Version Tracker examines how different artists have performed the same song over the years, adapting it to suit their own needs and times.
During the heyday of VH1’s Behind The Music, most of the episodes about mega-popular arena-rock acts had the same arc: years of obscurity, followed by a change of style and/or personnel, then multi-platinum success, before internal dissension over the ultimate direction of the band, typically necessitated by a hit ballad perceived as “too wimpy.” For Styx that song was “Babe.” For Journey, “Open Arms.” And if The Beatles had been born in the 1970s instead of a decade earlier, they may well have fractured over “Yesterday.”
Even in the mid-1960s, The Beatles sat on “Yesterday” for nearly a year. After Paul McCartney literally dreamed up the melody, he spent months tinkering with the arrangement and lyrics, while dealing with the growing consternation of bandmates who worried that song was too soft, and that McCartney was being too precious about it. But everyone in the group benefitted once “Yesterday” came out. Beyond being a revenue-generating machine, the song was so undeniably beautiful, elegant, and mature that it gave the older generation a way into The Beatles. Respect from the establishment gave the band the freedom to keep experimenting, expanding the parameters of rock ’n’ roll.
According to The Guinness Book Of World Records, “Yesterday” is the most-covered song of all time, and a goodly number of those recordings happened in the second half of the 1960s, as everyone from country singers, opera divas, middle-aged crooners, R&B sensations, and lounge musicians all saw an opportunity to show that they could connect with the young, by tackling a song they mutually admired. In pop’s most turbulent era—where singer-songwriters co-existed on the charts with vocalists and instrumentalists who’d been trained to think of songs as common property, transformed by performance—no one seemed to think that “Yesterday” had been done as well as it could ever be. Everyone wanted to give it a go.
Of the 30 or so covers below, the majority come from the five years immediately after “Yesterday” first became a sensation, when so many different artists tried the song that the sheer variety became an impressive story all unto itself. Post-1970, “Yesterday” remained popular, but the range of covers narrowed, as the song came to be more associated with easy-listening than vibrant contemporary pop. That may be what kept the original from tearing The Beatles apart. Very quickly, it became separate from The Beatles. It was a standard from the get-go.
Faithfull had her first hit single in 1964 with “As Tears Go By,” written by The Beatles’ “rivals,” The Rolling Stones. Her “Yesterday”—recorded and released just a few months after the original—follows the same template as her breakthrough, rendering the song almost baroque, with strings and a hushed background choir behind elegantly plucked acoustic guitar. Not only is this one of the first “Yesterday” covers, but as a product of the larger British Invasion scene, it keeps the song “in the family.” It wouldn’t stay there for long.
Introducing “Yesterday” on the live album Country Music Concert, Nelson says it’s by “a pretty fair little country group, known as The Beatles.” After the laughter subsides, he adds, “Seriously, this is a song that, as a songwriter myself I appreciate it very much, because I think it’s a very great piece of material.” He then proceeds to give a very Nelson spin to the number, performing it as though it were a variation on his own “Crazy.” Similarly, Nelson’s RCA boss Atkins delivers an instrumental version that’s really a showcase for his nimble fingering—as was the case with nearly every Atkins recording in the 1960s. Here, just a year after The Beatles released their take, a couple of unlikely country stars were demonstrating how adaptable the song could be.
In the same year that Willie Nelson and Chet Atkins personalized “Yesterday,” Count Basie and Lou Rawls transformed the song even further: the former into a brassy, big-band number, with a soulful roller-rink organ; the latter into a groovy, one-of-a-kind hybrid of jazz, lounge, and R&B. Basie and Rawls were fully in the fold of the Frank Sinatra-approved pop establishment by the time each covered The Beatles, but they were both more offbeat than the members of the Rat Pack, which shows in their arrangements of “Yesterday,” which have more individualized quirks.
