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Cover Versions and The Music of the Beatles

Cover Versions

African American contributions have an important place in the history of music. By fusing different techniques which originated in Africa with their unique vocal abilities, black Americans provided the world with jazz, blues, hip-hop, and other notable genres of music. While a part of the population enjoyed these creations, others attempted to gain popularity by copying or covering their songs. Cover versions undermined the achievements of African American artists because they gained wider acclaim than their original versions. Financial losses were among the significant ramifications of the cover version phenomenon.

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Brief History of African American Music

Struggles and challenges of life under the institution of slavery significantly contributed to the development of a unique musical style performed by African American artists. After the Civil War, many black musicians sought employment as performers in military bands. Although newly freed African Americans primarily played European music in the beginning, they had developed their own style called ragtime by the end of the 19th century. This style later evolved into jazz, which is considered to be one of the most significant contributions of African Americans to music. During the 1920s, many jazz and blues artists emerged among black Americans. Several decades later, jazz contributed to the development of rhythm and blues and soul music. The latter had a critical impact on the music made by American and British signers. When considering the fact that hip-hop was created by African Americans, it is apparent that blacks have an important place in the history of music. Their music has been so immensely popular, that many white performers covered their songs.

About Cover Version Phenomenon

A cover version is essentially a remake of an original song performed by some other artist. The definition and reasons behind producing covers have changed since the term’s inception. For instance, in the early 20th century, cover versions were primarily created to generate revenue. Therefore, only commercially successful songs were chosen to be covered. The reason why such a strategy was financially rewarding is that in the early days of commercial music, the distribution would happen only locally. Marketing and promotion techniques were not as developed as they are today. Therefore, it was logical to cover a song that was popular in other geographical areas before it came to local stores. In some cases, covers were more favored than the original recording. For this reason, some people believe that the cover version phenomenon significantly undermines the efforts of the artists that initially produced the songs. African Americans might have endured the most damage because of the popularity of their music but prejudiced attitude on behalf of the population.

Cover Versions in 1950s

By the end of the 1950s, cover versions of songs by African American artists were commonplace. The attitude toward producing covers also changed – they were created intentionally to rival the original performer or the label that released the song in the beginning. In other words, covers were produced not because of incentives to earn, but due to the desire to undermine the opposing labels and artists. Therefore, in some cases, remakes became much more popular than the original. During the 1950s, there were no drastic changes in how music was distributed. Record labels often purchased air time from radio stations to promote their songs. Because radio stations often targeted a local area, it was not possible for an artist to reach the mass audience. For instance, “Sh’ Boom,” a 1954 song by the Chords, was a major hit and reached No. 2 on the Billboard’s chart of R&B songs. However, a different version was released by a Canadian group called the Crew-Cuts. Their cover stayed as No. 1 on the Billboard’s chart for more than nine weeks, thus surpassing the original.

Ramifications Endured by African American Artists

African American artists often created jazz and blues hits that were immensely popular. Their financial success would have been much more substantial had the covers not intervened. For instance, “Sh’ Boom” was covered by at least four artists the same year the single was originally released by the Chords. Among the covers that were attributed with wide acclaim were Stan Freberg’s version and the Billy Williams Quartet’s remake. Limitations of the copyright law of that time did not allow the original performer to benefit from the publication of covers. Therefore, it can be concluded that the authors of ideas lost substantial amounts of potential revenue because of the ventures of cover artists. The best-selling record charts of the Cash Box magazine, “Sh’ Boom,” reached No. 1. However, the magazine calculated the number of sales of the two versions combined. Considering the fact that the version of the Crew Cuts was more popular, it can be assumed that they sold more recordings of “Sh’ Boom” than the original author. The increased popularity of African American music had its shortcomings, including white cover singers, whose versions became more acclaimed.

Cover Version Phenomenon Today

Today, cover versions play a different role than they did during the last century. Instead of undermining someone else’s art, contemporary covers are produced to pay tribute to the original artists. Often covers are not created to gain a financial benefit. However, if a cover artist chooses to monetize the songs, he or she needs to attain a legal permit. Some artists allow others to cover their songs for a share of the revenue. There is a significant difference between how the music industry operates today and how it worked during the 1950s. Songs are distributed for the mass audience instantaneously, and it is not worth copying a popular hit so that it becomes successful within the local scope. Contemporary artists have the tools to market and sell their works to the broad population. These privileges were not enjoyed by the African American musicians of the 20th century. Their songs were covered ubiquitously, which imposed harm in the financial context. Despite these ramifications, African American artists managed to leave a legacy that had a significant impact on modern music.


The rich cultural history of African tribes and challenging life experiences of black Americans served as the foundation of African American music in the United States. Blacks contributed to the formation of entire genres, which are essential elements of modern-day music. Jazz and blues, for instance, became popular on an international level, and performers like Louis Armstrong were known in every corner of the world. This popularity had a negative side – there were many people willing to copy their art with the goal of gaining fame and financial success. Limitations in copyright law and the lack of marketing and sales tools available today were among the reasons why remaking was possible.

