I often wonder what differentiates the good songs from the great. I imagine what accounts for greater notoriety is an essence that reaches the hearts of many over the few. I have also wondered if “good” music has inherent and timeless qualities, or always changes, subject to the zeitgeist and whims of human arbitrariness (read: a popular radio station plays a certain single by a well-known band over and over again until we the listeners are beaten with its sonority to believe in its “good”ness).
In my fandom’s perspective, a fair place to start investigating these questions — especially with regard to popular music — is cover songs. We know during the height of soul music, cover songs were as popular as the original hits.
Written by Ahmet Errtegun — founder of Atlantic Records — and the wife of the Ben E. King, Betty Nelson, Don’t Play That Song (You Lied) hit #2 on the R&B singles chart when it first debuted in 1962. Ben E. King, best known for his singing and co-composition of the classic Stand By Me (1961) — which was revived in 1986 when the movie by the same name was released — was originally part of the soul group called the Drifters before pursuing a solo career with Atlantic Records. Finding inspiration in the likes of Brook Benton and Sam Cooke, King sang with an openness that elevated his often harsh and raw sounds.
In this original hit by King, you can hear the instrumentation and simple bass line that was still prevalent in those late doo-wop era hits with which King was familiar. The strings thicken King’s heaviness, as he moans recalling those dark days of betrayal and deception, and so pleading, don’t play that song. The bass line continues in the same chord progression of 1-6-4-5 (tonic, sixth, fourth, fifth), the most common progression for love songs. In this way, the song doesn’t break new ground, but remains a mark of demonstrative sounds that showcased the pleading, yearning, and an uninhibited display of the hurting spirit that was the hallmark of the soul genre and exemplified by King:
Nearly a decade later, the song would be covered in the album Spirit in the Dark (1970) by none other than Aretha Franklin, who by then had already earned herself the moniker “Queen of Soul” for producing with Atlantic such hits as Respect (1967), (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (1967), and Think (1968).
In this 1970 version of King’s hit, Aretha takes a remarkable turn, revising the song from its original doo-wop feel to a heavier groove by adding a piano playing a blues line along to a rhythm marked by its heavier backbeats. It also has that syncopated — almost triple-time — feel, which not only contrasts the original song’s rhythms, but also embodies the contemporary soulful sound that presaged the inclinations of 70s disco and funk.
Notice that this version keeps the back-up vocals the original had, but instead of having the vocalists sing long sustained notes during the first two verses, Aretha’s version has them accentuating the call-and-response — “Darling, I love you” — trading words with greater dynamism. Furthermore, the song heavily relies on a simple recipe of Aretha’s musicality and a simple bass line, paring away the thick layer of strings that enriched the original, while maintaining the same openness and heartfelt spirit King’s raw sound invoked.
Thanks to Aretha’s virtuoso piano performance, unrivaled vocal prowess, and smart arranging, this 1970 cover of King’s 1962 original would ultimately spend five weeks at #1 on the R&B charts before ultimately being certified gold for selling more than a million copies.
Th fact that few of us know the original was released in 1962 by the same man who sang Stand By Me makes us turn back to those initial set of questions. The two songs, though similar in content, saw similar success on the Billboard charts in their respective eras. Yet the later version by Aretha is the more well-known. Perhaps there truly is something to the sonority of Aretha’s version in arrangement, or in vocal talent, that we couldn’t articulate, but our souls — generations later — can still abide by. Perhaps there is something less outstanding about King’s version, or our modern musical palette just simply isn’t built to consider King’s version as “good” a song as that sung by Aretha.
There could be a variety of other reasons, which could include something so simple as seeing the name Aretha Franklin attached to anything, biasing us to like it more. Another could be the difference in recording technology and national infrastructure of distribution channels in the music industry between 1962 and 1970 (which is not an insignificant difference). Let’s not forget that in 1962, African-Americans still did not have equal voting rights. By 1970, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act both had been passed for several years.
Ultimately, the questions surrounding what “good” music is, and how we identify or become acclimated to it, could continue to conjure debates and discussions. Hopefully they do, for such discussions continue to inspire and compel artists to not only strive toward a sense of universal goodness that can reach and move the hearts of masses, but also reflect and learn from the greats who had already done so.