On paper, a Perry Como or Liberace “Yesterday” doesn’t sound too promising, but as with Count Basie and Lou Rawls, these two easy-listening stalwarts brought a fair amount of their own flavor to the song. Como recorded his version for the album Lightly Latin, and adds appealing Caribbean rhythms while switching around the order of the lyrics, making it sound like he’s singing softly to himself while walking forlornly down a moonlit beach. Liberace’s instrumental take, meanwhile, ups the tempo and adds little tinkly flourishes at the end of every line. It’s way overdone—the main melody could really be anything with the way Liberace plays it—but it’s hard to deny that it has flair.
The Ventures were an odd group in general: a surf-rock outfit that quickly moved away from the beach and became mainstream pop instrumentalists, performing twangier, more stripped-down versions of the kind of background music that Anita Kerr or 101 Strings might’ve done. That said, the band’s “Yesterday” is a neat one, especially in comparison to Liberace’s from the same year. At the least, it’s a lot calmer.
Not just a name-check in a Steely Dan song, Cathy Berberian was a respected opera singer who gravitated to the avant-garde. In 1967, she recorded a deeply weird album of Beatles covers, including a version of “Yesterday” that treats the song like a tragic aria. Not that many classically trained vocalists followed Berberian’s lead, although Placido Domingo did try a more conventional cover for his platinum-selling 1981 album Perhaps Love. What both takes prove is that while “Yesterday” is flexible enough to synch up with lots of different genres, opera may be a step too far.
Given that Jones was much an embodiment of UK celebrity in the 1960s as the lads in the Fab Four, it was probably inevitable that he’d do his own “Yesterday.” But unlike Marianne Faithfull’s “home team pride” cover, Jones’ is much less connected to its place and time—nor is it as creative. This is pretty much a straight copy of The Beatles, but over-sung.
Paul McCartney has said that Ray Charles’ version of “Yesterday” is his favorite, which isn’t that surprising, given how much passion and improvisation the pianist brings to his vocal. But has McCartney heard Sarah Vaughan’s take? The jazz chanteuse recorded a decent four-minute “Yesterday” as part of an album of Beatles covers that she made in the ’70s and released in the ’80s; but she did an even better, damn-near definitive two-minute version in 1966, applying her rich, deep voice to a swinging arrangement that’s halfway between Phil Spector pop and loping country. If Vaughan’s song opened up more as it went along, it’d match Lou Rawls’ and The Miracles’ “Yesterday”s as the best non-Beatles ones.
Just as Willie and Chet showed two ways to make “Yesterday” into a country song in 1966, two years later Tammy and Marty each offered their own very fine takes, with Wynette doing the number as a twangy, teary ballad, while Robbins makes his more elegant—as vivid and wide open as the western frontier.
Motown acts made a habit of covering The Beatles, in part to repay the band for gushing about American R&B in interviews, and in part to establish the label’s crossover credentials. The Miracles’ arrangement of “Yesterday” is a wonder, evolving from a freeform acoustic ramble into moody doo-wop, then sliding easily into tastefully composed orchestrations. Gaye, on the other hand, drives down the middle, matching a fairly faithful rendition to some of the usual Motown chimes and vocal gymnastics. It’s a nice version, but doesn’t even come close to telling a story with sound, the way Robinson and company do.
Want to hear “Yesterday” get psychedelic? Ease in gently with The Bar-Kays’ mildly twisted instrumental cover, which slathers some greasy prog-funk organ over a slow beat and big horns, finding a middle ground between the big-band rock of Blood, Sweat & Tears and the more jammy meanderings of BK’s Stax Records label-mates. Then take off to a much weirder place with Welsh art-rock act Eyes Of Blue’s indescribable head-trip, which sounds like a half-dozen different arrangements loosely stapled together (and connected, briefly, by a few bars of “The First Noel,” for some reason). Here, at the end of 1960s, are some “Yesterday”s taken about as far out as the song would ever get.
