Embracing the Version – Reggae Cover Songs

A few months ago, I casually mentioned to a friend that there were so many great reggae versions of popular songs. I boastfully stated that I could probably come up with at least 100 songs. She casually mentioned back that she would like to see such a list.

So I began an endeavor of listing these songs. I found that the first 60 or so came very easily. After that, I really had to dig into the recesses of my memory to recollect some of the (reggae) songs that I grew up with that may have been covers. I got up to 80 or so, then I completely stalled. Thankfully, I had some help from some of the members over at the Trojan records forum to help me reach 100.

While compiling this list, I began to really appreciate Jamaica’s musical heritage in terms of reinterpreting existing music and making it over into something new. It also showed me that just because you didn’t originate something, doesn’t mean that your end result can’t be amazing. Take ska music for example. Basically ska music was the Jamaican version of American jump blues. If you listen to Barbie Gaye sing My Boy Lollipop in 1956, you can clearly hear the guidance that American pop and R&B lent to ska music in the early 1960s.

And so beginning with ska, was Jamaica’s love affair with re-recording songs (mostly American) with a ska/rocksteady/reggae/dancehall flavor. These recordings not only gave Jamaican natives a homegrown version of many pop hits, but it also served as a cultural melding for Jamaicans in diaspora. I know for myself, reggae cover songs could always be used as a means to get my American friends and family comfortable around reggae music.

Another thing I realized when compiling this list, is that in many instances, the pop version that I thought a particular reggae artist was covering was actually a cover version itself! A perfect example is Elvis Presley’s 70s hit Suspicious Minds. I had no idea (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) that the song was previously recorded by a man named Mark James. It wasn’t a commercial success, hence why no one really associates the song with him, in spite of him being the original performer and songwriter. What seems to be more important is the version that speaks to you, and that people love. For many of these reggae cover songs, the same holds true for me. When I think of the song Country Roads, which is the ongoing theme song for my alma mater, it’s not John Denver’s voice I hear, but Toots Hibbert’s (in spite of him swapping out the lyric “West Virginia” with “west Jamaica”).

I realize that many people would argue that covering another artist’s song is taking the easy way out in regards to musicianship. I wouldn’t totally argue with that. For example, in spite of penning many original songs, UB40 is one of those groups who would re-do songs in a “reggae version” and then automatically get radio airplay from it. Back in the 1980s, I saw this as a double edged sword. Yes, it was amazing to hear a reggae beat being played on the radio. However many amazing, original reggae songs were being overlooked because they just weren’t as palatable to non-Jamaican ears. In spite of this, I had no problem including UB40 on my list. In the end, the band has been very successful in bringing reggae music to the masses…so what if it was done using songs that they did not originally write.

For what it’s worth, I have the feeling that we are past the heyday of reggae cover songs. Nowadays, it has become common to just take the original pop song and artist, then remix that track over a reggae beat. Also reggae (and dancehall/ragga/etc.) have gotten to the maturation point where they draw more from indigenous Jamaican inspiration than influences from the U.S. and the U.K. This doesn’t mean that reggae covers have completely gone by the wayside. But it is a realization that times change and many sources of musical inspiration change along with it.

You can find my compiled list of top 100 reggae covers here. Also, if you would like to listen to a mix of reggae cover songs that I uploaded to Mixcloud (it’s not a 100 songs, but almost an hour long mix of music), you can do so here. Feel free to leave a comment about either the list, the mix and/or your experience with reggae cover songs. What’s your favorite? Do you think it’s a hat tip or an insult to the original artist?