Besides provoking what must be social media’s longest, broadest, and in some cases most over-the-top collective wake (still in progress), Prince’s death served as a reminder to casual fans that the most popular version of a song isn’t always the first version. The Sinead O’Connor song “Nothing Compares 2 U” topped the charts in 1990, and Prince will forever be the answer to the trivia question asking who wrote it. Lesser known is the fact that the song was recorded once before, in 1985 by funk band The Family. That short-lived band was formed by Prince himself as a sort of musical clearinghouse to crank out more of his music, and their version of the song barely registered as a blip on the radar screen. Nevertheless, any time a cover of an obscure or not-well-known song hits it big, it shines a new light and gives a new perspective to the earlier version. Here are six such songs.
1 . “Quinn The Eskimo” / “The Mighty Quinn”
Bob Dylan / Manfred Mann
You could write a long list of Dylan-penned songs that made good money for other artists. He is certainly the master of sketching templates that can be filled in and fleshed out in myriad ways. But few Dylan originals have made as big a leap as “Quinn The Eskimo,” a throwaway jingle he recorded with The Band on the famous Basement Tapes sessions. Recorded in 1967 and released on a bootleg in 1969, it was meanwhile covered and released by Manfred Mann in 1968 to great commercial success, topping the British charts and reaching #10 in the U.S. Manfred Mann’s version, titled “The Mighty Quinn,” differs little from the original, with two obvious exceptions: a regular dose of drum fills that round out its otherwise steady rhythm, and the song’s trademark flute hook, perhaps one of recorded music’s most instantly-recognizable intros. That musical detail was contributed by German artist Klaus Voorman.
2 . “The Tide Is High”
The Paragons / Blondie
Blondie had already achieved two number-one hits by the time its cover of the Paragons’ “The Tide Is High” topped the charts in 1980. Played in a reggae style with a sleek backing brass section, it today remains one of the most enduring pop songs from its era. If it feels stretched a minute too long for its own good, it is: the Paragons’ version, recorded in 1966 on the Treasure Isle label in Jamaica, is a simpler endeavor. Here the vocal harmonies are the song’s calling card, while its beat is in the “rocksteady” style that was precursor to reggae. It’s also backed with the pleasant violin of “White Rum” Raymond, who gets a brief mid-song solo.
3 . “Hush”
Billy Joe Royal / Deep Purple
Deep Purple’s “Hush” was a monster hit for the band in 1968, and remains a staple of classic rock FM radio today. Rightfully so: It’s got a memorable na-na-na hook, a fuzzy and driving lead guitar, a terrific organ solo, an infectious bass rhythm, and it even opens with a wolf’s howl, for God’s sake. What more could your Camaro-driving, Winston-smoking, Old Style-pounding uncle ask for?
How about a southern-fried version? Written by songsmith Joe South and recorded by his fellow Georgian Billy Joe Royal, the original version of “Hush” never reached the heights of its later iteration. Royal’s twangier version is an obvious derivative of gospel, one of those songs wherein the female object of desire could easily be supplanted with God. It charted modestly in 1967, never reaching the heights of Royal’s most famous song, “Down In The Boondocks.”
4 . “I’ve Got My Mind Set On You” / “Got My Mind Set On You”
James Ray / George Harrison
“Got My Mind Set On You” was George Harrison’s first hit in seven years when it reached number one in 1987. More importantly, it seemed like the first time any of the former Beatles had had any kind of fun on a record in a generation. That it came from the often-gloomy and brutally over-spiritual Harrison was especially surprising. Yet there he was, proclaiming his love with the same juvenile exuberance that fueled “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” In true 80s form, the song has a pounding drumbeat (reminiscent of “My Sharona”) and sexy, gliding saxophones. Apparently the record label saw such a massive hit that it commissioned two music videos, one setting the story of teenage love at an arcade, the other featuring Harrison singing among a taxidermed menagerie and doing a tongue-in-cheek (body-doubled) MTV-worthy dance.
As it turned out, Harrison dusted off the song that was originally recorded by James Ray in 1962. It was a minor hit for Ray, who died not long after of a drug overdose. In fact, Harrison bought the record on a pre-Beatlemania visit to Illinois to see his sister in 1963. Ray’s recording (titled “I’ve Got My Mind Set On You”) is brassier, featuring a Jackie Wilson-esque backup chorus, and most interestingly, more lyrics. Harrison stripped the song down to the point that Weird Al Yankovic cleverly lampooned it with “This Song’s Just Six Words Long.”
5 . “We’ve Only Just Begun”
Crocker Bank Commercial / The Carpenters
Musical artists sell out to TV commercials all the time. Who ever heard of it going the other way around? That’s what happened in 1970, when Richard Carpenter saw a commercial for Crocker National Bank on television. It featured a hopeful rock melody played over footage of a young couple’s wedding, the implication being that the bank would be there for them on their exciting nuptial journey through the decades. Having correctly identified it as the work of lyricist Paul Williams (co-written with Roger Nichols), Carpenter reached out to Williams about a full-length version. As it turned out, additional verses and a bridge had been written, and Richard and his sister Karen recorded the song for their 1970 LP Close To You. It became one of The Carpenters’ biggest hits, reaching #2 in the U.S. Rogers and Nichols went on to further songwriting success, penning songs for bands like Three Dog Night, various TV and movie themes, and another Carpenters classic, “Rainy Days And Mondays.”
6 . “Time Is On My Side”
Kai Winding / Irma Thomas / The Rolling Stones
Kai Winding was born in Denmark in 1922, and at the age of 12 his family moved to New York City, where he would attend the illustrious Stuyvesant High School before embarking on a career as a jazz trombonist. In 1963, Winding and his orchestra would record “Time Is On My Side,” featuring outstanding backing vocals from the Warwick sisters and Cissy Houston. Their lyrics amount to the title itself plus the phrase “you’ll come running back to me.” The song was later fleshed out with verses and a bridge for soul singer Irma Thomas’ cover the following year. That same year, the Rolling Stones would take their stab at it. The result was a top ten hit, and the burning of its refrain in the public consciousness. When one person says “time is on my side,” another person can’t help but sing it. The Stones’ version is a classic in its own right, but compared to Winding’s and Thomas’, it’s relatively tame and not nearly as much fun.