9 Songs By White Singers That Black Singers Snatched As Their Own
Consider this a tiny slice of reparations. No, not really, though.
January 22, 2022 at 8:27 am
It was once a common occurrence for white singers to re-record the work of Black musicians, oftentimes without crediting them. Cue Rock and Roll legend Little Richard’s regularly-spouted rant on how he “wrote it then Pat Boone stole it.” If you don't know who Pat Boone is, consider yourself lucky that you haven't heard his version of “Tutti Frutti.” Slowly, but surely, however, the musical tide began to change and it was the Black artists turning mediocre sounding tunes by white singers into smash hits.
Here are nine songs by white singers that Black singers snatched, re-recorded and completely owned.
Boyz II Men’s highly-anticipated sophomore album, II, launched those four guys from Philly into the pop stratosphere with mega chart-topping hits “I’ll Make Love to You” and “On Bended Knee.” Nestled toward the end of the album is a remake of The Beatles’ 1965 U.S. number one hit, “Yesterday.” The original version was sung by Paul McCartney backed primarily by an acoustic guitar. Boyz II Men, however, used the song as an opportunity to return to their acapella roots, creating music through harmonizing and bass vocal drops. While their version was never released as a single, it’s not far-fetched to say that they totally owned the tune.
Lean in because this one will blow your mind — Luther Vandross is not the original singer of “Superstar.” The song was first recorded in 1971 by The Carpenters, a popular soft rock/easy listening brother and sister duo from California. But as with everything Vandross touched, “Superstar” immediately became his. Released in 1983 on his Busy Body album, Vandross recorded the song as a soulfully smooth medley fused with Stevie Wonder’s (later Aretha Franklin’s) “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)." His version reached number five on the U.S. R&B charts and landed on the Billboard Hot 100.
3. “Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You”
Originally recorded by Frankie Valli and released in 1967, the song was re-recorded by his fellow New Jersey native, Lauryn Hill for her debut solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, in 1998. While Valli’s version isn’t as dry as some of the other songs on this list, Hill added some funky elements to her turn-of-the-century remake, thus owning the Black rights to the hit. According to her sound engineer, Hill, who had only just learned the song a few hours in advance of the recording, crafted her version while eight months pregnant and lying on the floor. It was never released as a single, yet it still somehow climbed to number two on the Billboard Rhythmic Songs chart.
4. “American Woman”
Lenny Kravitz is well known for the song “American Woman,” but as it turns out, his 1998 version is a remake of the 1970 song by Canadian band The Guess Who. Kravitz fine-tuned the instrumentation adding a harder head nod effect, officially classifying his version under the genre Psychedelic Soul, originated by Jimi Hendrix in the late ‘60s. While he admittedly dropped the original version’s guitar solo, Kravitz’s “American Woman” still earned him a Grammy for Best Male Rock Performance. It also landed at the top of a variety of rock and top 40 charts and peaked at number 49 on the Billboard Hot 100.
5. "Come Together"
Not to pick on The Beatles, but Michael Jackson is another Black artist who snatched one of their songs. Jackson remade the British phenom’s hit “Come Together,” which was featured on their critically acclaimed Abbey Road album in 1969. It was an international chart-topper for The Beatles in both the U.S. and the U.K. Jackson’s 1988 version was never released as a single and was instead featured on his musical film Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, which remained number one on Billboard's Video Chart for 22 weeks and went nine times platinum in the U.K. But, here’s the real kicker, Jackson purchased The Beatles publishing rights in 1985, which meant that he garnered royalties for the song even though he was not the originator of it.
6. “A Song For You”
If you’ve spent enough time around your elders, you’re more than likely familiar with Donny Hathaway. But, what you may not know is that one of his most coveted songs, “A Song for You,” is a remake. The song was written and originally recorded in 1970 by rock singer and pianist Leon Russell, who also co-wrote “Superstar.” Hathaway’s velvety vocals take the song on a whole new journey; however, he expertly matched Russell’s piano keystrokes for an incredibly sonically pleasing cover and a nod to the songwriter. Hathway’s 1971 remake caused music fans to mistakenly credit him as the writer and original singer, as Russell never released his version as a single.
7. “Walk This Way”
Now this one gets tricky. Run DMC somewhat remade Aerosmith’s 1975 song “Walk This Way.” Somewhat is relative because the rap trio featured the rock legends on their 1986 version. The original plan for the rap was to sample Aerosmith, but at the suggestion of producer Rick Rubin, the rappers decided to cover the song, using all the original lyrics, and include Aerosmith. The chart-topping, genre-bending single changed the course of Run DMC’s career and launched them into mainstream success.
8. “That’s What Friends Are For”
Here’s another tricky one. While Rod Stewart’s “That’s What Friends Are For” was re-recorded by a group of predominately Black singers, Elton John was also featured on the remake. Stewart, however, appears to be singing incredibly off-beat in his 1982 version, and well, John kind of goes for a cookout invitation on the 1985 version credited to Dionne & Friends — an ensemble featuring Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick. Released as a single to benefit AIDS research, the ensemble version became Billboard's number-one single of 1986 and won two Grammy Awards for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals and Song of the Year. Later, a performance by Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston
snatched souls at the 1987 Soul Train Awards when they joined Warwick and Wonder for a rendition of the tune.
9. “I Will Always Love You”
No one has owned a remake harder than Whitney Houston owned “I Will Always Love You.” Recorded for The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992, the song was written and originally sung by Dolly Parton in 1974 as an ode to the business partner and mentor she was leaving behind to pursue her solo career. Parton had commercial success with her version on the Billboard Hot Country charts in 1974 and again in 1982 when it was featured in a film. Houston’s flawless version, however, kicked open new doors to become one of the best-selling singles of all time. That version was also used to send her casket off at her funeral in 2012. Parton recently said that she invested the money she earned in royalties from Houston’s rendition into the Black community in Nashville, as Blavity previously reported. The song, as recorded by Houston, recently earned diamond status.
From adding rhythm and soul to offbeat tunes to revitalizing folkish hits, this list represents just a tiny portion of the magic Black musicians have made over the years.