Original v. Cover — #20 in a Series

lauren-bacall Pictures, Images and Photos

The story this week is as much about a great songwriter/performer, as well as a song that has proven to be one of the most versatile ever. Despite the lengthy number of cover versions presented this week, the variety of interpretations was too great to reduce the list further. No matter what your musical tastes might be, you’re likely to hear at least one that you like. His music continues to be performed in styles as diverse as pop, gospel, blues and rock. In 1951, Tony Bennett, accompanied by the Percy Faith orchestra, recorded a cover version of another of this songwriter’s works, which remained on the Billboard Magazine charts for twenty-seven weeks, peaking at #1.

The country western performer who rewrote and popularized this week’s feature song is legendary, considered by many to be the greatest ever. He was also one of the most successful songwriters of all time, profoundly influencing many who followed, including Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Bob Dylan, who describes this icon as his very first idol. Those performing cover versions of his songs reads like a “Who’s Who”, representing almost every conceivable musical genre. At least 80 songs have been written by various artists that pay tribute to his memory. Many albums, again featuring a variety of artists, have been produced as well, specifically to memorialize his music.

Those performing on the tribute albums include Connie Stevens, Floyd Cramer, Glen Campbell, Freddy Fender, Moe Bandy,, Del Shannon, Sammy Kershaw, Trio Los Panchos, Keith Richards, Tom Petty, Jerry Lee Lewis, the British alternative band The The and Irish singer/songwriter Bap Kennedy.

Some of you may still harbor the same general aversion to country music that afflicted this writer during the 1960s, 1970s and most of the 1980s.  Even during those years, this songwriter/performer’s work stood as a remarkable exception to the rule. This writer would argue that it is almost impossible to hear his music without feeling at least some of his yearning, his loneliness, his sadness and at times, his fleeting happiness. This aversion to country music has since moderated, and has now become selective, in part due to the blind patriotism extolled by some of its best known stars.

The performer, like many Horatio Alger type success stories, was born into the humblest of beginnings (a log cabin in Alabama) and was primarily raised by his mother.  He was born with a mild undiagnosed case of spina bifida occulta, a disorder of the spinal column, which caused pain throughout his lifetime, which was quite likely related to his severe abuse of alcohol, and eventually, pain medications. His father developed facial paralysis, which resulted in his hospitalization in 1930 at a VA Hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana for eight years, beginning when this performer was only seven years of age.  

Fortunately for all concerned, his mother was quite resourceful. She and her two young children moved to a variety of locations during these years, at times staying with family members. During one of these stops, an aunt taught this young man to play the guitar and a cousin taught him how to drink whiskey. Although he was a Caucasian, raised in the Deep South, he took his only musical instruction from a black street singer, an influence that can be found in his music.

The physical pain that he suffered throughout his life, as well as the emotional pain associated with his tumultuous personal life found its expression in his music. His songs, on the surface, present a deceptive simplicity; however he crafted his songs with a precision that rivaled that of a Swiss watchmaker. Bob Dylan perhaps described this phenomenon best, when he stated that this artist’s…

“…recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic songwriting. The architectural forms are like marble pillars and they had to be there. Even his words – all of the syllables are divided up so they make perfect mathematical sense. You can learn a lot about the structure of songwriting by listening to his records.”

This musician’s performances and recordings touched the hearts of many around the country, elevating his style of music from a regional to a national stage. His performances imparted a profound sincerity, vividly conveying a sense of both pathos and exuberance. During his first marriage, the young couple’s intense domestic discord, perhaps ironically, reflected in his music, propelled them both to unprecedented heights of material success.

As he became ever more successful, his drinking and eventual addiction of pain medications exacted an progressive toll on his health. On New Year’s Day of 1953, while being chauffered to a concert in Canton, Ohio, he was found dead in Oak Hill, West Virginia, in his Cadillac convertible. He was only twenty-nine years of age at the time. Although alcohol and painkillers were likely culprits, much controversy still surrounds the circumstances of his death. Much of the country went into deep mourning and his funeral service, attended by some 20,000 is still the largest ever held in Montgomery, Alabama.

