The concept of “cover records” has been an integral part of the music industry for over a century. A cover record is a new recording of a commercially released song by an artist other than the original performer. This practice has its roots in the Copyright Act passed by Congress in 1909, which gave American musicians the right to record versions of previously recorded tunes by other artists. While composers have the initial say on who records their songs first, once a song is released to the public, any performer can create a new rendition. Although agreements between artists and songwriters can be negotiated, most covers are recorded under a “mechanical license,” which pays a standard royalty to the copyright holder through an intermediary company.
In the 1950s, during the pop music era, recording artists who didn’t write their own songs heavily relied on covers. Elvis Presley, early in his career, was part of this group. When he recorded at Sun Records in 1954-55, almost all of his two dozen songs were covers. Even after moving to RCA in 1956, 20 out of the 24 songs on his first two albums were covers. For example, he included new versions of Little Richard’s originals like “Tutti Frutti,” “Rip It Up,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “Ready Teddy” on those albums.
While covers on albums didn’t bother composers or original artists in the fifties, releasing a cover version as a single immediately following the original artist’s release presented higher stakes. Radio play and chart rankings could be affected, potentially damaging or ruining artists’ careers.
The 1957 film Jailhouse Rock perfectly illustrates this issue. In the movie, Elvis’s character, Vince Everett, offers a recording of “Don’t Leave Me Now” to Geneva Records. When the label executive rejects the recording, Vince and his manager release it on their own label, Deltona Records, only to see sales disappear when Geneva releases a cover version by one of their established singers. “They stole my arrangement, my style, everything,” Vince laments.
One of the earliest examples of such tactics played out in the recording industry in the 1950s involves LaVern Baker’s recording of “Tweedle Dee” in 1954. Her rendition climbed Billboard’s Top 100 singles chart, becoming a crossover hit on the more lucrative pop charts. However, sales declined when Mercury Records released a quick cover by white singer Georgia Gibbs. Baker’s label, Atlantic, struggled to compete with Mercury’s promotion and distribution system. Gibbs’s cover outperformed Baker’s original on the charts and in stores. “I wasn’t mad at her singing my song,” Baker commented, “It’s just that she used my arrangement note for note. We worked all night to get that arrangement; it didn’t seem fair.”
Fats Domino, among other black singers, also faced a similar situation. Domino wrote and recorded 35 songs by the end of 1956, 13 of which were subsequently covered by white singers on major labels, including Theresa Brewer and Pat Boone. All 13 covers sold more copies than Domino’s original records. While Domino collected composer royalties from the sales of those covers, he noted that the covers tended to diminish his reputation as a recording artist. “Making a cover is all right, but they should allow a month at least before the covers come out,” Domino declared. “That way when we do something, we’d have a chance for our names to get associated with the song.”
Now, let’s take a closer look at Elvis Presley’s involvement in the cover controversy during the fifties. Did he ever steal sales, chart positions, or prestige from other singers by rushing out a cover version of someone else’s hit?
Firstly, Elvis’s five single releases for Sun Records in 1954 and 1955 are not relevant here. As a small, regional label, Sun lacked the power to influence national sales and charts in the same way as other established labels. It wasn’t until Elvis started recording for RCA in 1956 that a cover record by him had the potential to overshadow a competitor’s original recording.
Furthermore, the numerous cover songs Elvis recorded for his albums in the fifties had no impact on the sales or chart performance of the original versions. His album covers of Little Richard’s songs, for instance, did not affect the success of Little Richard’s original single releases. Therefore, the focus should be on Elvis’s singles released by RCA during the decade.
From 1956 to 1959, RCA issued 14 Elvis Presley singles with a total of 28 songs. Of those, 21 were original recordings and single releases by Elvis. This leaves us with only 7 cover songs to examine and determine if Presley’s versions hindered the success of the original releases.
One of the most well-known covers by Elvis is “Hound Dog,” which was originally a hit for Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton in 1953. However, it’s important to note that Elvis’s version of “Hound Dog” came at least two years after the original recording. Similarly, the other cover singles released by Elvis in the fifties were not direct competitors to the original artists’ releases.
For instance, Elvis’s cover of “All Shook Up” might surprise many fans as he was not the first artist to record the song. It was actually written by Otis Blackwell, known for supplying Presley with original material. David Hill, using the stage name David Hess, recorded the song a few weeks before RCA released Elvis’s version.
In the case of “Blue Suede Shoes,” Elvis’s cover may have indirectly hindered Carl Perkins’ record. Perkins recorded the classic rock anthem at Sam Phillips’s studio, and just six weeks later, Elvis recorded his version. RCA made a promise not to release Presley’s version as a single until after Perkins’s record had its run on the charts. Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes” dueled with Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel” for the top spot on Billboard’s chart, but ultimately, Elvis’s song won out, settling in at #1 for seven weeks.
Although there is evidence that suggests Elvis’s cover of “Blue Suede Shoes” may have affected Perkins’s chart success, it’s important to note that Elvis was not directly involved in the competitive practice of recording cover records in the fifties. He did not hinder the progress of other artists, especially black rhythm and blues singers trying to crossover to the national pop charts.
Throughout his career, even as he transitioned into the pop music mainstream in the 1960s, Elvis continued to record cover songs, some of which became hit singles. Giving his personal touch to covers helped him showcase the full range of his vocal ability and style.
Elvis Presley’s involvement in cover records during the fifties should not be seen as harmful or deceptive. While he recorded cover versions of popular songs, the timing of his releases and the fact that many of them came at least two years after the original recordings demonstrate that he wasn’t interfering with the success of other artists.
To explore more about the fascinating world of Elvis Presley and his music, visit All about Elvis.
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