Cats of Different Colors

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(Pictured: Waylon Jennings, pre-outlaw.)

One day last fall I wrote about a gender-flipped country version of Paul Anka’s “You’re Having My Baby” that came out while the original was still getting pop-radio airplay. It was, however, far from the only instance in which 70s Top 40 cheese got repurposed for the country market that way.

—Based on the stature of the songs he chose and his success with them, Johnny Carver might be the Big Cheese. Carver was discovered by Del Shannon and scattered a few hits across the lower reaches of the Billboard country chart between 1967 and 1972. In 1973, his version of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree,” retitled simply “Yellow Ribbon,” went to #5 on the country chart. In 1976, he would make #9 with a version of “Afternoon Delight.”

—Not to be confused with Johnny Carver is Bobby Wright (because I nearly did). His parents, Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright, were both successful country singers; Kitty Wells charted 64 times between 1952 and 1964, most famously with her first hit, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Johnny Wright did three weeks at #1 in 1965 with “Hello Vietnam.” Bobby Wright didn’t hit much—only four singles between 1969 and 1974—but the last one was a version of “Seasons in the Sun.” (It’s even more bathetic than the original, hard as it may be to believe such a thing is possible.) Wright got it to #24 country while the Terry Jacks original was still on pop radio.

—“Yellow Ribbon” was not the first Tony Orlando and Dawn song to inspire a country cover. After “Knock Three Times” went to #1 in January 1971, it was covered by North Carolina singer Billy “Crash” Craddock, and it went to #3 country that spring. “Knock Three Times,” which twangs harder than any of the other covers we’ve discussed so far, started Craddock on his way to becoming one of the biggest country stars of the mid 70s. In 1974, he had back-to-back #1 country hits including “Rub It In,” which did two weeks at #1 in the summer and crossed to #16 on the Hot 100.

—Margo Smith had a couple of minor hits before taking on a cover in 1976 that made her a star. She took a version of the ultra-sappy “Save Your Kisses for Me” to #10 country about the same time Brotherhood of Man was making #27 on the pop chart. Over the next three years, Smith would hit the country Top 10 with several cover songs, mostly from the pre-rock 1950s.

—Billie Jo Spears, best-known for the 1975 #1 country hit “Blanket on the Ground” (which you really ought to hear if you don’t know it, although I ain’t saying why), got a country radio hit with her own soulful version of “Misty Blue,” reaching #5 only a few weeks after Dorothy Moore’s version peaked at #3 pop in ’76. Moore’s version itself was a cover; both Wilma Burgess and Eddy Arnold had previously hit with it on the country chart.

—Anthony Armstrong Jones charted with covers five times between 1969 and 1973, including the top-10 “Take a Letter Maria” in 1970, plus versions of “Proud Mary,” “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” and “Sweet Caroline.”

—In 1973, about the same time Gladys Knight and the Pips made “Neither One of Us” a #2 pop hit, country veteran Bob Luman took a version of it to #7 country.

—With a folk-rock group called the Kimberlys, Waylon Jennings went to #23 in 1969 with a version of “Mac Arthur Park.” If all you know is outlaw Waylon, “Mac Arthur Park” will be a surprise.

Waylon’s “Mac Arthur Park” was released over a year after the Richard Harris version and not contemporaneous with it, so it’s not a precise fit with a lot of the other songs in this post, but it comes from the same place: performers, labels, and publishers seeing a way to capitalize on proven commodities by aiming for different audiences. The rebooting of pop hits for other genres is something we’ve discussed previously. Many, many pop hits were covered for the R&B market, and some of those crossed back over to pop. (One might speculate why such a thing has largely fallen out of fashion in the last two or three decades, but I’m not getting into that today.)

I might have included here several instances in which artists covered successful songs years after they first appeared, but it seems to me that rushing out a country cover while the original is still on pop radio, or within a few months, is a cat of a different color. If you know of some others, add ’em in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Cats of Different Colors

  1. David

    It’s somewhat strange (since I consider them BOTH to be country artists), but in 1997 LeAnn Rimes’ version of “How Do I Live” (written by Diane Warren) hit #2 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, while Trisha Yearwood’s subsequent version–which was intentionally performed with more of a country vibe–released that same year peaked at #2 on the U.S. Hot Country Chart (and #23 on the Hot 100).

  2. Wesley

    Ask and ye shall receive. Most of these weren’t simultaneous releases but fall under the “within a few months” category:

    While Andy Williams cracked the top 10 with his vocal version of “Where Do I Begin (Love Story)” in April 1971, Roy Clark was grinning his way with a banjo-based cover that reached #74 country.

    Coincidentally, the Buckaroos, the backing band for Buck Owens, Clark’s co-star on the TV show Hee Haw, got to #71 country in April 1970 with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was an interesting one for the country chart. But undoubtedly the popularity of Joan Baez’s take on the song reaching #3 in 1971 led to releasing a version by Alice Creech that reached #33 country before the end of the same year.

    Lobo’s top 5 smash from 1971, “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo,” seemed like a natural for a country cover, although I wouldn’t have expected Stonewall Jackson to be the one with a hit with it. But he was, reaching #7 with his take that same year.

    Jerri Ross scored a pair of country covers in 1972. Her take on Melanie’s chart topper “Brand New Key” came out as the latter had just fallen off the Hot 100 in March and went to #75. She followed it “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” which had peaked at #4 pop for Three Dog Night in December 1971, and went to #58 country in the summer of 1972.

    Given its subject matter and its ubiquity on pop radio in 1972, it’s not surprising that a country remake of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” got on the country chart, although it took nearly a year after the song peaked to do so. Brush Arbor made it to #72 in 1973.

    After Johnny Nash took “I Can See Clearly Now” to #1 in late 1972, an instrumental version by Lloyd Green made #36 country in 1973.

    Bob Yarborough got to #85 country with “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” two months after Paul Simon peaked at #1 with his original in 1976.

    Nate Harvell got to #23 country in 1978 with hisversion of the Commodores’ monster hit “Three Times a Lady.”

    And Beverly Heckel took “Bluer Than Blue” by Michael Johnson to #56 country in 1978 a few months after Johnson reached #12 pop with the tune.

  3. porky

    This is right in my wheelhouse. I never pass up these cross-over 45’s when I’m out hitting the thrift stores and have found some good ones. Let’s face it: Nashville is a “song town.” If a label exec thinks there is a shred of a possibility of shoe-horning a pop song into a country one they will do it. Just a couple of my favorites:

    In 1979 Jody Miller did a two-fer with Robin McNamera’s “Lay a Little Lovin’ on Me” on one side and Heart’s “Crazy on You” on the flip. Yikes!

    Classic country gal Connie Smith (wife of country music historian and flame-keeper Marty Stuart) cut Andy Gibb’s “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” in ’77, took it to #14.

    Dallas-based Mason Dixon (how original) actually did a good job with The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” (writer’s credit on the label says “The Sting.”)

    This final one is no surprise as the Beatles’ catalog has been done every which way from Sunday but the Shooters (on Epic) give the country treatment to “I’ll Cry Instead” and it’s a damn great record.

    After moving little more than a year ago my Joel Whitburn Country & Western chart book is still packed away. Otherwise I could provide a few more dozen examples, I’m sure.

  4. Pingback: Head Shops and Jukeboxes – The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

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