Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



A fashion for albums of various artists paying tribute to another artist by playing his or her tunes. It is easy to put together albums of cover versions; Shared Vision (songs of the Beatles, on Mercury) had only four of 14 tracks newly recorded, while Cover Me (Bruce Springsteen) and I Shall Be Unreleased (Bob Dylan) were entirely compilations (both on Rhino). But at its best the tribute album works in several ways: fans of the artist being honoured, and fans of any of the artists playing on the album will be exposed to a variety of treatments and styles. (That this should be an exciting prospect in some circles says a great deal about the hermetic nature of pop and rock: it was about time some of these people learned that it might be fun to play somebody else's tunes.)

Producer Hal Willner can be said to have kicked the fashion off with his two-LP set That's How I Feel Today '84 on A&M, a tribute to Thelonious Monk: after Monk's death Willner was disturbed by tributes associating him exclusively with jazz, thinking his appeal should be wider than that, and came up with a strange sprawling package with absurdly loud, stiff rock drums on the very first track, but also with the Carla Bley and Sun Ra bands. Willner (b 6 April 1956, Philadelphia; d 7 April 2020, Manhattan, of Covid-19) subsequently did tributes to film composer Nino Rota (1911-79), which featured John Zorn, Debbie Harry and Wynton and Branford Marsalis, then Lost In The Stars (Kurt Weill, with Lou Reed on 'September Song'), Stay Awake (Disney film songs, with Sun Ra, Betty Carter, Garth Hudson, Ringo Starr, Yma Sumac, NRBQ etc) and Weird Nightmare (Charles Mingus's music, with Elvis Costello etc. and an evocative documentary film of the proceedings produced by Ray Davies). Jon Tiven produced low-budget albums such as Back To The Streets (for Stax/Volt songwriter Don Covay), Brace Yourself! (for Otis Blackwell, both on Shanachie), and Adios Amigo (for Arthur Alexander, on Razor and Tie); John Chelew produced Beat The Retreat on Capitol, a tribute to Richard Thompson which had the Five Blind Boys from Alabama harmonizing with Bonnie Raitt.

These were hands-on producers who understood that if the tracks were made in a dozen different studios by a dozen different producers the results can be disastrous, but the results in good hands can be fortuitous beyond the album itself: Bobbie Raitt met producer/performer Don Was on Willner's Disney project and the result was Grammy-winning albums for her. The Carpenters had become woefully unfashionable due to their perceived sickly-sweetness, but If I Were A Carpenter on A&M revealed closet admiration for their songs and their singing: it became cool to like the Carpenters. Many albums have been benefits: Red, Hot, And Blue: A Tribute To Cole Porter on Chrysalis was for AIDS research: Nenah Cherry's hip-hop version of 'I've Got You Under My Skin' and Jimmy Somerville's absurd travesty of 'From This Moment On' probably had poor Porter spinning in his grave; but Sweet Relief on Columbia (from Peter Gordon's Thirsty Ear Records) was altogether better: for singer-songwriter Victoria Williams, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, it featured Pearl Jam, Lou Reed and others, sold 25 times as many albums as the much-loved Williams ever had, revitalized her career and raised enough money not only to pay her medical bills but to start a fund for other uninsured musicians. Tiven's People Get Ready on Shanachie benefited the paralysed R&B legend Curtis Mayfield, with contributions from Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston and Phil Collins; Deadicated on Arista (for the Grateful Dead, natch) raised money for the Rainforest Action Network. Other noteworthy entries among dozens of tribute albums: The Bridge on Caroline (for Neil Young, benefiting the Bridge School), Folkways: A Vision Shared on Columbia (for Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie), Harry Chapin Tribute on Relativity, I'm Your Fan: The Songs Of Leonard Cohen on Atlantic, The Smiths Is Dead '96 on Epic.