Almost all major artists in the rock era have at one time or other recorded (or performed live) songs written by other people, but in a handful of cases, many fans might be surprised to find out who the writers of those songs are. This might be because those writers come from an entirely different musical genre than the performer or because the writer is better known for being an actor or even (if you can believe it) a game show producer. Here are nine such classic hits.
# 9 – ME AND BOBBY McGEE
Anyone familiar with Kris Kristofferson’s career is well aware that he’s a very seasoned musician and songwriter, having released eighteen solo albums to date. However, it’s quite possible that in his career of more than a half-century, he’s achieved a bit more visibility as a film actor, from his leading roles in movies like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Convoy, and the 1976 version of A Star is Born (and, uh.. *cough* Heaven’s Gate *cough*).
So many people might not be aware that among the many, many songs that Kristofferson has written is “Me and Bobby McGee,” which, though it’s been performed by dozens of artists, would posthumously become the signature song for Janis Joplin, possibly the most influential female singer in rock history (her version of the song went to number one in the US in 1971, following her untimely death the previous year).
# 8 – PALISADES PARK
“Palisades Park” was one the biggest hits for early Sixties rocker Freddie “Boom Boom” Cannon (the song would later be recorded by the Beach Boys and the Ramones, among others). The song’s writer, Chuck Barris, would have little involvement or success in music beyond that but still managed to do just fine: starting in the Sixties, he became a hugely successful creator and producer of unique game shows such as The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game. Then, in 1976, he unleashed The Gong Show – which he also hosted – on an unsuspecting world.
Though framed as a talent competition, the popular program featured primarily acts that were intentionally bad or outrageous (remember William Hung on American Idol? It was mostly that sort of thing). Barris also published a memoir (which was later adapted into a movie starring Sam Rockwell) in which he claimed to have had yet another career… as a CIA assassin. Um, okay…
# 7 – LADY
Anyone hearing Kenny Rogers’ 1980 number one hit “Lady,” probably won’t be surprised to find out it was written by Lionel Richie – it unmistakably sounds like one of his. However, this particular pairing of songwriter and performer was notably unusual for the time: Rogers was one of the most successful country & western singers of the era, known for songs like “The Gambler” and “Coward of the County.” Richie, on the other hand, was still a member of the R&B group the Commodores, who, while no strangers to romantic ballads, were also known for heavy funk hits like “Brick House.”
It seems unclear whether Richie originally wrote the song just for Rogers (Rogers claimed that was the case on VH1 Behind the Music, while Wikipedia states that Richie’s fellow Commodores had previously passed on it), but not only was the song a smash, but for Richie (who also produced the track) it also set the stage for his own hugely successful solo career.
# 6 – FIRE
Although it’s certainly common knowledge among his legions of fans, people younger than, say, thirty, might hear the Pointer Sisters’ 1978 number two hit “Fire” for the first time and then be a bit surprised to find out Bruce Springsteen wrote it. The Pointers’ version is an unmistakable nod to the girl-group sound of the early Sixties, and the relative simplicity in the structuring and lyrics are at least arguably unusual for a Bruce Springsteen song (the Boss originally wrote the song with the hopes that Elvis Presley might record it, but Elvis died before that could come to fruition).
About those lyrics, a few of them have admittedly not aged well in the #MeToo era (“You pull me close/I just say ‘no’/I say I don’t like it/But you know I’m a liar”), particularly given that a man wrote them. Otherwise, the song has endured, with Bruce Springsteen himself regularly performing it live for the past four decades or so (the Pointers also would not be the last female R&B act to have success with a Bruce Springsteen song, as Natalie Cole’s version of “Pink Cadillac” went Top Five in 1986).
# 5 – I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU
This is a case where the songwriter did have considerable success with the song initially, yet that version still ended up being dwarfed by a cover. Ultimately, this would be the exact reverse of the Kenny Rogers/Lionel Richie record, as this time, the country artist composed a song that would become a massive hit for an R&B singer. Dolly Parton originally wrote and recorded “I Will Always Love You” in 1973, after which it went to number one on the US country chart.
Dolly Parton revived the song for the 1982 movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (in which she starred) and this version repeated the same success on those exact charts. However, it was Whitney Houston’s 1992 recording (for yet another movie, The Bodyguard) that topped the US pop charts for three-and-a-half months and ultimately sold more than twenty million copies worldwide (if people have forgotten it’s a Dolly Parton song, it probably doesn’t bother her much, since the royalties from Houston’s version reportedly earned her more than ten million dollars in just the first ten years).
