Author Ray Padgett tells the stories behind the greatest cover songs


From “Hound Dog” to “Hurt,” Ray Padgett uncovers the great cover songs

By Justin Kreitzer

Some of the greatest, most beloved songs in rock history are cover songs and most of those songs, such as “Respect” by Aretha Franklin and “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley, are so intrinsically linked with the singer that made them famous that some music fans may not even know they were cover songs.

New York City music journalist and publicist Ray Padgett started his popular music blog, Cover Me, to tell the stories behind the greatest cover songs of all time. He recently released his first book, also titled Cover Me, through Sterling Publishing to further tell those stories. The book gives intriguing insight and never-before-told industry history behind 20 classic cover songs, highlighted by Johnny Cash’s heart-wrenching cover of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, the aforementioned “Respect” and “Hound Dog,” and Devo’s deconstructed cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”. Padgett combines his thorough research along with new interviews, telling the stories behind the music, while constructing a broader story about the importance and evolution of the cover song throughout rock history.

The Dayton City Paper spoke with Padgett about the inspiration behind his blog and book, an obscure Tom Waits cover and more.

DCP: What inspired you to start your blog, focusing on cover songs specifically?

Ray Padgett: It was one of those rare “light bulb goes off over the head” moments. One day in college (2006-ish), I was listening to a weekly radio show Bob Dylan briefly hosted, Theme Time Radio Hour. All the songs that week were on the theme of “summer.” The first track he played was a cover of the Gershwin song “Summertime.” I knew the song of course and had heard various other covers, all kind of slow and languid. But this one was totally different, an up-tempo soul number by a singer named Billy Stewart. Horns blared, Billy was scatting, and there was even a drum solo. I thought, “I didn’t know you could do this with this song.” It made me want to seek out other covers that were that dramatically different than the originals.

What was the impetus behind writing the book?

Ever since I founded the blog in 2007, I’ve wanted to write a book telling the story of the cover song, because no one really had. But it seemed too broad a topic, too open-ended to do any justice to. It took years before I found my way, and it came about unexpectedly. I wrote a blog post on Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower.” It was the longest article my site had ever run by far, going really deep into the music-nerd minutia of how that recording came to be. I basically wrote it for myself, but it quickly became the site’s most popular article ever. So I wrote a second, on Patti Smith’s “Gloria,” and that’s when I realized—this could be the book. Instead of writing about “covers” as some amorphous category, I would write about 20 or so specific covers, and trace the broader history of the cover through them.

I’m sure this will be a hard question to answer, but what is your favorite cover song from the book and why?

A very hard question, it changes every day! Today I’ll say it’s Devo’s cover of “Satisfaction.” The way they turned this hugely famous song into their own, very different sound, is remarkable. Mark Mothersbaugh told me he thought covering a very popular song was the only way his weird art-rock band would ever connect with a wider audience. It offered just enough familiarity for new listeners to latch onto. It was a bridge into the Devo sound.

If the response to the book is favorable, might we see more volumes in a series?

I’ve been overwhelmed by the response the book has received. In terms of whether I’ll do another volume, though, it depends. I wrote this book to be the definitive history of the cover song, and I chose the 20 songs I did deliberately to try to tell that big story through them. This is the history of the cover book I always wanted to write. Something with a slightly different and narrower focus, however—the history of covers in soul music, say, or an examination of just how much Bob Dylan’s career owes to covers—might happen.

Cover Me is a breezy yet highly-informative read for avid music fans and history buffs alike, made especially fun if you first make a Spotify playlist with all of the featured cover songs to listen to as you read along.

For more info about Ray Padgett please visit covermesongs.com.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Justin Kreitzer at JustinKreitzer@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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