Remakes… the good, the bad, and the unnecessary

Al Green_optDoing a remake of a song, especially one that is widely known and loved, can be a risky endeavor. There are those that have been highly successful because the artist improved the song or, in some cases, took it another place.
But, through the decades there have been plenty of disasters, as well as songs that remaking served no purpose.
One example of an outstanding remake is “A House is Not a Home.” It was recorded in the ’60s by Dionne Warwick and, very shortly before that, by Brook Benton. Their renditions of the great Hal David-Burt Bacharach song were fine, but the majestic songmaster Luther Vandross elevated “A House is Not a Home” to unimagined heights. Even Warwick admits that Luther’s version is the definitive one.
ANOTHER example of making a wonderful song even more so is Al Green’s highly stylized rendition of the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” The epitome of soul singing.
José Feliciano’s remake of the Doors’ rock classic “Light My Fire” worked beautifully because the soulful Puerto Rican singer transformed it into a slow, blues-tinged R&B opus.
And then there’s “I Will Always Love You,” written and first recorded by Dolly Parton. She had a No. 1 country hit with the sweet love song, but then Whitney Houston, her voice in peak form, soared into the stratosphere with her vocal, making the song something completely different.
Taking a song to a new and positive place is perfectly exemplified by “On Broadway,” as interpreted by George Benson. The Drifters’ original became a classic and rightfully so, but Benson picked up the tempo, added a few jazz touches and created an exciting new experience, one that in no way detracted from the original.
STEPHANIE MILLS recorded Prince’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” and it was great. She used the exact same arrangement, but her beautiful voice added new dimensions.
But, on the other hand, there are ill-conceived remakes, such as those that are pointless.
A perfect example is “Endless Love” rerecorded by Luther Vandross and Mariah Carey. They are both fine singers, but that song was already done to perfection by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross, and if someone wants to hear “Endless Love,” that version is the one they will in all probability go to.
Did anyone really want to hear La Toya sing Prince’s “Private Joy”?
The classic “My Guy,” one of Smokey Robinson’s many stellar compositions, was and will always be the signature song of Mary Wells. So there was no logical reason for Sister Sledge to make a new version. Signature songs should not be tampered with, period.
THE SAME applies to “Lady Marmalade.” Labelle (Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash) rocked it and the song became a classic. But years later a decision was made to do a new version, by Lil’ Kim, Pink, Christina Aguilera (she’s a great singer) and Mya. It was a mess.
En Vogue landed a No. 1 hit with “Giving Him Something He Can Feel,” but it was no match for Aretha Franklin’s powerful original.
Speaking of Aretha Franklin, she has done some great remakes. There are two, among many others, that come to mind, the first being Franklin’s “I Say a Little Prayer.” Which is not to suggest that Dionne Warwick’s version was anything but excellent; however, Franklin’s revamped interpretation was a revelation.
Just as impressive was Franklin’s reimagining of “Don’t Play That Song” which was magnificent. Ben E. King was among the best in his field, but Franklin’s version was a 100 percent improvement over the original.
But there have been times when the Queen of Soul has missed the mark. Her interpretation of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was awkward at best, and her rearrangement of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” knocked the charm right out of the song.
TALKING about Aretha Franklin brings to mind Mary J. Blige’s version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” If an artist is going remake a song, they should make sure they have the lyrics right.
The first line goes, “Looking out on the morning rain, I used to feel so uninspired.” But Blige sang, “Looking out on the morning rain, I used to feel so inspired.” Not only was that wrong, it changed the sentiment being expressed.
Diana Ross added nothing new to Gloria Gaynor’s signature song, “I Will Survive,” so why did she choose to remake it? That remains a mystery.
It’s nice that the group Dru Hill introduced the Dells’ “The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind)” to a new audience, but they didn’t have the chops (or the experience) to be fully effective. Almost no one could compete with the powerful voice of Dells lead singer Marvin Junior.
Michael Jackson put an incredible amount of passion into “She’s Out of My Life,” to the point of crying at the end. (Who or what was he thinking about?) But then Ginuwine remade it and tried to match Jackson’s passion. He was unable to make the same kind of connection.
Regina Belle is a fine singer, but she made a mistake making her “Reachin’ Back” album, consisting entirely of hits from the ’70s. She said she wanted to introduce these songs to a new, young audience. Trouble is, young people don’t buy Regina Belle albums. Her fans are 30-plus.
Motown Record Corporation has had many of its hits recorded by other artists within the company. Sometimes it works well. Gladys Knight served up a strong rendition of the Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears” and the Isley Brothers were exciting with their revved up version of Kim Weston’s “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While).”
But the magnificent Supremes lacked the “soul power” (Diana Ross in particular) to sing Martha & the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” effectively.
Remaking songs is territory that requires careful consideration because the results can go either way.


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