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The Beatles

The Beatles is one of the most iconic and most celebrated bands of all time. Their music was heard on every continent, and their style was replicated many times. Despite being an ordinary group of musicians who played skiffle, which was popular at that time, the Beatles managed to become pioneers in the industry. Not only did they influenced new musicians, but they changed and created entire genres. During the mid-1960s, the band went through notable transformations – they stopped being a live band and became full-time studio artists.

British Invasion

The immense popularity of American rock, jazz, and blues inspired hundreds of musicians around the world. Many amateur artists attempted to imitate the style to achieve fame, but the early endeavors were not successful. In the late 1950s, however, a Liverpool-based teen named John Lennon changed this situation. After seeing that jazz, rock, and blues were successfully combined in the genre called skiffle, Lennon decided to adopt it for his group. In fact, the genre’s revival in the United Kingdom served as the point of restoration of the genre’s popularity. This type of American music became widespread in the UK, but the British artists had not achieved major success until the British Invasion.

This cultural phenomenon is one of the most remarkable parts in the history of British music. It is when the music from the UK became immensely popular in the United States. The invasion was led by Beatles, who by the mid-1960s switched from skiffle to rock. This gradual transformation of style allowed the band to attain success in the American music market, previously unreachable for British performers.

Transformation During 1960s

While the band started with skiffle in the beginning, some drastic changes occurred throughout the 1960s. The arrival of the Beatles to the United States was the sign of the group’s international success. As it was previously mentioned, British bands, including the Beatles, often remade American songs or wrote new ones that closely resembled American music. Another significant stylistic choice of the group was their attitude toward live performances. All songs made before the mid-1960s could be played live in the same manner. “Love Me Do,” for instance, released in 1962 in the UK, relied heavily on the sounds of instruments that could be performed the same way on stage. One notable feature of this song is the use of the harmonica, which became a trademark of the Beatles’ early songs.

The band, however, had always strived for the better and more unique music. Therefore, they started experimenting with the equipment available only in the studio and exploring the results they could deliver. Instead of being content with their success, the Beatles wanted to push the music of that time to its boundaries. Thus, the period of experimentation soon began in the band’s life and this period is the most significant in the history of the Beatles.

Desire for Experimentation

In 1964, the Beatles released the song “I Feel Fine.” The record can be summarized as being a rock song, but the work’s significance lied in the use of feedback. While the technique had been used by other musicians in the past, “I Feel Fine” is considered to be the first commercial recording to feature audio feedback. It should be noted that it was not intentional in the beginning. According to reports, Lennon accidentally pushed the amplifier. The artist was so satisfied with the result that he asked their producer if it was possible to incorporate feedback into a recorded song.

Experimentation continued when the Beatles worked on their next album. Prior to their 1966 record, all songs of the band featured happy ending in their lyrics. Also, most of the songs were targeted at live performances. However, with the release of Revolver, it was apparent that the band decided to abandon their title as the live performing act. Instead, the Beatles focused on the studio recording techniques and fine-tuning their tracks. “Eleanor Rigby” released as part of this album suggested two novelties. First, the lyrics did not have to end in a positive manner to become loved by the millions of people. Also, the song does not feature drums and guitar, as traditional rock hits do. Therefore, the Beatles proved that the choice of instruments might not be the same for all songs, and there is no magic formula that works for all records.

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The songs published as part of Revolver featured strengths of each of the band’s members. For instance, “Eleanor Rigby” depicted the ingenuity of Paul McCartney and his vision of suitable instruments. John Lennon contributed to the last song of the album, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” To achieve certain vocal effects, the producer had to process Lennon’s voice through several devices, including a Lesley speaker and an automatic double tracking system. Besides unusual vocals, drums and cymbals were also uncommon and unique. Instead of playing the guitar, John played the sitar and, along with drums and cymbals, the instrument was reversed after being recorded. This pattern of complex manipulations showed that the Beatles were inclined towards uniqueness and developing something new. Their goal was not to achieve success using proven methods but to invent their own while enjoying music. This song also marked the band’s departure from traditional rock and pop songs to psychedelic records. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was released in 1967 and featured many psychedelic songs, only proves this claim.

In their final album, the band’s musical style changed once again for the last time. However, instead of incorporating many effects and taking the song’s arrangement complexity to the next level, the Beatles decided to take one step backward. Most of the songs featured in Abbey Road are simple both in terms of lyrics and the use of musical instruments. By publishing this album, the group ended the era of artistic experimentation and its existence, thus, emphasizing how much experimentation was essential to the Beatles. This formed a band that concentrated on live performances but slowly grew to become a pioneer and innovator in the music industry. The mid-1960s are the most significant time period in the band’s career path because it marked the Beatles’ most prominent transformation.


The Beatles were a British band to inspire thousands of artists around the world. Initially influenced by American rock, blues, and jazz, the Beatles developed to such an extent that they set trends and pushed limitations of genres further away. They led the British Invasion in the United States, and are among the most well-known music groups in the world today. The band’s desire for experimentation led to several shifts in style throughout the 1960s.

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