This songwriter/performer’s son, who was three years of age when he lost his father, embarked on a rocky course himself, but has since become an extremely successful songwriter/performer in his own right. His grandson, who also bears his name has enjoyed some success as well, and his daughter and two granddaughters are also country musicians.

And, yes this article is also about a song.

This week’s featured selection, written and performed in 1951, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001, and is actually a hybrid, based in part upon the earliest version of this song. This song was initially written by Cole Porter in 1943 and sung by Ethel Merman in the Broadway musical “Something for the Boys.”  By first listening to this inaugural version, you can decide for yourself the extent to which it resembles the 1951 hit. In contrast to some of his recordings that so poignantly convey such powerful emotions, this song is a somewhat moderate up-tempo number, written in C major. This rather uncomplicated song consists of an extended pickup line, brimming with the usual grand promises.

Having exhausted the preliminaries, now, without further ado, this week’s featured song, from 1951, is “Hey, Good Lookin;” by Hank Williams, Sr.

This writer searched in vain for cover versions by Ray Charles and Elvin Bishop, so, if any of you manage to locate either, please feel free to include one or both in the comments section below.

After a time-consuming search for Ethel Merman’s version of this song, this writer was eventually able to locate a link where you can listen to a brief clip, a smpling of her rendition of the Cole Porter original from the 1943 musical, “Something for the Boys.” You may want to listen to this version first, in order to compare with later incarnations, including Williams’ 1951 hit. You can listen to the sample for #21 on the list that appears at this link. For existing and newly converted Merman fans, you may wish to note that in 1985, the Original Cast Recording was released on the AEI Records label, derived from long lost transcriptions made for shortwave radio transmission.

During a memorable trip to the southeast in the fall of 2007, this writer was fortunate enough to win free tickets to the annual concert at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, which featured that year’s new inductees to the Country Music Hall of Fame. The auditorium, where Williams once performed as a member of the Grand Ole Opry induces a sense of wonder when contemplating the history that has taken place within its walls. Fascinating details about his life can be found here, here, here, here and here. The wikipedia article describing Hank Williams, Sr.’s life includes a description of a musical, play and an as yet uncompleted movie portraying his life and work, which can be found here.  

Here is Williams’ hit version from 1951…

Tennessee Ernie Ford & Helen O’Connell, from 1951, adding female vocals and two-part harmonies.  Great sound quality on this video!

Frankie Lane & Jo Stafford, from 1951, a faster-paced version, again with two-part harmony, which became a Top Ten pop hit …

Ferlin Husky & Kathy Copas, from 1958…on Country Style USA. Kathy Copas Hughes suffered a double tragedy in 1963 when her father, Cowboy Copas and Patsy Cline perished in a plane crash. The plane was piloted by her husband, Randy Hughes.

Johnny Cash, from 1959, in his inimitable, straight-ahead, no-frills style…

Roy Orbison, from his 1970 album, “Hank Williams the Roy Orbison Way”…”Hey, Good Lookin’ is the first of this three-song medley of Williams’ tunes, more of a departure from the original than the previous covers, with a brass section added. The remaining two songs are also quite well known — Jamabalaya and Kaw-Liga (the latter showcasing a blues harmonica for additional effect)…

The Replacements, from 1981, with a decided edge, a much further departure from the original yet. The previous cheerful, cautiously optimistic sound is replaced with angry, defiant undertones.

Buckwheat Zydeco, from their 1990 collaboration with Dwight Yoakam and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, from their album, “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire”, one of my favorites, an upbeat bayou-style version..

The Mavericks, from 1992, turn in a high energy, urban cowboy, boot scootin’ performance, with some great instrumental solo work. Their eponymous album reached #74 on the country charts. This one is definitely worth a look and a listen…

Joe Pass, jazz guitar virtuoso & Roy Clark, country guitar virtuoso, team up for this relaxing instrumental version, from 1993…

C. C. Deville solo song from the movie “Son In Law”, from 1993, perhaps the furthest departure from the original you’ll ever find, likely to be a favorite of headbangers everywhere, with a decidedly raw, jagged, rusty, freshly blood-stained edge…

Waylon Jennings, from 1996, reminiscent of the earlier “Outlaw” days, when Jennings, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr., and Tompall Glaser collaborated on an album in the mid 1970s, nudging country music in a new and more widely accessbile direction. Purists were likely quite horrified, even though the “Outlaws” work seemed to represent a rather mild departure from the traditional…

In 2004, Jimmy Buffett recorded a version for his License to Chill album. Clint Black, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith and George Strait were all featured on this rendition, which peaked at #8 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks (now Hot Country Songs) charts in 2004. It was also the last Top Ten country hit for both Buffett and Black. This rendition was incorporated into a music video, directed by Trey Fanjoy and Stan Kellam.

