Ray Padgett, a leading expert on cover songs, on his 33 1/3 about Leonard Cohen and the power of the tribute album
Bob Dylan got me into cover songs. But it wasn’t one of the million covers of his own songs that did it, nor was it a cover he performed himself. It was a cover he DJ’d.
For a few years in the 2000s, Dylan hosted an XM Radio show called Theme Time Radio Hour. In one of the first episodes, he played a version of the George Gershwin song “Summertime.” One of the most often-covered songs ever. Even as a freshman in college, I’d probably heard 100 versions, all languid, syrupy torch ballads. But the version he played on his show, by soul singer Billy Stewart, was everything those others weren’t: fast, energetic, rocking. He yelped and scatted and packed a few James Brown-style false endings into just a couple minutes. Unlike every other version I’d heard, it sounded like somebody actually excited for summer.
I didn’t know you could do that. I didn’t know you were allowed to change a song that much. But it sent me down the proverbial rabbit hole of covers, from which I have yet to emerge.
I soon had a blog, Cover Me, which I continue to oversee to this day even as it has expanded far beyond the confines of my college dorm room. It led me to my first book, Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time (Sterling Publishing, 2017). And it led me to my second, this 33 1/3.
I’ve been a fan of the series for years, and always wanted to write one, but never knew what album to pitch. After I finished my first book, I had an idea. One aspect of the cover-song world I didn’t touch on much there was the tribute album. And I may be the world’s leading authority on the subject. That’s not really bragging – more like winning a contest in which no one else is competing. Cover Me has published a Best New Tribute Albums year-end list every year for a decade. I doubt anyone has listened to as many tribute albums as I have. I doubt anyone else wants to.
So then the question: Which tribute album to tackle? I came up with a list of tribute albums I liked. It was extremely long. I then narrowed it down to tribute albums that other people actually knew. That was a lot shorter – but still too long. But then, as I started to do research on the couple dozen albums remaining, I started to wonder: Which tribute albums have had a measurable impact on the tributed artist’s career? Something beyond vague bromides like “brought him to greater prominence” or “exposed her music to a new audience” – they all claim to do that. Something concrete.
That list was incredibly short. Really only two. One of them, 1993’s Common Threads, reunited The Eagles. But, as an album, it isn’t very interesting, bland country-pop covers by popular ’90s artists like Vince Gill and Brooks & Dunn. Which left 1991’s I’m Your Fan. The album that made “Hallelujah” famous.
So my 33 1/3 is really two books in one. The first is on the story behind one of the earliest and most influential tribute albums ever, an homage to Leonard Cohen put together by two magazine editors in France that reached far beyond what they could have hoped for. The second is the story of the tribute album overall, a format that was born in the ’80s, came of age in the ’90s, continues to this day, and has been mocked by music fans pretty much the entire time.
This book isn’t a defense of every tribute album – I point out plenty of terrible examples along the way (who thought Less Than Jake covering Duran Duran was a good idea?). But it’s a defense of the tribute album’s potential. Without it, we wouldn’t have the wonderful and fascinating I’m Your Fan. And without it, you might never have heard “Hallelujah.”
Want to know Ray’s take on different tribute albums? Buy his book today!