Beatles Doing Others: 10 Cover Songs that Shaped the Fab Four’s Music
It’s a safe bet that no band’s songs have been covered more than those written by The Beatles. By the same token, however, as John Lennon and Paul McCartney were perfecting their writing skills, they were leading the band in cover versions of songs penned by writers they especially admired. The 10 songs below don’t necessarily represent the very best of those renditions, but the range of styles of these tracks helps explain the eclectic nature of The Beatles’ body of original work.
“Long Tall Sally”
Recorded in June 1964 for a four-song British EP, this cover of Little Richard’s classic rave-up gave McCartney the chance to rock out with vocal histrionics that equaled those of Lennon at his most unhinged. To this day, Little Richard insists he once gave McCartney a lesson in screaming, and this exercise in vocal mayhem gives credence to that claim. Check out McCartney’s rousing vocal on The Beatles’ “I’m Down” to hear the full impact of Little Richard’s influence.
“Rock And Roll Music”
Lennon’s affection for Chuck Berry was never more fully in evidence that on this exhilarating cover, which appeared on the 1965 album, Beatles for Sale (Beatles ’65, in the U.S.). Whereas Berry sang the song in an even-toned and relatively placid manner, Lennon belted out the lyrics with all the volume and raspy urgency he could muster. Lennon’s voice builds beautifully during the calypso section, and when the chorus hits, he sounds positively euphoric.
Buck Owens and the Buckaroos scored a #1 country hit with this song in 1963, two years before The Beatles recorded their version during the Help! sessions. Sung by Ringo Starr in his usual unaffected manner, the track featured a slew of twangy guitar licks from Harrison. As the b-side of “Yesterday” (the track didn’t appear on the stateside version of Help!), “Act Naturally” peaked at #47 on the Billboard charts in the fall of 1965.
“Please Mr. Postman”
The Beatles had performed this Motown classic regularly during their 1962 Cavern Club shows, but by the time they recorded the song for their second album, they had dropped it from their live set. No matter. As McCartney and George Harrison coo the backing vocals, Lennon sings the lyrics with a gushing abandon that makes The Marvelettes’ original version sound timid and restrained in comparison.
“Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby”
Ringo handled lead vocals on the first two Carl Perkins songs The Beatles covered (“Matchbox,” and “Honey Don’t”), but Harrison filled the shoes of Perkins on this terrific rockabilly track. Fittingly, the song closes out Beatles For Sale, an album that featured more nods to country music than any other Beatles disc. Harrison sings with the sonic equivalent of a glint in his eye, and his guitar licks are faithful to those in Perkins’s original version.
“You Really Got A Hold On Me”
Lennon injected soulful urgency into this cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ classic hit. Recorded in July 1963, the song was the first track the Beatles tackled when they entered the studio to record the follow-up to their debut album. George Martin contributed some terrific piano work.
Author Tim Riley once rightly described The Beatles’ rendition of this obscure gem (written by Roy Lee Johnson, and released prior to The Beatles by Dr. Feelgood and the Interns) as one of the most peculiarly engaging covers The Beatles ever recorded. Steering just this side of parody, Lennon and McCartney deliver their lines with straight-up seriousness in the harmony section, setting up a sharp contrast with Lennon’s gut-wrenching solo lines. Harrison’s Hawaiian-flavored guitar adds to the song’s strange ambiance.
“Dizzy Miss Lizzie”
Often mistaken for a Little Richard composition, this track is in fact one of three songs covered by The Beatles that were penned by “Bony Moronie” writer Larry Williams. (The other two were “Slow Down” and “Bad Boy.”) Though it was sung by Lennon, McCartney once praised the track as one of his favorite Beatles recordings. The Beatles’s fiery live rendition is a highlight of the band’s At The Hollywood Bowl album.
This Luther Dixon/Wes Farrell song, originally recorded in 1960 by The Shirelles, featured Ringo in his first recorded lead vocal. Interestingly enough, drummer Pete Best had sung the song during his tenure with The Beatles, and Ringo had done the same during his pre-Beatles stint with Rory Storm and The Hurricanes. A fan favorite in the early days, the song sounded ready-made for live performance.
“Twist and Shout”
This Isley Brothers hit (originally released by the Top Notes) was the last track The Beatles tackled during their marathon 10-hour recording session for their Please Please Me album. Knowing that the track would wreak havoc on Lennon’s vocal cords, George Martin allotted just 15 minutes to the band to complete this blow-the-roof-off rendition. Lennon later said his voice wasn’t the same for a long time afterwards, and that every time he swallowed, it felt like sandpaper.