Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time by Ray Padgett

Book – The phrase ‘book of essays’ always suggests to me something stodgy, solemn and old-fashioned–until I remember that every Buzzfeed article is an essay by another name. Cover Me actually started as a series of posts on the author’s blog, and that pedigree shows, in a good way.  It’s a compilation of nineteen bite-sized nuggets of popular music history, exactly the kind of irresistible stories that can keep a reader clicking through to the next page until the small hours of the morning.

Author Padgett is a music producer as well as a writer, and his industry knowledge informs and enriches these impeccably-written essays.  Even after many years of blogging on the subject of cover songs (songs re-recorded by a different artist than the original) he was hesitant to delve into the subject in book form, because cover songs are not exactly a unifying theme.  They belong to no one particular era, genre or movement–but that fact in itself makes them an ideal vehicle for a macro-view of popular music as a whole, at least the past 65-ish years of English-language popular songs.  “Every major change in the music industry since the advent of rock and roll finds some expression in the world of cover songs,” Padgett writes, and he does an admirable job of delving into those larger connections and significances to make each song tell a larger story.  Moreover, he writes history the way it should be written: as a series of human stories, emotional and compelling as well as informative.

As a casual music history fan, I was nervous that Cover Me would be a music snob’s book for experts only, but was pleasantly surprised.  I already not only knew, but knew the words to, almost every song discussed, including all-time greats like Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” and the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout.”  This is definitely a book to enjoy with YouTube on hand, to listen (or, in the case of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” and the accompanying music video, watch) along to every variation of the featured songs.  Revisiting classics in this rich new way was a genuine joy, and I would recommend it to every teen and adult reader with even a slight interest in popular music or music history.

The Rolling Stones 1969-1974: the Mick Taylor Years

rollingMovie – This is an interesting documentary of a time period, after the death of Brian Jones, when Mick Taylor became the fifth Rolling Stone. If you look at the overall history of the Rolling Stones, the depth of musicianship in the late 1960s (post Brian Jones) to the mid-1970s (pre-Ron Wood) was unmatched, and they were arguably the best live band around. At that time, a young Mick Taylor was regarded as the best guitarist in the UK, and bringing in his talent to the band was a great move. Taylor’s brilliant guitar virtuosity greatly complimented the tough blues guitar riffs of Keith Richards. Mick Taylor’s presence on guitar gave the Stones a depth that allowed them to tighten up, explore different musical genres, and produced the Stones two most wholly realized albums: Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers.  The documentary uses penetrating interviews with noted rock music critics, remarkable behind the scenes film footage, and discussions of the group’s problems with finances, drugs and girlfriends.  The Rolling Stones are ranked by Rolling Stone magazine as fourth on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, and their estimated album sales are above 250 million. They have released 29 studio albums, 18 live albums and numerous compilations. Sticky Fingers (1971), for example, was the first of eight consecutive number one studio albums in the US. This documentary is not as good as Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones (1974), but it is certainly a must see.

Muscle Shoals (2013)

muscleMovie – This is the new documentary history of the Muscle Shoals, Alabama recording studios. It is the story of how Rick Hall founded FAME Studios in the unlikely small town of Muscle Shoals, along the Tennessee River, and a group of white farm boys (known
as the “swampers”) became The Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section session musicians. Countless major hit songs and great albums were subsequently recorded in these studios – as amazing as it seems. Many great recording artists are interviewed in the documentary, such as:  Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bono, Alicia Keys, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Gregg Allman, Lynyrd Skynard, Elton John, Boz Scaggs, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and many more. It is the remarkable story of how initial successes in soul and R&B led to the arrival of more mainstream rock and pop performers, and how the Muscle Shoals vibe produced so many great hits. Literally every big name wanted to record in Muscle Shoals, and to “get down and get greasy.” Filmaker Greg Camalier premiered Muscle Shoals at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, and the soundtrack alone will give you goosebumps. I loved this documentary and all the incredible vignettes, such as how Aretha Franklin just blossomed for the first time, when she got into the Muscle Shoals studios.