This is the 40th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
I have a memory of my uncle Dennis “Barny” Barnidge telling me that every newsroom needed at least one weirdo who wore Converse shoes and liked Talking Heads. It was a throw-away, one-off line in a bigger conversation, but now, I can’t remember the context. We could have been talking about me. Or we could have been talking about Barny himself, as he loved Talking Heads, wore Converse, and spent most of his adult life in newsrooms, editing and writing sports stories.
We certainly did talk about Talking Heads a bit. Shortly after Barny joined Facebook, we chatted about the band. The news peg for that particular conversation — not that we ever needed one — was David Byrne’s birthday.
Lots o’ highpoints on Sand In The Vaseline. So many, in fact, that one of my faves, Take Me To The River, turns out to be hardly more than a blip. … Wrestle this to the ground: Best version of Take Me to the River? Al Green? Talking Heads? Annie Lennox? The better-than-you-expect movie version from The Commitments? Anyone else? There’s a pretty good argument that Take Me To The River is one of those songs that can’t be screwed up — though Wayne Newton has vowed to make a version that will change your mind about that.
Happy B-Day D.Byrne. Climb into that Big (Birthday) Suit
What followed was a back-and-forth in which we shared some of our favorite cover songs, including the ones that we felt reached that sacred status of being better than the original.
Cancer took him four years ago this month. He should have turned 65 yesterday. Barny was not sentimental in a mushy way, so I won’t lay on the platitudes other than to say that he was a big reason why I went to Mizzou’s School of Journalism (as was my sister Kerry).
Instead of rambling on about how he inspired me, I’ll pay tribute to him in a way I suspect he’d find more palatable. For you, Barny, I shall finally “wrestle this to the ground” and determine the best version of “Take Me To The River.”
Now, I’ll admit to you lovely readers all what I had to admit to him way back when. And that’s that I only knew some of the versions he mentioned. But I eagerly looked them all up. And found some others, too. And in this research, I discovered that the song was released on Barny’s 23rd birthday. Not too shabby, eh?
Written by Al Green and guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, “Take Me To The River” is viewed by some critics as the beginning of Green’s transition from secular soul singer to gospel artist. Recorded in 1974, “Take Me To The River” was released two years before he was ordained a pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle. The song’s lyrics vacillate between sexual and religious imagery, summing up the tension between what were apparently his two biggest interest areas:
I don’t know why I love her like I do
All the changes you put me through
Take my money, my cigarettes
I haven’t seen the worst of it yet
I want to know that you’ll tell me
I love to stay
Take me to the river, drop me in the water
Take me to the river, dip me in the water
Washing me down, washing me down
I don’t know why you treat me so bad
Think of all the things we could have had
Love is an ocean that I can’t forget
My sweet sixteen I would never regret
Green dedicated the song to blues musician Little Junior Parker, whom Green described as “a cousin of mine, he’s gone on but we’d like to kinda carry on in his name.” “Take Me To The River” appeared on Green’s 1974 album “Al Green Explores Your Mind,” but was never released as a single.
But that didn’t matter, because it became a signature song for Green. Rolling Stone eventually ranked it on a list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
A year after “Take Me To The River” was released, his label, Hi Records, released a version by blues singer Syl Johnson. Johnson added a harmonica at the beginning and had a little more edge to his voice, but otherwise it sounded faithful to Green’s version, which makes sense given it was had the same producer and most of the same musicians. Johnson’s “Take Me To The River” hit Number 48 on the US Billboard Hot 100, and Number 7 on the U.S. Billboard R&B chart.
While Johnson’s version was a fine cover, it was Foghat’s 1976 version that was the first re-tooling of the song. Foghat seemed like a good candidate to be the band to make “Take Me To The River” a rock song: though English, Foghat was inspired by the blues and had an affinity for slide guitar. The amped-up cover appeared on Foghat’s sixth album, “Night Shift.” When Dave Peverett sang those lyrics, he sang it like a rocker down for a good time, not like Green, who was conflicted over the pull between earthly delights and spiritual callings.
