This Is the Most Covered Song in Music History

Source: San Diego Air and Space Museum - John Murphy Collection / Wikimedia Commons

The list of artists who reinterpreted and transformed songs made famous by other artists is endless. Think of José Feliciano’s restrained version of the Doors’ hit “Light My Fire.” Frank Sinatra, no admirer of rock ‘n’ roll, nevertheless said the Beatles song “Something” was one of the most beautiful love songs ever written and covered it with full orchestral treatment. The early Rolling Stones his “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was fodder for memorable – and un-Stones-like – versions by Otis Redding, Devo, and Cat Power. (These are cover songs that outperformed the original.)

None of those familiar recordings, however, are among the musical works that have been covered the most. The most covered song in music history is “Summertime.”

To make that determination and identify the other most covered songs in music history, 24/7 Tempo reviewed listings in the online cover song database SecondHandSongs. (Christmas songs and folk songs were excluded from consideration.) It should be noted that the number of covers given here is probably a minimum, as other sources list considerably more versions for some songs.

We considered many tunes from the so-called Great American Songbook, with its pantheon of composers like Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, George and Ira Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, and Cole Porter. Jazz giants Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk are represented, as many of their songs have become jazz standards.

Other songs we considered were from more contemporary songwriters like bossa nova pioneer Antônio Carlos Jobim and John Lennon and Paul McCartney. In one of Lennon’s last television interviews, on the “Tomorrow” show in 1975, host Tom Snyder asked him why he had recorded a cover of the Ben E. King classic “Stand by Me.” Lennon replied simply that a great song is a great song. That has been the rationale for multiple cover versions throughout the decades. (These are the most covered artists.)

That has certainly been the case with “Summertime.” Written by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, and DuBose Heyward, it was first performed by Abbie Mitchell in the opera “Porgy and Bess” in 1935 and first recorded by her the same year – with George Gershwin himself as pianist and bandleader. Pete Seeger, Lou Rawls, the Righteous Brothers, Al Green, and Lawrence Welk are among the many diverse performers who have tried to put their stamp on it, and the version by Janis Joplin remains one of that ill-fated singer’s most famous songs.

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