NOTE: Click the dates at the beginning of each entry to go to a YouTube clip for each version.
Frankie Avalon – Venus (1959 & 1976)
The original “Venus” was one of the largest non-Elvis hits of the late 1950s, and helped establish Frankie Avalon as a pop cultural mainstay for the next decade. Between additional Top Ten hits and many movie roles (the best known being the “Beach Party” series he starred in with former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello), Avalon was in the public eye for quite a while. However, by 1976, it had been several years since Avalon had had any real type of entertainment success. So, he did what many other stars around his age were doing—he recorded a disco song. A disco version of “Venus”. A more than six minute version of “Venus”, complete with all the extended disco breaks that were de rigueur at the time, to be exact. (For your listening tolerance, I’ve linked to the radio edit that’s only about three and a half minutes long). Unlike a lot of other attempts at disco, however, this one kind of worked for Avalon. It peaked at #46 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and even higher, at #32, on the now defunct Cashbox chart), but on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, it went to #1. And while it didn’t jump start his recording career any further, it got him back in the public eye and led to a small but significant role in the film version of Grease.
Alex Chilton – The Letter (w/The Box Tops, 1967 & Solo, 1976)
Both of Alex Chilton’s bands, The Box Tops and Big Star, lasted a very short amount of time. The former had a number of Top Ten hits in which Chilton-sixteen at the time of their biggest hit-affected a vocalization style that belied both his age and his whiteness. Big Star, meanwhile, recorded three classic and influential albums in the early 1970s (where he used his natural, higher and more nasally voice), and then disintegrated. The third album, in fact, was never officially finished, and was eventually pieced together into a releasable form in 1978—it was still awesome. Among the many strange turns Chilton’s solo career took was re-recording for London budget label Pickwick records “The Letter” in 1976, using basically a reproduction of the original arrangement, but with his natural voice for the lead vocal. It was released on a compilation of similarly-recorded tracks with “The Box Tops” as the artist, though for all intents and purposes it was a Chilton solo record.
Eric Clapton – After Midnight (1970 & 1998)
“After Midnight” is perhaps the most recognizable song from Clapton’s self-titled debut album, a fast-paced cover of a 1966 J.J. Cale song, with a post-hippy vibe and a call and response interplay between Clapton and the chorus of background singers. Eighteen years later, Clapton re-recorded the song at a much slower tempo, with slashing blues guitar and no background singers, as the one new track for his four-disc career retrospective Crossroads box set. This remake has also come to be known as the “Michelob Version”, as at the same time it debuted, the song (and Clapton) appeared in a popular commercial for the beer–a sadly ironic legacy for this great re-make, as Clapton admitted he did the Michelob commercial at the same time he was badly struggling with alcoholism.
Genesis – The Carpet Crawlers (1974) & The Carpet Crawlers 1999 (1999)
“The Carpet Crawlers” and its remake are both interesting footnotes in the history of Hall of Fame prog rock band Genesis. The original song was the last single released on the last album with Peter Gabriel as lead singer (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway) . “The Carpet Crawlers 1999”, recorded as a bonus track on the compilation Turn it On Again: The Hits, keeps the song in tact in terms of tone and, for the most part, the arrangement, except for some instrumentation and sound effects (though it does eschew the last verse of the original version). The real significance of this song was that it was a one-time studio reunion of the original five-man lineup, with Peter Gabriel sharing lead vocals with Phil Collins. This was also a recording return for Collins to Genesis, too, as he had departed the band for part of the 90s, and the underwhelming Genesis album Calling All Stations was released in 1997 with Ray Wilson taking Collins’s place. In fact, as of this moment, “Carpet Crawlers 1999” is the last original studio recording by any form of Genesis, as Collins is no longer able to drum because of injury, and the band members are basically no longer interested in additional projects unless as a full reunion of the five man lineup–which is unlikely to ever occur.
Cyndi Lauper – Maybe He’ll Know (w/Blue Angel, 1980 & Solo, 1987)
Cyndi Lauper started out as the lead singer of the New York based new wave/rockabilly combo Blue Angel. They released a single album in 1980 before breaking up two years later. One of the songs from their album, “Maybe He’ll Know”, was re-recorded in 1987 and released as the fourth and final single from Lauper’s sophomore album, True Colors. While the newer version keeps the same basic structure of the original in place, with a medium tempo rockabilly/doo wop sound forming the backbone, Lauper’s 1987 version is (unsurprisingly) more slick than the band’s original. Besides accentuating the song’s more straight-ahead rock elements with the percussion and guitars cranked up, the re-make includes more electronic instrumentation that was standard in late 80s pop. Lauper also comes across much clearer in her solo rendition, both for her vocal levels in the production, and her actual enunciation of the lyrics, which seem “cleaned up” compared to the more sloppy, rehearsal quality of Blue Angel’s recording, which in itself seems to reference the band’s original, more punk background.
