Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Undercover Work

In 1955 the energetic singer-pianist Little Richard recorded a lively song called “Tutti-Frutti,” which had lots of airplay on rhythm-and-blues radio stations.  The buttoned-down, white-shoed, laid-back choirboy Pat Boone followed quickly with his own less obtrusive recording of the same song, which became an even bigger hit with middle-of-the-road audiences.  Boone’s recording became known as a “cover version,” and by the mid-1960s the word cover was in general use in the music industry for a new rendition of a song previously recorded by a different artist.

Versatile little cover popped up in English sometime in the twelfth century, from the Latin coperire, “to close.”  As both verb and noun, it has worked overtime, with meanings that include “to guard from attack,” “to have within one’s range,” “to make provision for,” “to hide from sight,” “to copulate with,” “to deal with,” “to report news about,” “to defray the cost of,” “to substitute (for someone),” “to meet the terms of (a bet),” “an animal shelter,” “a bed cloth,” “a container lid,” “the front and back of a book or magazine,” “a pretext,” “a table setting,” and “a charge for entertainment.”

But why was it used to describe a subsequent version of a song?  Speculation abounds!

From the original meaning of a white artist’s recording made for mainstream audiences, some think the term refers to “covering” or obscuring any chance of success the earlier version by an African-American performer might have had.  Others emphasize the meaning of “hiding” or “disguising” the original, alluding  to espionage, where spies have “covers” to mask their true identity.  Yet others opine that it’s used in the business sense of "covering," i.e. “blanketing” the market, or that it refers to putting the song in a different album cover.

The usage may simply be an extension of one of the earlier meanings of cover, "to treat or deal with," as a lecture might cover Victorian poetry. It could also mean "to remove from remembrance," as in Psalm 32's "Blessed is he whose sin is covered."

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, in a misguided attempt to cover the earlier work of John  Keats and rhymesters of his ilk, has issued this new release, which he delusionally believes will sail to the top of the charts:

    I love “Tutti Frutti,”
    It’s so cute and clever.
    Thank you, Little Richard, for this tune.
    It’s a thing of beauty
    And a joy forever—
    But only when recorded by Pat Boone.

No comments:

Post a Comment