At various points in their respective careers, Sinatra, Presley, and Dylan would’ve found the notion of singing any Beatles song ridiculous. Sinatra hated rock ’n’ roll; Presley resented the competition from across the pond; and Dylan was just too cool in general to pay any kind of tribute to another set of generational heroes. Sinatra’s capitulation on “Yesterday” was a sign of how how widely that song had been embraced (even though it took a few years for Frank to get on board), while Presley’s cover had a lot to do with him transitioning to the Vegas stage, where he was expected to play to the widest possible demographic. As for Dylan, his “Yesterday” has never been officially released, and the circumstances behind its recording and personnel remain something of a mystery (although reportedly The Beatles’ George Harrison played on the track). He recorded it during an era when he was goofing around a lot in the studio, and trying out a lot of covers—some tongue-in-cheek. Is Dylan’s “Yesterday” a joke? Possibly. Certainly his vocal is pretty lax throughout. But this version is also laid back and likable.
Heading out of the 1960s, the “Yesterday” covers start to stabilize. Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions were already moving toward a more experimental, cinematic kind of soul when their former label released an album of leftovers that included a sweet-but-too-simple “Yesterday.” And while José Feliciano started out his career doing inventive interpretations of other people’s pop and rock hits, his “Yesterday” is something of a snooze. It’s pleasant enough, but this is where the song began its new life as a Muzak staple.
There’s not a lot in common between the “newgrass” group The Dillards and the proto-disco band The Sylvers, and yet both came up with fairly similar versions of “Yesterday,” taking it a cappella. The Dillards go short and speedy, while The Sylvers are slower and more exploratory, but each group has fun with harmonies, finding new ways to enhance what’s already a pretty perfect melody.
A welcome throwback to the 1960s tradition of molding “Yesterday” to fit the artist’s singular style, Dr. John’s cover has a bit of his bayou grit, even though it was recorded at a time when he was skewing more mainstream. The result is a lovely, unexpected take, with a depth of sound and a more dynamic arrangement than the usual soft, wistful version.
The truly bizarre found-footage movie All This And World War II combines archival film clips from the 1940s with a set of freshly recorded Beatles covers, which is the source for this blah Essex “Yesterday.” Some of the songs from the All This soundtrack tried to enliven the material, but here Essex is a lot like Tom Jones, relying on his voice to brighten up an arrangement that could best be described as “un-revelatory.”
Artists from around the world have taken a shot at “Yesterday,” from Jamaican reggae acts to Iranian folksinger Farad Mehrad. The Heptones’ cover settles too easily into a single-minded groove, but it’s a fine bit of world-beat escapism regardless, matching a familiar tune to a toe-tapping beat.
Mainstream, chart-topping acts don’t feel as obliged to do Beatles covers as they did 50 years ago, though the occasional big-timer still tries a “Yesterday.” Both Boyz II Men and Wet Wet Wet show what can trip up modern artists when covering the classics: namely that they don’t try to make the song their own. Boyz II Men do more, leaning heavy on vocal harmonies, but the group still essentially performs the song as is. And Wet Wet Wet does as David Essex and Tom Jones have done before, hewing close to the original but substituting their voices—which is not really enough to make it special.
In recent years, Paul McCartney has started to tour more, playing a mix of Beatles and solo hits with a hot band that delivers an actual rock show. He’s also popped up a lot on TV, reminding longtime fans how charming he can be. One night a few years back he dropped by Jimmy Fallon’s old show to talk about “Yesterday,” and the well-known bit of trivia that the song was once called “Scrambled Eggs” (as a placeholder title while he worked on the final lyrics). McCartney and Fallon sang the original version together, trying out different foods: “waffle fries,” “tofu wings,” et cetera. And you know what? It was still awfully pretty.
Ideal cover: The key to recording a good “Yesterday” is to understand that the melody and words are strong enough to survive an arrangement that’s not strictly faithful. Lou Rawls and Smokey Robinson play with the structure just enough to make the song sound wholly new. They sing it like a little story.
Ideal artist: With the proper production, Adele could do very right by “Yesterday”—plus, she’d bring the song back to its U.K. roots, à la Marianne Faithfull.