The Righteous Brothers – Unchained Melody (1965 & 1990)
When Ghost became one of the biggest movies of 1990, people also were turned on again to The Righteous Brothers’ exquisite version of “Unchained Melody”, which went to #4 in 1965. The problem was, they could request it to be played on radio, but couldn’t get a copy of the single: The Ghost soundtrack led off with the song, but the rest of it was the movie’s score, and people were not interested in paying ten to fourteen dollars for one song. Doubly unfortunate was that the original recording could not get re-released as a cassette or CD single because of licensing problems–which likely had something to do with the total control the head of defunct label Phillies Records (Phil Spector) kept over his “product”. So, to fill this gap in market demand, the song was re-recorded that year and released as a single on Curb records. The newer version is really a bit of a sad piece of work to be honest. The track’s lead vocalist, Bobby Hatfield, shows the ravages in his voice of the 25 years between the two recordings, and the lush Wall of Sound production of the original is replaced mainly with synthesizers. An interesting footnote to all of this release and re-recording drama is that at one point, both versions were in the Top 20 at the same time: the original version was re-released only as a vinyl 45, which didn’t sell, but still made it to #13 almost totally on airplay, and the 1990 remake-released on formats that people wanted (or had devices to play it)-made it to #19 almost strictly on sales.
Del Shannon – Runaway (1961) & Runaway ’67 (1967)
The original #1 recording of “Runaway” was not only Del Shannon’s biggest hit by far, but one of the high water marks in pop music in the often fallow period between pre-army Elvis and when Beatlemania struck. Immediately recognizable from the dual guitar/piano line that drives the song, as well as the incorporation of the Space Age sounding Musitron (an adaptation of the clavoline, a rarely used electronic keyboard instrument that had actually been around since 1947), “Runaway” was a single that seemed to bridge two ages, and remains one of the few #1s from 1961 that’s still a staple of oldies stations. Just six years later, though, Shannon decided to re-record the song in the style of many country crossover hits of that period (which likely originated with Johnny Rivers’s 1965 rendition of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”). “Runaway ’67” is slowed down at least 30 percent compared to the original, and the combo of rocakabilly meets science fiction was replaced by nearly an entire orchestra. While overbearing in places, the remake is quite an interesting turn (or return) on Shannon’s classic, though it could not climb higher than #122 on the “Bubbling Under” portion of the Billboard Hot 100.
Bonnie Tyler – If You Were a Woman (And I Was a Man) (1986 & 1994)
This selection is not as notable for any real differences between the two records, except that the former is a Jim Steinman production that keeps his bombastic vocal arrangements, but uses a more stripped down new wave arrangement with staccato guitars and percussion sounds. The 1994 remake has a slicker sound overall, and keeps the Stienman vocalizations, but washes away the now-dated musical arrangement for something more acceptable for mid-90s Adult Contemporary radio formats. The “hidden” point of interest with this song, though, is that its writer, Desmond Child was irritated when the original-which he thought should be a massive hit-tanked, so he met up with a couple of guys from a band in New Jersey later that year to rewrite the words and put in a couple of different hooks. Child ended up feeling vindicated when the remake of the Tyler song, now titled “You Give Love a Bad Name” actually saw some chart success. So technically, Bon Jovi’s first #1 hit is a remake of a Bonnie Tyler song, and Bonnie then re-recorded the original song after Bon Jovi struck gold with the rewritten version….Wow.
Lucinda Williams – I Lost It (1980 & 1998)
Williams started out her career as a “traditional” country singer with her 1980 album Happy Woman Blues, which included the first version of “I Lost It” as a quick fiddle-driven bluegrass number with all acoustic instrumentation. Eighteen years later, Williams, having slowly transformed the style of her music from album to album over the course of those nearly two decades, redid “I Lost It” for her full-length masterpiece, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. The new version replaces everything about the original arrangement–as back porch bluegrass has morphed into Louisiana gin joint alt-country, electrified with crunchy guitars, a solid, thumping rhythm section, and zydeco-style accordion for the cherry on top. It’s this version that Williams has played live for the past two decades, and in doing so, the re-recording has “rescued” the song from her earlier work, and made it a staple of her catalog.
Brian Wilson – Let Him Run Wild (w/The Beach Boys, 1965 & Solo, 1998)
Mike Love is infamous for (among other things) making fun of his cousin Brian Wilson’s singing voice, stating once that his falsetto was something only dogs could here. On “Let Him Run Wild”, Brian turned out to somewhat agree with that assessment, as he’s said it’s the least satisfied he’s been with a Beach Boys song he wrote and produced–and feeling his vocal performance made him sound like a whiny kid. So for his second proper solo album, Imagination, Wilson redid the song. While the general arrangement is the same as the original recording, the newer try does not benefit at all from the ultra-slick production that runs throughout Imagination. And while Wilson may have gotten the vocal line the way he wanted it, there is the similar sadness here as there was in the “Unchained Melody” remake, as the thirty-two years (!!) between the two recordings are all over Wilson’s now-haggard voice. Ironically, Wilson’s voice improved in the 2000s as the positive health results of quitting smoking in the mid-1990s started to really take effect, and could be arguably described as still better in 2017 than it was in 1998……so maybe a third version?