In 1978, “Take Me To The River” was covered a three times, and by some pretty big names. In order of bronze to gold, we’ll start with the bronze by Levon Helm.
Helm’s “Take Me To The River” appeared on his 1978 self-titled album, not to be confused with the self-titled album that came out in 1982, or 1977’s “Levon Helm & the RCO All-Stars.” Helm’s voice, particularly his accent, was well-suited for country, and that’s what stood out on this version. Instrumentally, the song didn’t dramatically differ from what Green or Johnson did. He didn’t have Johnson’s harmonica flourishes, but Helm’s horns were pretty sweet.
The silver for 1978 covers of “Take Me To The River” goes to Bryan Ferry’s version, from his album “The Bride Stripped Bare.” The instrumentation was secondary to his vocal style, but the first few times I listened to it, I was stuck on the weird way he sounds he made. I couldn’t help but wonder how he sounded like that and I was trying to picture what his face would look like when forming those sounds. Were his lips pursed? Had he just sucked on a lemon?
But the gold for 1978 versions of “Take Me To The River” goes to Talking Heads’ cover, which was produced by Ferry’s former Roxy Music bandmate Brian Eno and appeared on “More Songs About Buildings and Food.” Just listen.
Up until this version, artists had sung the song at about the same tempo as Green, and until Ferry, they had pronounced the words similarly. But Talking Heads slowed the song down, allowing David Byrne to opportunity to add his David Byrne effect to almost every word. Most notable was the word “river.” In the earlier versions, Green, Johnson, Peverett, Helm, and Ferry had all sung “river” as though it were one, normal word. Byrne made it two — “riiii-verr” — singing it as if he had hiccuped in the middle. His vocal stylings paired perfectly well with Tina Weymouth’s funky bass line. A new standard-bearer had emerged. Talking Heads’ “Take Me To The River” reached 26 on the Billboard Hot 100, and also charted in New Zealand, Australia, and Canada.
That so many versions were released that year was not lost on Byrne. In the liner notes of “Once in a Lifetime: The Best of Talking Heads,” he wrote:
“Coincidence or conspiracy? There were at least four cover versions of this song out at the same time: Foghat, Bryan Ferry, Levon Helm, and us. More money for Mr Green’s full gospel tabernacle church, I suppose. A song that combines teenage lust with baptism. Not equates, you understand, but throws them in the same stew, at least. A potent blend.”
Talking Heads performed a faster version of the song in the 1984 concert film, “Stop Making Sense,” directed by Jonathan Demme. Parliament-Funkadelic alums Lynn Mabry and keyboardist Bernie Worrell were in the backing band, which is like watching “The X-Files” and getting to see some of your favorite “Star Wars” characters. (Which, uh, would be awesome.) That Byrne sang “river” a little faster in this performance should not go unnoticed.
And, as Barny mentioned in the message above, the song appeared on the 1992 greatest hits compilation, “Sand In The Vaseline.” It’s nearly identical to the version from “More Songs About Buildings and Food.”
Blues singer Delbert McClinton covered “Take Me To The River” for his 1980 album “The Jealous Kind.” It was a blues version only in the stylistic flourishes, because McClinton’s delivery, when paired with the exuberant piano and sax solos, gave the song a joyous sound, almost like something you’d hear from The Blues Brothers.
Tina Turner released a cover of “Take Me To The River” as the B-side to the song “Girls” in 1986. The backing track was too much for a track that featured such an icon: too many samples, too much synth, too much drum machine. These things wouldn’t be deal-breaker, normally, but these things overshadowed the voice of one of the best singers of the recording era. It was like James Brown’s “Living In America” in that the decidedly ’80s additions were too overwhelming.
Blues/rock band Canned Heat released a slightly slowed-down version for its 1988 album, “Reheated.” Compared to the other versions, this version felt restrained and low-key, like some friends casually playing in a jam session. It’s not as layered as the others, especially when compared to Turner’s (!), but that straight-forward, bare feel gave it some charm.
