Sometimes a hit song is so closely associated with a singer or band that it becomes the artist’s signature song. To the public that artist is most identified with that song. However, some of the most commercially successful signature songs were first recorded by someone other than the artist most recognized for the hit recording.
Two obvious ones, “The Twist” by Chubby Checker and “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston
Many people know Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” was originally recorded by Hank Ballard & the Midnighters and written by Ballard. It is also well-known that Whitney Houston took Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” to the top of the “Billboard Hot 100” chart for 14 weeks.
Here are some less obvious examples of signatures songs originally recorded by someone else.
“Without You” by Harry Nilsson
Nilsson’s powerful, dramatic vocals on “Without You” helped the ballad soar to number one for four weeks in the winter of 1972. It was by far the biggest hit of Nilsson’s career and it is his signature song. However, he didn’t originate it. Pete Ham and Tom Evans, two members of the British rock band Badfinger, wrote the song and recorded it first with their group. Badfinger sounded a bit like the Beatles, recorded on the Beatles’ Apple label and turned out three Top 10 songs, “Come And Get It,” “No Matter What” and “Day After Day.” Sadly both Ham and Evans committed suicide at young ages. In the case of Ham, he became a member of “Club 27,” influential music stars who died at age 27. That list includes Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones (of the Rolling Stones), Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.
“You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone
If you were only going to have one Top 40 hit, this was the one to have. “You Light Up My Life” spent 10 weeks at number one in 1977 and was the biggest song of the year. However, Boone did not do the original version of her signature song. The song was part of a motion picture and first recorded by Kacey Cisyk, a commercial jingle vocalist, and released on the movie soundtrack under the moniker “Original Cast.”
“Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes
In 1981 the raspy-voiced Carnes had the biggest hit of her career with “Bette Davis Eyes,” a song that spent nine weeks at number one, was “Billboard’s” biggest hit of the year and won Grammy Awards in 1982 for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. However, it was first recorded back in 1975 by one of its co-writers, Jackie DeShannon.
“That’s What Friends Are For” by Dionne and Friends
Those friends of Dionne Warwick included Elton John, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder, who lent their voices to the recording. Dionne’s cover version of the song written by Burt Bacharach and Carol Bayer Sager went to number one for four weeks in 1986. It was recorded to benefit the American Foundation for AIDS Research and the song is probably what Warwick is best known for today. But rock legend Rod Stewart did the original recording back in 1982 as part of the soundtrack to the film “Night Shift.” Bacharach, along with songwriting partner Hal David, had previously given Dionne over 30 chart songs between 1962 and 1971, according to “The Billboard Book of Number One Hits.”
“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack
Flack had recorded “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in 1969 as part of her “First Take” album. But it wasn’t until three years later, when Clint Eastwood chose the song to be the background music for a romantic scene he was directing in his new movie that Flack’s signature song finally took off. It rose to become a number one song for six weeks in the spring of 1972, and it went on to be the Grammy Awards Record of the Year and Song of the Year. But the song was written back in the 1950s by Ewan MacColl, who gave the song to his then girlfriend Peggy Seeger, the half-sister of the late Pete Seeger. So Peggy Seeger did the original recording long before Flack’s version.
“I Love Rock ‘N Roll” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
Joan Jett is so closely identified with “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” that people probably think she wrote it. She and her group took the song to number one for seven weeks in 1982. However, the song was written by two members of the Anglo/American band the Arrows, and that group did the original recording in 1975. They penned the song in response to the Rolling Stones hit “It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll (But I Like It).”
“Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Thelma Houston
In her career Houston had only one Top 20 hit. It just happened to be a number one song, “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff wrote the song and it was originally recorded by Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, featuring lead singer Teddy Pendergrass, and released on Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label. Houston’s disco-flavored version fit in nicely with the times, as it was released at the height of the disco craze.
“Midnight Train To Georgia” by Gladys Knight and the Pips
Gladys Knight and the Pips had only modest success on Motown’s Soul label. Only after they moved over to Buddah Records did they reach their potential with four consecutive Top 10 hits, including “Midnight Train To Georgia” which went to number one for two weeks in 1973 and became the group’s signature song. Jim Weatherly wrote the song and released the original version. The song was originally titled “Midnight Plane To Houston.” The song, re-titled “Midnight Train To Georgia,” was also recorded by Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney and first cousin of Dionne Warwick, before Gladys Knight and the Pips did the definitive version.
“I Swear” by All-4-One
There is a long tradition of artists taking a country tune and having a hit on the pop charts. Whitney Houston is a prime example with “I Will Always Love You.” This really goes back to the outset of the rock era when actor Tab Hunter took “Young Love” to number one at the very same time Sonny James was at number two on the charts with the country version of the same song. John Michael Montgomery recorded a country version of “I Swear” before All-4-One took their pop version to number one for 11 weeks in 1994.
“Billboard’s Hottest Hot 100 Hits,” Fred Bronson, Billboard Books, 1995
“The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, 9th Edition,” Joel Whitburn, Billboard Books, 2010
“The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, 5th Edition,” Fred Bronson, Billboard Books, 2003