Some of the most iconic pop and rock songs of the past half century have been covers. These two weeks, I will take a look at these classics and their overshadowed originals.
I love the odd story of The Roar of the Greasepaint — The Smell of the Crowd, a 1964 musical. That’s not to say I love the story of the play itself — Wikipedia describes it thusly: “The allegorical plot examines the maintenance of the status quo between the upper and lower classes of British society in the 1960s.” That’s not exactly a barn-storming premise to an American millennial like myself.
What I mean is that I love the show’s weird success arc: Initially deemed a flop, the play skyrocketed when Tony Bennett released a recording of one of the showtunes: “Who Can I Turn To?” This kicked off the trend of its showtunes finding life as pop recordings. Various artists covered “The Joker,” notably Bobby Rydell.
But the signature recording based off one of the play’s tunes is Nina Simone’s “Feelin’ Good,” a stunning jazz number. With a slinky horn part and Simone’s signature expressive vocals, “Feelin’ Good” hooks you and doesn’t let go. It exudes intimacy and power — no wonder multiple generations have rediscovered it. Muse, Michael Buble, and plenty of others have covered the song. It’s a jolt of power in any TV show or movie it appears in. For example, the TV show Chuck proved the song’s power by playing it over a simple scene of the two leads snuggling in bed… creating one of the warmest scenes in the whole show as if by alchemy.
The strength of Simone’s recording is in equal part the backing arrangement and Simone’s mastery. The descending soli in the horn riff is a gut check. It anchors the track, allowing Simone to turn in her pantheon-level performance. Every little slur and accent adds to the song’s emotive texture.
Simone’s version of “Feelin’ Good” has long been a favorite song of mine. I found the original Roar of the Greasepaint soundtrack recording and — unsurprisingly — it doesn’t hold a candle to Simone’s standard. All of the layered perfection of Simone’s track is missing. Instead, it has the stilted performed-but-not-felt quality often present in Broadway arias.
But who can compare to Nina? No one. I don’t hold it against the original, which I still enjoy despite its implicit flaws. The composition is pretty, and the lyrics fit perfectly for an introspective showtune. The lyrics’ racial undertones are more obvious in the original soundtrack version (the singing character’s name is “The Negro” after all…), and it provides some thought-provoking context on “Feelin’ Good”‘s origins.