Sometimes, it’s like, with a song, dust yourself off and try again. The perfect moment for a tune to become a success entrenched in the Pop Culture lexicon sometimes isn’t its first time up to bat. Sometimes it takes competition and revision to get things right.
With this, I’ve gone a bit overboard, giving you a glimpse into 40 tunes that were birthed under less than auspicious circumstances, yet went on to greater fame. Remember their names, and their humble beginnings.
1) Wishing & Hoping – Dionne Warwick (1963)
We start with a known classic. Languishing under Dionne’s sophomore slump “This Empty Place” from 1963 lies Dusty Springfield’s first Top Ten Pop hit in the U.S. Warwick’s take on the Bacharach & David classic is prim and proper where Dusty’s is a bit more greasy, more girl group orientated, and yielded the classic interpretation.
2) Kim Weston – It Should Have Been Me (1963)
Tra-la-la-la triangle songs seem always ripe for the hit parade, and adding crashing the wedding seems like a formula for success. So goes Kim Weston’s Motown debut from the beginning of 1963. However, the bulldozer tempo and Kim’s ability to raise the rafters (and support from The Supremes!) didn’t wake people up as much as the Powehouse flip “Love Me All The Way.” DJs sent the flipside to the R&B Top 25 and Billboard Hot 100, and it would take a cover from Gladys Knight & The Pips in 1968 to give this Wedding song a Top 40 standing, altho Yvonne Fair’s 1976 cover that went Top 5 in the UK is most remembered today.
3) The Crystals – On Broadway (1962)
This modern standard started life as a demo by none other than The Cookies. However, it was The Crystals that got their version out to record buyers first, although their version languished as a bluesy album track on their Twist Uptown LP. The Drifters more edgy version brought the Top 10 hit however.
4) Vikki Carr – He’s A Rebel (1962)
In our first duel we have Vikki versus Phil Spector. Although turned down by The Shirelles because of fear of being blacklisted by Southern Radio stations, this plucky Gene Pitney composition was to be the debut of El Paso, Texas born Vikki Carr. However, Phil Spector knew of the song and rush recorded it with Darlene Love and Edna Wright and released it as The Crystals. While Carr’s version stalled at #105 pop, The “Crystals” ran all the way to #1 pop with their version.
5) Hoagy Lands – Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand (1964)
Although The Animals didn’t get a huge hit in the form of a #102 pop listing with their version named “Baby Let Me Take You Home“, Hoagy Lands had the first version they poached from in this Gospelaires supported stomper from earlier in 1964.
6) Yvonne Fair – I Found You (1962)
The Godfather Of Soul’s biggest Pop hit is a cover? Well, other than title and a few swapped lyrics, Yvonne Fair’s Popcorn style recording from 1962 is the originator of what would carry James Brown’s legacy the furthest.
7) The Fascinations – Mama Didn’t Lie (1962)
Our second duel pits Curtis Mayfield against himself. Mayfield had actually produced Jan Bradley’s version first. While Mayfield had thought Bradley’s version would only become a regional hit on Don Talty’s Formal Records, he recorded a version with Detroit based girl group The Fascinations. By the time The Fascinations version had picked up enough airplay to hit the bubbling under section of Billboard, Jan Bradley’s version had been picked up by Chess Records for national distribution. The larger presence of Chess in the R&B market saw Jan’s version zoom to #8 R&B and #14 pop while The Fascinations version stalled at #108 pop.
8) The Valentinos – It’s All Over Now (1964)
The Womack Brothers had far more success in the 70’s, but they’d been cutting their teeth on Sam Cooke’s label since the beginning of the 60’s. It seemed they might be destined to bigger things when “It’s All Over Now” made it to the Hot 100, but it stopped after 2 weeks at #94 pop. Heard by The Rolling Stones during its chart run, their cover from later in the year gave them a #26 Pop hit by 1965.
9) The Coasters – Let’s Go Get Stoned (1965)
Maybe it’s that it was buried on a flipside, but The Coasters original version of this first huge hit for Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson with then writing partner Jo Armstead ranks just as sweetly sinful as all the cover versions, which include Ronnie Milsap, Chuck Jackson & Maxine Brown and of course Ray Charles’s version that went #1 R&B and #31 pop in 1966.
10) The Supremes – It’s The Same Old Song (1965)
Surprise Surprise! In the running for “summer heartbreak hits” for The Supremes alongside “Mother Dear” and “Nothing But Heartaches” was this song that got reassigned to The Four Tops in June of ’65. Rush released over the 4th of July Weekend of ’65, and soaring to #2 R&B, #5 pop for The Tops, The Supremes 1st version (a re-recording found its way to their Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland LP) was long forgotten until 50 years later.