This writer happened to be visiting Key West in early December, 2003, and was informed that although Jimmy Buffett no longer resided there, his music club/bar/restaurant/gift shop “Margaritaville” was still in operation, he still owned a windowless recording studio located near the downtown area, and there were still occasional sightings of Buffett in town. Locals also reported that Buffett had recently been sighted in town, reportedly in the company of Alan Jackson. On rare occasions, while visiting Key West, Buffett would make a surprise appearance on the stage at his club, performing with whatever band happened to be playing at the time. This writer has yet to find another place that exudes quite the same vibe as Key West.  

Posted on March 26, 2007 – Nieuwe Helden (New Heroes) acoustic band from The Netherlands performing live. Track of their DVD Live in Theater Het Hof, recorded in 2006. DVD+CD is available at www.cdbaby.com. Williams’ music is even popular across the pond.  This group performs a sort of zydeco version, and add in a new feature, for the first time in this thread, three-part harmony, along with a dash of gypsy jazz…

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with Linda Ronstadt, performance date unknown, posted on youube in 2008…

Hank Williams, Jr. & Reba McIntire, American Country Music Awards, 2008. Although this writer was disappointed when unable to locate a cover version by Asleep at the Wheel, this performance seems to pay homage to their distinctive Texas swing style…

Posted on January 23, 2008 – The Spotnicks in Taberg, Sweden. Scandinavians performing country music? The Spotniks began as a band in 1961, and although many of the personnel have changed over the years, they continue to perform up to the present day. The following bio of the band is quite fascinating.  Here they turn in a high energy performance, adding in a touch of Southern fried rock, in this version worthy of a Texas roadhouse…

Willie Nelson, live from the meklweg, from 2009.  Anyone else have any idea where meklweg is? Actually, this is a double feature, adding Hank Williams, Sr.’s “Move It On Over”, featuring some great blues harmonica work, and a reference to “the big dog’s movin’ in”, perhaps a prescient reference to Bill Clinton?  

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  1. left behind quite a legacy, not unlike that of several influential artists whose premature demise presaged similar tragedy that would befall three iconic musicians eighteen years later, all passing away at 27 years of age, and all in relative temporal proximity to each other.  These artists were Jimi Hendrix (November 27, 1942 – September 18, 1970), Janis Joplin (January 19, 1943 – October 4, 1970) and Jim Morrison (December 8, 1943 – July 3, 1971).

    The rise to stardom for all four was meteoric, none survived to celebrate their 30th birthday, and the demise of all appeared to be related a life of excess coupled with the abuse of mood altering substances.  

    Which raises the question, is genius, fame and fortune a blessing or a curse or does it depend upon the person?

    But I digress.

    For all of you who believe, as do I, that truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction, here are a couple of coincidences that almost defy belief, as excerpted from Wikipedia.  

    “I’ve Done Everything Hank Did But Die” written and performed by the late Keith Whitley. Never officially released, it was presumably recorded sometime after Keith had surpassed the age of 29, Hank’s age when he died. Whitley, who like his idol battled alcoholism, died of acute alcohol poisoning at the age of 33.

    On the album Show Me Your Tears, Frank Black’s song “Everything Is New” recounts the tragedy of both Williams’ and Johnny Horton’s deaths. The relevant lyrics are: “Hiram said to John have you met my wife? Someday she’ll be yours when I lose my life. He lost it after playing the old Skyline. Seven years later, after that same gig, John took the wheel, but when he got to the bridge Billy Jean was alone for the second time.” Billy Jean of course refers to Billie Jean Jones (Jones being her maiden name) who married both Hiram “Hank” Williams and, later, John “Johnny” Horton. Both men died in vehicles, and both played their last (separate) concerts at Austin, Texas’s “the old Skyline” Club (as the song mentions).[15]

    In the above essay, this writer spoke of the range of emotion conveyed by his songs.  Here are two extremes, for your careful consideration…

    First, for the pathos, an example of which is perhaps best described in part, in the wikipedia article for the 1951 hit, “Cold, Cold Heart.”…

    “Cold, Cold Heart” is a country music and popular music song, written by Hank Williams. This blues ballad is both a classic of honky tonk and an entry in the Great American Songbook.

