You Are My Sunshine

“Covering†a song or record is not something that began with white artists making cover records of black recordings in the 1950s. There have always been different versions of popular songs made and released by different artists to appeal to different audiences. It was not unusual for a song like “You Are My Sunshine†(originally a country tune adapted from a Ukrainian folk tune) to generate not only dozens of competing country versions, but additional mainstream and even R&B versions designed to reach those audiences. Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, The Mills Brothers, and Les Brown and his Orchestra made recordings of “You Are My Sunshine†in 1940 after Governor Jimmie Davis’ version became popular and all scored hits by appealing to different audiences. Since 1940, artists as diverse as Ray Charles, Bill Haley and His Comets, Ricky Nelson, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Oscar Peterson, and Ike and Tina Turner have recorded “You Are My Sunshine.â€

Songwriters – or whoever held the publishing rights to a song – benefited mightily from different versions of a song selling to different audiences…the more versions, the more record sales, and the greater the royalty payments. The idea that a song or even an arrangement could be seen as belonging to an individual artist is relatively new. Songwriters, who were seldom performers themselves, wrote most of the songs recorded before the 1940s and it was an expectation that many different artists would make recordings of the songs that they wrote.

However, things changed in the 1940s and early 1950s, especially in regards to white artists covering records made by black artists. It started with boogie-woogie and gained momentum when R&B and doo-wop caught the attention of the mainstream audience. Put simply, major record companies created white “cover†versions of almost any recording by black artists that either became successful or showed the potential to attract the attention of the mainstream popular audience.

On one level, it was about what it had always been about: profit and gaining a larger share of the market than the competition. There is a clear truth in the observation that major labels covered records made by black artists to simply exploit “good songs that would sell.†There were also cost savings in the process because it wasn’t necessary to spend the time and money to develop those songs; it was more cost effective to copy the song – and often the arrangement – and simply replace the black voice with a white voice. The “white-voiced†copy was easier to market on radio and the major labels had the resources and connections to move their versions more effectively in the broader mainstream marketplace.

But, of course, there was more at work in white artists covering recordings made by black artists and something more insidious. The simple fact that black artists were black and not white played an enormous role in the degree to which black records were covered in the 1950s. And the process of “covering†was far more aggressive than merely making a “white-voiced†version.

One of the typical ploys in covering was to flood the market with the “white-voiced†copy. Often twenty-five percent of the copies of the “cover†song were simply given away as “promotional copies.†This meant that with more cover versions in circulation, especially if a large number were given away at no cost, fewer copies of the originals would be purchased. Since copyright royalties were based on records sold and not on the total number of records manufactured or in distribution, the practice of “flooding the market†with cover versions could be devastating to the copyright owner as well as the black artists who recorded the original. As a consequence, Syd Nathan of King Records refused to license songs to other companies unless they filed a “Notice of User†application with the copyright office. This legally obligated them to pay royalties on the number of records manufactured rather than the number sold and also forced them to pay royalties every 30 days rather than quarterly, which was the normal industry practice. Of course, Syd Nathan took this step not to protect the black artists at King Records, but to guard the publishing royalties that he owned.

Randy Wood’s Dot Records is a prime example of the dynamics of covering in the 1950s. Randy Wood owned Randy’s Record Shop in Gallatin, Tennessee and was the sponsor of Gene Nobles’ R&B show on WLAC radio in Nashville. As a result of the popularity of Nobles’ show, Randy’s Record Shop became “the world’s largest mail order record shop†selling thousands of R&B hits through the mail. This made Randy Wood wealthy and he started his own record company. In 1955, when R&B was starting to break into the mainstream, Wood was shrewd and smart enough to see the market value in producing cover records. His first major cover artist was Pat Boone, who came to symbolize the white “cover artist†of the 1950s. Wood had Boone cover The Charms, Fats Domino, Little Richard, The Five Keys, Ivory Joe Hunter, and the El Dorados. All of Boone’s cover records charted and most outperformed the originals by a substantial margin. (In deference to Pat Boone, he only covered other artists for a year. Of his more than 60 hits at Dot only eight were actually covers.)

Pat Boone was not the only cover artist at Dot. The Fontane Sisters covered The Charms’ “Hearts of Stone,†which was itself a cover of The Jewels’ “Hearts of Stone†(covers were not only white artists covering black). The Fontane Sisters also covered The Drifters, The Marigolds, and Fats Domino at Dot. Gale Storm, a television star, recorded cover versions of Smiley Lewis’ “I Hear You Knockin’†and Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers’ “Why Do Fools Fall In Love†for Randy Wood.

However after 1957, the practice of covering black records with white artists lost its market advantage as black artists became firmly established in the popular mainstream. More often than not, white covers failed to best the original black versions of songs and the industry-wide practice of covering black artists died out.

But covering never really disappeared, although it is now seldom about white artists covering black…at least not in the same way that covers worked in the 1950s.