11) Lou Johnson – (There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me (1964)
Lou Johnson had the bad luck to always get prime Bacharach & David material that never materialized into huge crossover success for him. “Always” became his biggest chart record, hitting #49 pop in the Summer of ’64, besting Sandie Shaw’s version on home turf (#52 pop) while she had the worldwide hit. Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles bubbled under with the tune (#125 pop) in 1967, and Dionne Warwick re-recorded it after doing the demo all the way back in 1963 for a mild chart entry (#65 pop) in 1968. R.B. Greaves of “Take A Letter Maria” fame brought it to the Top Forty (#27 pop) for the first time in 1970 before, well, we got that horrid 1983 version from Naked Eyes that finally made a Top Ten Pop hit out of the chestnut.
12) Louise Cordet – Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying (1964)
“You can have it! Nah, we want it back” is the story of “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying.” After letting Louise Cordet record the tune in February of 1964, Gerry And The Pacemakers usurped it back in April for their first huge crossover hit. Where Cordet’s version is shimmery and cheerful, the hit we’re more familiar with is far more melancholy.
13) Jackie DeShannon – When You Walk In The Room (1963)
A lot of Jackie’s compositions found bigger hit status as words for others. Her Beach Boys meets Ronettes take on “When You Walk In The Room” seemed hit record ready, but eventually only managed a #99 pop listing. The Searchers version crashed the Top 40, making #35 in 1964.
14) The Exciters – Do Wah Ditty Ditty (1963)
Raucous and full of life and not imitative AAVE is The Exciters original version of “Do Wah Ditty.” Unfortunately, stuck between the mourning in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination and the British Invasion, it stalled at #78 pop. Of Course we all know the Manfred Mann version that went all the way to #1 pop.
15) Eddie Holland – (Loneliness Made Me Realize) It’s You That I Need (1963)
A mere experiment similar in take to Kim Weston’s debut further up, this Norman Whitfield effort got more elegant as it aged. Another version that went unreleased by Jimmy Ruffin was recorded in 1965 before it went Top 5 R&B and Top 20 pop for The Temptations at the end of 1967.
16) Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore – Frankie Valli (1965)
As one of the earliest solo outings by our favored Four Season, Frankie’s effort at this proto-folk pop ballad with Spectorian touches didn’t do for his desires to be a soloist as one expected. His version only made the bubbling under charts at #128 pop. The Walker Brothers version, similar to Frankie’s, went all the way to #13 Pop in 1966.
17) The Orlons – Don’t Throw Your Love Away (1963)
Perhaps it was long past time to evolve The Orlons beyond their dancehall hit records of 1962-63. Although the “Heatwave” referencing “Crossfire” did reasonably well, their next slew of records missed the Top 40. Had they flipped over and used this elegant B-side as a new direction, perhaps the hits would have kept coming, as this went to #16 Pop for The Searchers the next year.
18) Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye – Johnny Nash (1964)
Although done first by Don Cherry, Johnny Nash’s 1964 interpretation of “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” set the template for the version that gave The Casino’s a #6 Pop hit in 1967.
19) One Less Bell To Answer – Keely Smith (1967)
As one of the “It Girl” vocalists of the 50’s, Keely Smith struggled to find hit records throughout the 1960’s. She was lucky, however, to be a beneficiary of Burt Bacharach from time to time, and she got first touch of “One Less Bell To Answer” in 1967. Rosemary Clooney got the song first on the charts in 1968, but of course, it became a massive hit for The Fifth Dimension in 1970.
20) Hurting Each Other – Jimmy Clanton (1965)
Late 50’s teen idol Clanton was desperate for a hit record in 1965. It had been since 1962 since he had seen the Billboard Hot 100, last hitting the Top Ten with “Venus In Blue Jeans.” As was appropriate at the time, his Blue Eyed Soul orientated beat ballad take on the original version of “Hurting Each Other” got him appearances on television, but not any chart action. Versions by Ruth Lewis and Ruby & The Romantics also failed before the Carpenters took it to #2 pop at the beginning of 1972.
21) Freddie Paris – Face It Boy, It’s Over (1967)
More genteel, more resigned, we find Nancy Wilson’s 2nd big Top 40 hit of the 1960’s in its original form. Freddie Paris’s version from the fall of 1967 didn’t chart, but laid its insular heartbreak for interpretation by the fancy Miss Nancy a few months later.
22) The Fleetwoods – Before And After (Losing You) (1964)
The productions of Van McCoy found themselves all over the place, and The Fleetwoods were in desperate need of a hit record, having not had one since 1963. However, their version of “Before and After” came and went just in time for Chad & Jeremy to chart with the song at #17 Pop during the summer of 1965.
