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.
In some ways picking Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” as a an “overshadowed” original is blatantly false. Her recording reached number one on the country charts and remains one of her signature tracks. Ask anyone south of the Mason-Dixon line, and you’ll surely find plenty of people who know “I Will Always” as that Dolly Parton song, not the theme from The Bodyguard.
But I still think it qualifies, because of just how massive and iconic Whitney Houston’s version of the song has become. It’s one of the bestselling singles of all time — in fact, the bestselling ever by a female artist. It spent a record-breaking fourteen weeks at #1 in 1992-93. It even re-peaked at #3 after Houston died in 2012. It’s one of the titans of the pop-gospel canon.
To say that Whitney makes the song her own is an understatement. The composition becomes merely a canvas for her colossal voice. Equal parts vocal heavyweight and figure skater, Whitney bends the song to her every vocal whim. She astonishes with every second, here: The expressive opening lines drag you in, and one knockout punch after another leaves you breathless to closing seconds. The final “and I…” is Ruth’s called shot, an impact heard not just through the airwaves but through history.
It’s the ultimate “diva” performance, a masterpiece of self-expression and braggadocio. It’s also not really a song, anymore. It’s only Whitney, only Whitney. I love the song as performance, but can’t really immerse myself in it as art. Since I was a kid, I marveled at the song’s fireworks and melodrama. When I learned it was a cover and heard the original, I was let down. Parton can sing, of course, but she can’t sing sing the way Whitney can. Expecting similar fireworks, I categorized Parton’s original as forgettable in my brain.
But as I revisited the original track this week, I was surprised. I was thrilled. Because Parton’s rendition, unlike Whitney’s flagship, cares about the story and emotion under the song. Parton knows, for example, that the crux of the lyrics are the well-wishes to her departed lover:
I hope life treats you kind
And I hope you have all you’ve dreamed of
And I wish you joy and happiness
But above all this I wish you love
Houston belts these words out with strength and grace. Parton half-whispers them, as if she’s searching her soul for some unknown truth. She discovers that truth in the final, sung line: “I wish you love.” The moment feels authentic, like a wounded soul’s first step towards letting go of pain. There’s nothing quite like that in Houston’s song, terrific as it is.
So which do I prefer? It’s not as straightforward as I’d expected. Houston’s track is iconic and enduring and indefatigable. Her performance transcends. Yet Parton’s take has something tender and evocative to it, and it’s the version I’m currently hooked on.
Who am I kidding? Of course it’s Whitney. Her rendition is rousing. It’s inspiring. How inspiring? Let me tell a story: Back in high school, my friends and I formed an absurdist sketch comedy group that made short, half-baked videos under the name “Incorporated Enterprise.” One of our better videos was a sports movies spoof about an aspiring ping pong player. (No I’m not linking to it. Even our “good” ones make me cringe so hard.)
I played the role of the ping pong coach. After the main character won the championship, the coach (me) sang an ugly version of “I Will Always Love You” in honor of the victory. It’s a gag we ripped directly from The Simpsons episode “Mayored to the Mob,” stripping away all bodyguard context. It made no sense. It was just a way for me to make an ass of myself on camera, and it worked.
The final cut featured about a minute of me singing in the clip, eventually overlayed with Whitney singing. But we saved the original recording, and someone (possibly me), ripped the audio of me singing the entire “I Will Always Love You,” mumbling half-remembered lyrics and cracking my voice. My brothers still pass around the MP3 like a bootleg rarity of their oldest brother’s humiliation. It’s one of the reasons I can never run for US President… fear that the clip will leak to the media.