In my new book Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time, the city of Chicago makes repeated cameos. Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye told me how he modeled their “Gloria” after the version by Chicago garage-rockers Shadows of Knight. Producer Tony Visconti discussed Joe Cocker’s reaction to John Belushi’s flailing Saturday Night Live impression—which he’d honed at Second City. And I heard how Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” took on added urgency when it was released in 1967 during summer race riots in Chicago and other cities.
But a book only has so many pages, and many of my favorite hometown covers remained unexplored. So here’s an appendix of sorts, my personal picks for some of the greatest Chicago cover songs of all time.
Big Black - The Model (Kraftwerk cover)
In both temperament and temperature, Kraftwerk couldn’t be more different than Big Black. The German robots embody a distanced cool, while Steve Albini earned a reputation as being hot-headed both musically and personally. But on Big Black’s seminal album Songs About Fucking, Albini and co. wrench Kraftwerk’s “The Model” into their noise-rock mold, making it every bit as loud and thrashing as anything they wrote themselves.
Chance the Rapper - Wonderful Everyday (Arthur cover)
Traditionally in hip-hop, the sample or remix serves the same purpose the cover does in other genres: honoring one’s musical heroes and forebears. But Chance has never stuck to tradition, and in 2014 he remembered a childhood watching Saturday morning cartoons by covering, of all things, the Arthur theme song. It’s a stunning collage of samples, horns, and layered falsettos.
Cheap Trick - Ain’t That a Shame (Fats Domino cover)
The late, great Fats Domino loved this cover so much he gave Cheap Trick his own Gold record plaque for the song.
Buddy Guy & Tracy Chapman - Ain’t No Sunshine (Bill Withers cover)
Many of the most famous blues performances are in fact covers of other blues songs. Muddy Waters’s “Got My Mojo Working"? A cover. Lou Rawls’s “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water"? Ditto. Buddy Guy’s own “Five Long Years” kicked around blues circles for years before he took it up. So instead of those more obvious choices, I picked a more recent Guy number, a stunning duet with Tracy Chapman.
Etta James - At Last (Glenn Miller cover)
One chapter in my book tackles “Unchained Melody,” a song the Righteous Brothers rescued from forgotten prison movie Unchained (hence the title). “At Last” falls into the same category, a little-known number in 1941 ski flick Sun Valley Serenade until James sunk her teeth into it almost 20 years later.
Local H - Team (Lorde cover)
On two recent covers albums, Local H blended classics by David Bowie and Pink Floyd with hometown homages to the Jesus Lizard and power pop trio Muchacha. The best is the most surprising, their roaring run through a rare Lorde cover that isn’t “Royals.”
Liz Phair with Material Issue - The Tra La La Song (One Banana, Two Banana) (The Banana Splits Adventure Hour cover)
The frank sexuality of Phair’s 1993 landmark Exile in Guyville wouldn’t have prepared listeners for this infectious take on a song from The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, two years later, performed with local power-pop favorites Material Issue. (What is it with Chicago bands covering cartoon theme songs?) Hopefully the kids watching this didn’t dig too deep into her back catalog…
Smashing Pumpkins - Dreaming (Blondie cover)
Billy Corgan and co. had one of their biggest hits covering Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide"—even Stevie Nix loved it. For me, though, “Dreaming” gets the slight edge because of how dramatically it differs from the original.
The Staple Singers - The Weight (The Band cover)
The Staple Singers famously sang “The Weight” with The Band themselves in 1978’s The Last Waltz. “I’ve had a lot of great moments in my life and my career,” Mavis told The New Yorker in 2014, “But that is something where I could put my chest out and…be super proud.” Few Band fans knew that the Staples had released their own cover almost a decade prior, to little fanfair. Last Waltz fans would do well to seek it out though; in the film, the family only gets two verses to shine, but on their own recording, they own the whole thing.
Koko Taylor - Wang Dang Doodle (Howlin’ Wolf cover)
In the book, I write about the original “Hound Dog” sung by blues belter Big Mama Thornton. Koko Taylor comes from the same school of shouting women not afraid to let the rasp in. It’s rare that someone can out-holler Howlin’ Wolf, but on her version of “Wang Dang Doodle” that came out five years after his, Taylor does just that.
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