23) Wedding Bell Blues – Lesley Gore (1969)
While composer Laura Nyro made the bubbling under section of Billboard with her 1966 original version, it was Lesley Gore’s version that was released in competition with the version that The Fifth Dimension took all the way to #1 at the end of 1969. Lesley’s version sank without a trace.
24) The Shirelles – Oh No, Not My Baby (1964)
It’s fair to say this stab at trying to give Shirelles member Addie “Micki” Harris as much lead mic time with normal lead singer Shirley Alston completely loses the plot on a Goffin & King Chestnut. So Maxine Brown was sent back to her home in Queens to try to make something of it while The Shirelles began legal proceedings around disputes about their earnings with Scepter Records. Paying attention to girls outside her window jumping rope and finding the heart of the song, Maxine went into the studio handling the verses, and harmonizing with Dee Dee Warwick on the hook, and garnered her 2nd biggest Pop hit of her career with this cast off as 1964 became 1965.
25) The Four Tops – Helpless (1965)
Just one in a plethora of Holland-Dozier-Holland tracks, The Four Tops version of Helpless still has a rough, demo record feel, even in contrast to all the polished tracks that surround it on their Second Album LP. Lyrically strong however, it was slowed ever so slightly and given more depth for Kim Weston at the end of 1965. When released on Valentine’s Day 1966, it served as the record that became the last straw for Weston, as it made the R&B Top 20 and The Hot 100, with little help or promotion. With that, Weston followed her husband to MGM records, leaving behind her biggest hit, her 2nd released duet with Marvin Gaye.
26) The Miracles – I Heard It Through The Grapevine (1966)
We can see here that “Grapevine” could have always worked as a funky dance record. In the hands of The Miracles in 1966 form, we don’t fully see thriller beat ballad as would become in Marvin Gaye’s hands the next year, although there’s some of the earlier elements. Of course, we’d get the gospel gossip truth from Gladys Knight & Family first on the airwaves via their massive hit before Gaye’s Grand Guignol version became the best selling Motown single of the 1960’s.
27) Take Me For A Little While – Evie Sands (1965)
Of one of the most tragic dueling versions of a song to be released, neither initial version of “Take Me For A Little While” became a hit record. Evie’s version was first, but Chess Records had more marketing might, so radio stations got a hold of Jackie Ross’s version first. In the legal battle between labels, both versions got pulled from the airwaves. The list of covers of the song are rather extensive however.
30) Tammi Terrell – All I Do Is Think About You (1966)
Although Stevie Wonder’s 1980 version did not chart, it’s by far the best known version. Which is a shame, in terms of Tammi Terrell’s original read of the song from January of 1966 still stands to my ears as the greatest lost Motown single. It seems utterly asinine that this 3 minutes of perfection was buried in the Vaults for more than 35 years.
31) I’m Gonna Make You Love Me – Dee Dee Warwick (1966)
Although the #13 R&B showing Dee Dee garnered with her original take on this well-worn chestnut is nothing to sneeze at, it didn’t improve her fortunes from her last hit record. Nor did it’s #88 pop showing match the #26 pop hit Madeline Bell scored with her version in early 1968, nor the #2 Pop & R&B hit The Supremes and The Temptations enjoyed with it as 1969 began. The duet version at Motown most likely would have reached #1 hadn’t “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” sat atop both charts at the time.
34) When You’re Young And In Love – Ruby & The Romantics (1964)
Ruby Nash and her men-friends had a number of originals that saw life as bigger hits for other people, but I chose one oft-overlooked. While The Romantic-ally plucked version of this Van McCoy song made it to #48 pop for Ruby and the gang, a rare Motown outsourced cover for The Marvelettes set spring alight to the tune of a #9 R&B and a #23 pop showing for Wanda, Gladys and Katherine in 1967.
35) The Three Degrees – Close Your Eyes (1965)
The Three Degrees decidedly had acreage of tunes that for whatever reason never made their mark. Their angelic harmonies soar delightfully, but perhaps the heavy eroticism of Peaches & Herb’s cover at the beginning of 1967 is what the tune really needed to make the Top 10 R&B and Pop charts.
39) Brenda Holloway – Who’s Lovin’ You? (1964)
Both The Supremes and The Miracles tackled this well known nugget first. And in reality Brenda and The Tabulations, not the Jackson 5 had the biggest hit version of the song. Both the The Miracles and The Supremes versions were decidedly B-side fodder, but in its first first rate full production, Brenda Holloway’s version belies that it was rush recorded to fill out an LP that capitalized on her rise of success in 1964. So it was slated as a potential single in 1965, only to be withdrawn at the last minute.