Cover version

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In the field of popular music, a cover version, or simply a cover, is a recording of a composition that is not the original. But in the early days of recording, especially in Britain, it had a more specific meaning.

British Artists and Repertoire (A&R) men, seeking music for their protegés to perform, would keep tabs on Tin Pan Alley and scan the American music charts for songs (including instrumentals, though in those days 'songs' meant strictly vocal) that their artists could cover. Because the songwriter, through the publisher, gets at least 50% of the royalties from each playing of a cover tune, cover songs are both a form of flattery and a source of income for songwriters.[1] Some cover versions are far more successful than the original version, a notable example being 'This Ole House', which was an enormously popular #1 hit in 1954 for Rosemary Clooney, who sang it in a jaunty, upbeat manner that belied its grim lyrics. It had originally been written, and recorded, by the country singer-songwriter (and 1952 candidate for the United States presidency on the Prohibition Party ticket) Stuart Hamblen as a mournful story about an old man dying alone, except for his hound dog, in a remote cabin.[2] It was covered at the time of Clooney's hit by numerous other artists, such as Rex Allen,[3] and by dozens more over the years.[4]

The traditional folk song 'Tom Dooley', popularised by the Kingston Trio in 1958, prompted a skiffle cover version by Lonnie Donegan; and the pop song 'Rubber Ball' by Bobby Vee was covered in copy-cat style, as was more usual, by Marty Wilde in 1961. In that year Donegan also covered the Highwaymen's 'Michael', renaming it 'Michael Row the Boat'. In 1964, Cilla Black stole sales from Dionne Warwick's original 'Anyone Who Had a Heart'.


  1. Typically, the songwriter retains 50% of the royalties, while the publisher retains the other 50%. Wise songwriters act as their own publishers and determine how much of publishing share will go to the performing artists. See *
  2. RCA Victor, record #5739. Hamblen's recording debuted on the Country and Western charts on August 21, 1954, and remained in the top 100 for 30 weeks, reaching #2 for two weeks. Country and Western songs at the time, however, typically sold far less well than Pop hits. Joel Whitburn's Top Country Songs, 1944 to 2005, Billboard, Record Research Inc., Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, 2005, ISBN 0-89820-165-9
  3. Decca record #29254
  4. Hamblen once remarked that he was initially angry when he heard the upbeat Rosemary Clooney version, so far removed from his intentions when he wrote the song, but that once the royalty payments began arriving he saw that he would be able to retire because of her rendition.