    Williams first recorded and released the song in 1951, where it reached #1 on the country music singles chart. The song achingly and artfully describes frustration that the singer’s love and trust is unreciprocated due to a prior bad experience in the other’s past.

    That same year it was recorded in a pop version by Tony Bennett with a light orchestral arrangement from Percy Faith. This recording was released by Columbia Records as catalog number 39449. It first reached the Billboard magazine charts on July 20, 1951 and lasted 27 weeks on the chart, peaking at #1. [1]

    The popularity of Bennett’s version has been credited with helping to expose both Williams and country music to a wider national audience. Allmusic writer Bill Janovitz discusses this unlikely combination:

    “That a young Italian singing waiter from Queens could find common ground with a country singer from Alabama’s backwoods is testament both to Williams’ skills as a writer and to Bennett’s imagination and artist’s ear.”

    Williams subsequently telephoned Bennett to say, “Tony, why did you ruin my song?” But that was a prank – in fact, Williams liked Bennett’s version and played it on jukeboxes whenever he could. This story is often related with mirth by Bennett in interviews and on stage; he still performs the song in concert as of 2005.

    Here is William’s version, which is actually a live medley, beginning with “Cold, Cold Heart”, followed by a duet rendition of another of his hits, “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You.”  

    And here is Tony Bennett’s tasteful version, also from 1951…

    Lest you think that Williams’ music was solely devoted to expressions of sadness and despair, please consider his 1947 hit, “Move It On Over”, described in part in this wikipedia entry…

    Lest you think that Williams’ music was solely devoted to expressions of sadness and despair, please consider his 1947 hit, “Move It On Over”, described in part in this wikipedia entry…

    “Move It On Over” is a 12-bar blues song written and recorded by the American country music singer-songwriter Hank Williams in 1947. The song was Williams’ first major country hit, reaching #4 on the Billboard Country Singles chart.

    The song is considered very influential to later rock-and-roll. The song’s lightweight subject matter and composition very closely resemble that of “Rock Around the Clock,” released five years later, which would go on to become the first hit rock and roll single.

    The song follows a man who is forced to sleep in the doghouse after coming home late at night and not being allowed into his house by his wife. In the decades since its release, the song has been covered a number of times by artists such as Ray Charles, Bill Haley, Tiny Hill and the Hilltoppers, George Thorogood, and Williams’ son Hank Williams Jr.

    Here’s Hank, performing “Move It On Over”…  

    And for one more up-tempo diversion, here is Hank’s rendition of “Settin’ the Woods on Fire”…

    Can there be any doubt that Hank Williams, Sr. gave voice to the hopes, dreams, trials and tribulations of the rural population of this country, particularly in the Deep South, like no one else before or since?

  2. I think I would have liked a little more of Joe Pass`s playing, though those two styles (Roy Clark) went together very well.

    I went looking to see if maybe Patsy Cline, (A favorite of mine) had ever sang that tune, but apparently not.

    Very unusual mix you`ve got tonight.

    I listened to all of the main post covers, now I`ll listen to the ones in your comment.

    It`s always a surprise to open your Friday night essay.

    Thanks.

  3. Hank Williams, Sr. was just awarded a Pulitzer Prize, as described here.  

    The first three paragraphs of the CNN article, dated April 13, 2010…

    (CNN) — The late country music icon Hank Williams was among the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winners announced Monday.

    The Pulitzer Prize Board awarded a posthumous special award to Williams, who died in 1953 at 29, for his lifetime achievement as a musician, praising the country legend for “his craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life.”

    The board, chaired by Miami Herald Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal, decided on the “special citation” after a confidential survey of experts in popular music.

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