In the 1991 film adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s 1987 book, “The Commitments,” a bunch of white Irish people form a soul band called The Commitments and play iconic songs from the ’60s and ’70s. The lead singer was Declan “Deco” Cuffe, played by Irish singer Andrew Strong. The Commitments performed “Take Me To The River” with a spirited sense of nostalgia: Strong sang with a gravelly delivery balanced by the smooth voices of backup singers, The Commitmentettes. Andrea Corr, of The Corrs, played Sharon Rabbitte, the younger sister of the band’s manager. Her siblings and bandmates Caroline, Jim, and Sharon also appeared in the film.
Annie Lennox’s second solo album, 1995’s “Medusa,” consisted entirely of covers. She had some post-Eurythmics songs that were just as good as the stuff she had done with David Stewart, even if it sounded stylistically different. But compared to other many of her other solo work, her version of “Take Me To The River” sounded like it almost could have been a Eurythmics track. Almost. It was about the same tempo as the version by Talking Heads, including the deliberately slow way she sang “riiii-verr.”
Danish a cappella group Vocal Line comprises multiple singers – as in dozens – who sing stylized covers. The group’s 1996 album, “Step By Step,” featured a mashup cover of “Take Me To The River” and Peter Gabriel’s “Steam.” The men sang lines of “Steam” while the women sang “Take Me To The River.” It was only partially a cappella, because halfway through, a funky backing track kicked in, and it was glorious.
Big Mouth Billy Bass was an animatronic singing toy that was meant to look like a mounted game fish, but when his button was pressed, he sang “Take Me To The River.” It was a popular Christmas gift in 2000. (I received one as a present from the Barnidge family that year). “Take Me To The River” co-writer Teenie Hodges said that he made more money from Big Mouth Billy Bass than any song he worked on with Al Green.
The Dave Matthews Band performed “Take Me To The River” with Al Green at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 2000. The footage of that appeared in the 2001 IMAX film “All Access.” It was a solid albeit straightforward performance, though at the time, MTV reported that some of the fans in attendance didn’t like it. “I didn’t pay to see Al Green, especially not to see him play the same song twice,” said Jennifer Harris, who clearly won’t be invited to write for Pop Culture Experiment anytime soon.
In recent years, Tom Tom Club (featuring Talking Heads alums Weymouth and Chris Frantz) has performed “Take Me To The River” at live shows with guest vocalists. The versions sound similar to the one by Talking Heads because, well, these guys were Talking Heads.
English electropop duo Kaleida, comprising vocalist Christina Wood and keyboardist Cicely Goulder, released a version of “Take Me To The River” on its 2015 EP, “Think.” Stylistically, it sounded reminiscent of the versions by Talking Heads or Lennox, as it was at that same tempo. But don’t take the comparisons to those versions to mean that Kaleida’s cover was derivative. Wood’s voice was as sweet as it was haunting.
Per Barny’s invitation, we’ve wrestled this to the ground, or at least to ground level. And despite some good versions…
…Talking Heads will always win in my book. I tell myself it’s because that version stood apart from the predecessors, and because David Byrne added his own weirdness. And that’s true. That’s all true.
But I’d be lying if I said that the very message I quoted from my uncle didn’t bias me toward one of his (and now one of my) favorite bands. It’s because of Barny that I’m biased toward Steven Wright, Devo, and Converse shoes, and a half dozen other things, so what’s one more thing to add to the list?
But that’s one of the things I mentioned at the outset of Cover Songs Uncovered: memories, nostalgia, and emotional connection affect our music tastes as much as quality, and in this case, it seems that memory, nostalgia, and emotions have led me to a cover version that is quality in its own right.
As for that aforementioned Wayne Newton version Barny referenced, well, I have still yet to find it. But then again, Barny always understood sarcasm better than me. He had to explain a few jokes to me, and more than once.
I’ll keep looking for that Wayne Newton version, though.