Tidbits: From Johnny Cash to Mario Lanza...Which is the "standard" standard?

This month's features on Billy Vaughn -- king of the cover version -- started a conversation among the contributors to Popularsong.org about cover versions, and more specifically, which version of a standard should be thought of as the standard.

Conversation kicked into high gear when the topic of Lee Hazlewood's "Jackson" came up. Hazlewood recorded it first with Nancy Sinatra, and the song had decent chart success. Shortly afterward, Johnny Cash covered it as a country duet with June Carter. The Cash version topped the country charts, and made a small mark on the pop charts as well. Today the better known version is Johnny and June's. The odd thing is that most casual listeners pick out the Lee and Nancy version as the one they prefer -- and then insist that they're listening to Johnny and June! It's probably a toss-up as to which is better, or which is the standard.

Speaking of Johnny Cash and June Carter*, another duet of theirs that raises similar questions is Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter." Hardin hit the charts first, but was eclipsed by a cover version recorded by the great Bobby Darin. Cash turned it into a powerful duet, for which he and June won a Grammy Award. Joan Baez got into the mix with a folksy version, and for a while, Ramblin' Jack Elliott's version got a lot of airplay. Which is the standard for this standard? Darin? Cash & Carter? Depends on which style you favor.

Another Johnny Cash classic that comes up from time to time as a "pop standard" is Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down." This was originally released as a single by Ray Stevens (best known for novelty songs such as "The Streak") in 1969. It fared well on the charts, but has been more or less forgotten after the impact of Cash's 1970 version, which won CMA Song of the Year. The song was then covered by countless artists; we imagine Billy Vaughn must given this the sax treatment at some time or other.

* If you think Johnny Cash doesn't belong in a discussion of American Popular Song, guess again. Time has proven that many of his recordings really don't fit in the "country" category alone...and as our definition of pop standard goes, if you know it, and everybody you know knows it, and it fit American pop culture, it's a pop standard.

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featured performance

So which version of "You'll Never Walk Alone" are we going to show here? Lanza? Sinatra? Shirley Jones? Nah...how about 60,000 English Soccer hooligans...Please note that you have to click on the little "play" arrow twice to get it to work.

Tidbits, continued from column at left

In the "Johnny Cash" songs noted above, (or in the other column) the lasting version has been that which sold the most copies. But for some songs, that is not the case at all. In our feature article on Billy Vaughn this month, we note that as musical director for Dot Records, Vaughn was responsible for the soft sounds of Pat Boone's cover hits. In many instances Boone's covers outsold and outcharted the original; Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" is a perfect example. In retrospect, however, Boone's version is scarcely remembered other than at Boone's now-rare concert appearances.

Some standards simply won't be pinned down to a single artist. Perhaps the best example of this is Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's "You'll Never Walk Alone" from the musical Carousel. The song was first performed by Broadway star Christine Johnson, but was quickly covered by a number of pop vocalists, including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Mario Lanza. Perry Como recorded an extremely popular version a few years later, and then two versions were associated with the song when the film was released in 1956. Then Mahalia Jackson recorded a classic version in 1961, while Doris Day did a straightforward but haunting version in 1962. A couple years later Gerry & The Pacemakers did a version that rocketed to #1 in the UK, and is to this day an "anthem" played at soccer games in England. Elvis hit the charts in 1969...so whose is best known? Perhaps Jerry Lewis, who concluded his Labor Day telethons with the song? The answer, really, is none of the above; the song simply transcends any individual artist.

By the way, during the last years of his life Johnny Cash recorded a number of songs for his "American" Series of CDs. Although a few of these were new compositions, most were songs near and dear to Cash that he felt he simply had to record before he died. One of those was "You'll Never Walk Alone."

That folks, is the true definition of a "standard."

To revisit "Tidbits" from last month discussing hit songs that weren't, please click here.