# 4 – POLICE ON MY BACK
“Police on My Back” from the Clash’s 1980 3-record studio album Sandinista! was only ever formally released as a single in Australia, although it did receive a significant amount of radio airplay in the US and elsewhere. The song was originally recorded by another British band, the Equals in, 1967, and written by their Guyanese lead singer, Eddie Grant. American listeners would come to know Grant pretty much only through “Electric Avenue,” his solo track which went to #2 in the US in 1983. Grant is generally viewed in the US as a one-hit wonder (even though he did have a second hit in this country, “Romancing the Stone,” the following year), and the synth-heavy sound on “Electric Avenue” – which was categorically trendy at the time – probably even had/has many regarding it as a novelty song.
All this might have led some to believe that Grant as an artist was not quite in the same league as the much-revered Clash, even though a closer listen to the lyrics reveal “Electric Avenue” to be just as socially-conscious as many of those London punk rockers’ originals (and from the title alone, it goes without saying that “Police on My Back” would take on renewed relevance in the 2020s).
# 3 – NEEDLES AND PINS
Sony Bono was, of course, half of Sonny & Cher, who were mostly seen as a pop group when they first became popular in the Sixties. Sonny took the role of the straight man when the duo gave part of the act over to comedy, and after they split, Bono achieved little success as a performer while his ex-wife and partner rose to the iconic status which she still enjoys.
Add to that the fact that he spent the last decade of his life in politics – first as mayor of Palm Springs and then as a US congressman – and it’s easy to forget that Sonny Bono was a serious musician at any point. However, among the songs he wrote in the mid-sixties – other than the Sonny & Cher hits – was “Needles and Pins,” a classic that became a #1 hit in the UK for the Searchers (who also took it to lucky #13 in the US), and was later recorded by The Ramones and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.
# 2 – EDGE OF A BROKEN HEART
Here’s one with two composers who may seem not only out-of-character with the song but with one another as well. Though initially formed years earlier, in 1988 LA-based band Vixen were packaged as an all-female entry into the arena of glam rock, which was at its height of commercial success at the time. Vixen’s first and biggest hit, “Edge of a Broken Heart,” though clearly meant to be a feminist anthem, was in fact written by two men – and which two men is even more surprising.
First, there was Fee Waybill, ex-frontman for the Tubes, a San Francisco band who had started out as a rather theatrical new wave act (with songs like “White Punks on Dope”) before going AOR with the hits “Talk to Ya Later” and the Top 10 “She’s a Beauty.” “Edge of a Broken Heart”’s other writer was Richard Marx, who shortly afterwards would launch a successful solo career focusing primarily on less-threatening adult-orientated rock (some might go as far as to say “yacht rock,” but we’ll give Marx more credit than that. And speaking of credit, Marx also produced the Vixen track).
# 1 – I DON’T NEED NO DOCTOR
“I Don’t Need No Doctor” has been a staple of hard rock for four decades, thanks mostly to Humble Pie’s 1971 nine-minute-plus live recording, which became a major FM hit at the time (an edited version even charted as a single). New Riders of the Purple Sage, Styx, WASP and Great White would all cover the song in the ensuing years. Many rock fans probably assume that “Doctor” was written by then-Humble Pie guitarist Peter Frampton… but in fact the song’s composers are Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, the husband-and-wife team best known for penning some of the classic Sixties love duets featuring Marvin Gaye (including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”) and then achieving success performing their own songs (most notably “Solid,” which went to #12 in 1984).
Ashford initially recorded the song (which actually has a third credited writer, Jo Armstead) as a solo artist in 1966, but Ray Charles did a bit better with his version later that same year. In 1969, garage rockers the Chocolate Watchband were the first to notably give the song a rock make-over, but then of course Humble Pie’s version solidified it as a hard-rocking anthem of defiance.
WASP’s 1986 recording would end up becoming arguably the second-best-known rock version. So… this means that Ashford and Simpson were collecting royalties via a band known for simulating murder and bondage and the drinking of blood from disembodied skulls on stage, the very same year that they themselves had a Top Five R&B hit titled “Count Your Blessings” from an album called Real Love (ordinarily, this would fall under the category of “Strange But True”… but in rock ‘n’ roll, we just call it “Thursday”).
Updated April 20, 2023
9 Classic Songs Whose Composers Would Surprise People article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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