys Knight & the Pips (1973)
After two of their Motown singles peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100 (“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in 1968 and “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” in 1973), Gladys Knight & the Pips left Berry Gordy’s company for Buddah Records and earned their first and only No. 1 hit on the Hot 100 with “Midnight Train to Georgia.” The song was written by the same composer responsible for “Neither One of Us,” Jim Weatherly. He had earlier cut his own version of the No. 1 hit as a single for the Amos label, with different lyrics. “It was based on a conversation I had with somebody about taking a midnight plane to Houston,” Weatherly told Billboard in 1985. “I wrote it as kind of a country song.” Cissy Houston, the mother of Whitney Houston, recorded it for the Janus label but her producer asked Weatherly if they could change the title to “Midnight Train to Georgia.” The songwriter replied, “I don’t mind. Just don’t change the rest of the song.” When Weatherly’s publisher sent the song to Gladys Knight and the Pips, the group kept Houston’s lyrical change.
Gladys Knight & the Pips:
“Without You,” Nilsson (1972) and Mariah Carey (1994)
It’s obvious that Mariah Carey’s version of “Without You” is a cover, but most people think the original is Nilsson’s recording, No. 1 on the Hot 100 in 1972. Nilsson found the song one drunken night while looking for material for his Nilsson Schmilsson album. The next day, after sobering up, he searched for the song he thought was a John Lennon recording but couldn’t find it on any Beatles album. Then he remembered it wasn’t a Lennon song. “It was another group – Grapefruit, or something,” he said. Wrong again. Turned out, “Without You” was written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans and recorded by their group, Badfinger. Nilsson took the song to his producer, Richard Perry, and told him it could be a No. 1 hit. “I wish I had written it,” Nilsson said. “But then again, it’s not what I write.”
“Lady Marmalade,” Labelle (1975)
The No. 1 song on the Hot 100 the week of March 22, 1975, was Frankie Valli’s “My Eyes Adored You,” written by Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan. A week later, it was deposed by Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” also written by Crewe and Nolan. The only songwriters who had succeeded themselves in pole position before this were John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and Motown’s team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland.
Crewe and Nolan wrote “Lady Marmalade” in 1974 and recorded it with a studio group they called the Eleventh Hour, featuring lead vocals by Nolan. The song was written in sections, Nolan explained to Billboard: “I had one part of the song here and one part there and it still needed something. Bob and I came up with the idea of, ‘Voulez-vous couchez avec moi ce soir.’ It was like a puzzle that finally fit together.”
The character of Lady Marmalade was from New Orleans and so was producer Allen Toussaint, who heard the original version and decided to record it with the Philadelphia-based Labelle, a trio starring Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash. Their single, released on Epic, exploded in the clubs and then spread to radio.
The Eleventh Hour:
“I Write the Songs,” Barry Manilow (1976)
Barry Manilow does write the songs, but not this one. While he did pen many of his own hits, including “Copacabana,” “It’s a Miracle” and “This One’s for You,” Manilow didn’t write any of his three No. 1s (the others being “Mandy” and “Looks Like We Made It”). “I Write the Songs” was composed by Bruce Johnston, who appeared on the Hot 100 in 1964 with Doris Day’s son, Terry Melcher, as the duo Bruce and Terry (“Custom Machine,” “Summer Means Fun”) and also as members of the Rip Chords (“Hey Little Cobra”). On April 9, 1965, Johnston officially became a member of the Beach Boys, effectively a replacement for Brian Wilson, who no longer wanted to tour with the group.
Johnston was driving on Southern California’s 405 freeway, climbing the incline to Mulholland Drive, when he got an idea for a song. He took the next off-ramp and returned home so he could work out the tune on his piano. He submitted the finished composition to a Japanese song festival and it was turned down. Then he played it for two friends – Daryl Dragon and Toni Tennille. When they signed with A&M as the Captain & Tennille, they recorded “I Write the Songs” for their first album. Next, Johnston produced a version for David Cassidy. It was his first single for RCA in the U.K., where it peaked at No. 11. Clive Davis heard Cassidy’s version in London and thought it would be a perfect song for Manilow. Johnston considers Manilow’s recording the “definitive version.”
The Captain & Tennille:
“That’s What Friends Are For,” Dionne and Friends (1986)
Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager wrote five songs for the 1982 film Night Shift, starring Henry Winkler, Michael Keaton and Shelley Long. The songs were recorded by Quarterflash, Al Jarreau, the Pointer Sisters, Bacharach and Rod Stewart. “That’s What Friends Are For” was Stewart’s first recording of a Bacharach song. Bacharach and Sager weren’t happy with how the track turned out and that might have been the end of it. Flash forward three years and Bacharach and Sager were scheduled to produce some songs for Dionne Warwick. Sager remembered “That’s What Friends Are For” and asked Bacharach, now her husband, to play it for Warwick. “She thought it might make a good duet with Stevie Wonder,” Sager recalled for Billboard. “The day that Stevie came in to do his vocal, Elizabeth Taylor came down to the studio with our friend Neil Simon.” Sager knew how active Taylor was in AIDS research and suggested to her that proceeds from the song be donated to the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Taylor, Bacharach, Warwick and Wonder all loved the idea and Dionne said she would like to add Gladys Knight to the mix. Then Arista chief Clive Davis brought in Elton John and said the label would donate its profits to AmFar as well. Elton flew to Los Angeles to add his vocals to the song, which ended up ruling the Hot 100 for four weeks. It was the fifth No. 1 for Bacharach and the third for Sager.
Dionne and Friends: