A cover is a new interpretation of a song originally recorded by someone else. When an artist covers a song made famous by another performer, it is a tribute to the song and to the songwriter. Far from just emulating the original, most artists try to put their own stamp on the song.
One example is Jose Feliciano’s understated version of the Doors hit “Light My Fire”. Frank Sinatra, no fan of rock ‘n’ roll, nevertheless declared the Beatles’ song “Something” to be one of the most beautiful love songs ever written and covered it with full orchestral treatment. Cat Power and Devo have completely remade the classic Rolling Stones ‘Satisfaction’ (in two radically different ways). Otis Redding originally wrote and recorded “Respect” in 1965, though it didn’t reach anthem status until Aretha Franklin hit it two years later.
Some songs are so good and / or so adaptable that hundreds or even thousands of performers pick them up. To identify the most cover songs in musical history, 24/7 Tempo searched the lists in the online cover database. SecondHandSongs. Christmas carols and folk songs were excluded from consideration. It should be noted that the number of covers given is probably a minimum, as other sources list many more versions for some songs. (Speaking of great songs, these are the absolute 50 best songs in history..)
Here you’ll find many tunes from the so-called Great American Songbook, with its pantheon of composers including Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, George and Ira Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter. Jazz giants Duke Elllington and Thelonious Monk are represented, and many of these songs have become jazz standards, used at the base of improvisation.
Click here to see the most cover songs in the history of music
More contemporary songwriters are represented by bossa nova pioneer Antônio Carlos Jobim and by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. In one of Lennon’s last TV interviews, on “Tomorrow” in 1975, host Tom Snyder asked him why he had recorded a cover of the Ben E. King classic “Stand by Me”. Lennon simply replied that a good song is a good song. This has been the raison d’être of several cover versions over the decades. (Here is a list of the most popular songs each year since 1970.)