In 1981, Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby†used the repetitive bass line from Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure†for the musical backing to his rap. Initially, Mr. Ice (Robert Van Winkle) claimed that he owed no royalties to Queen and David Bowie citing a minor alteration between the original and that employed on his record (give a listen to both and see if you can hear any difference). However, Van Winkle eventually admitted to having sampled the original recording and had not made an alteration as he initially claimed. Although no lawsuit was filed, a settlement was reached out of court and songwriting credit was later given to both Bowie and members of Queen on later releases of “Ice Ice Baby†and royalties were paid to the original artists. In a sense, sampling, a central aspect of hip-hop, is covering elevated to the level of actually reproducing part of an original work and using it to create a new recording.

Needless to say, lawsuits over samples taken from recordings were filed and there are now rather clear legal precedents that make it nearly impossible to sample a work without giving credit and negotiating a financial agreement to cover royalties prior to making and releasing a record.

Similarly, tribute and cover bands have become a significant force in popular music, often producing exact replicas of songs made by earlier artists. There are literally thousands of “tribute bands†(and Elvis Presley impersonators for that matter) whose livelihood is based on playing the music of a well-known musical act or artist. Unlike a “cover band†that merely plays the songs by another artist, tribute bands attempt to imitate every aspect of an artist’s sound, look, and performance. The question, of course, is whether there is an ethical line that separates homage from exploitation.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT

The primary questions raised by the practice of covering are more often ethical than legal. Most of the time the making of a cover version of a record doesn’t rise to the level of a legal challenge. Legally, one is free to make a new version of a song provided one pays royalties to the rights holders. Sampling is, of course, a different situation that requires prior agreements between the artist who wishes to use a sample and the artist and label that own the copyrights to the original. Unauthorized “bootleg†copies of an original recording are, of course, illegal and are covered by long-standing copyright statutes. However, ethical issues do exist and are often more complex than they may first appear.

There are numerous examples of “covers†that are exact copies of an original arrangement with different instrumentalists and singers that produce barely recognizable differences from the original recording. While the songwriters may benefit in the royalties that come from a cover version of a song, the artists who created the original recording and arrangement receive nothing, which is obviously troubling if the cover is essentially a reproduction of their original recording. In the 1950s, LaVern Baker attempted, unsuccessfully, to have Congress pass legislation that would prevent the use of an arrangement employed in a recording without permission after Georgia Gibbs covered her recording of “Tweedle Dee†using not only the same arrangement, but the same backing vocalists and many of same musicians. Since it is legally possible to make an exact copy of an original recording – and there are many exact covers made of original recordings – the ethical questions become of obvious importance. Is it important for an artist making a “new†version of a recording to actually make it “new†and clearly different from the original? Is there an ethical, if not legal, obligation to avoid covering an earlier work too closely, especially if the original artist is not the holder of the song’s copyright and will not participate in any royalties produced by the cover?

In a somewhat different context, doing covers of songs by established and important artists is not only nothing new, but has become an important trend in the past decade. Cat Power (Chan Marshall) has released two albums of covers, The Cover Record (2000) and Jukebox (2008). She covers Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and others. The Grammy for Album of the Year in 2008 went to Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters, a collection of Joni Mitchell covers by artists like Norah Jones, Corrine Bailey Rae, Leonard Cohen, and even Tina Turner. Rod Stewart has released five “Great American Songbook†albums covering standards originally released by artists like Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald. Even Paul McCartney has announced his intention to release an album of “Great American Songbook†covers sometime in 2012. Most of us would not think these records are in anyway unethical, but the question is “Why are these covers ethical?†and those by the Crew Cuts and Pat Boone in the 1950s somehow different and “unethical.â€

Although there are legal restrictions in regards to sampling, there are a number of cases that go beyond simply not ascribing proper credit or paying royalties. In 2004, Danger Mouse mixed The Beatles’ The Beatles (commonly known as The White Album) and Jay-Z’s The Black Album to create a mash-up he called The Grey Album. Although the surviving members of The Beatles and Jay-Z had no objections to the mash-up, EMI Records took legal action to halt the distribution of The Grey Album as the samples from The Beatles were unauthorized. In response to EMI’s attempt to halt distribution of The Grey Album, dozens of Internet sites released copies of Danger Mouse’s mash-up in what was called the “Grey Tuesday†protest.

Remixes and mash-ups raise particular questions in regards to both ethical practice and legal infringement. Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford law professor and the author of Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, sees the remix and the mash-up as examples of a “democracy†in popular expression where young people “take sounds and images from the culture around us and use them to say things differently.†Lessig’s belief is that the remix and the mash-up constitute “a new language,†which has become the common speech of the young and is fundamentally social, participatory, and about engagement. Lessig also believes that legal restrictions limiting the use of materials for remixes and mash-ups are stifling creativity and are terribly injurious to the growth of what he sees as an important and vibrant aspect of contemporary culture (Take a look at Lessig’s presentation at TED: http://www.ted.com/talks/larry_lessig_says_the_law_is_strangling_creativity.html)

The topic for this assignment is to examine some aspect of covering recordings made by others. It could deal with any of the above examples or any others that you think are worthy of thought and examination. In the paper, you should discuss the ethical, legal, financial, and creative implications of the examples you choose and explain why you reach your conclusions. You should, obviously, include several different examples of cover songs in support of your argument.

It is, of course, advisable to cite outside sources for support and frame your argument in the form of a formal essay (Look over “Presenting Arguments,†“Tips On Writing Papers,†and “Critical Thinking†in the Syllabus).

 

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