Fifty years ago on this date Marvin Gaye entered the charts with "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)". The track was far from his first on the Motown label but it did have the most chart success among the singles he had released up to that point, peaking at no. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. We hesitate to call it his most recognizable song—because he's had an unusual number of tracks that have become cultural standards compared to most in his era—but "I wanna stop and thank ya baby" is an instantly recognizable line. Enough so that a number of performers have tried their hands at the song over the last five decades.
Here are a few, ranked by how well they live up to the original while differentiating from the Gaye's original.
05) Kenny Rogers (2006)
Kenny Rogers is, of course, a country musician so we supposed we hoped for a Western-tinged approach to Gaye's classic on the album After Dark. However the performer opted to go with a fairly straight-ahead cover, which isn't going to work when you're competing with the magic crooning of the original star. By 2006 Rogers voice had lost much of what little volume it had to begin with, meaning his background vocalists often make him inaudible during the song's iconic hook. We love Kenny so we're sorry we don't have any nicer things to say about his cover.
04) James Taylor (1975)
This is bound to be our most controversial ranking in this list, as Taylor's version ended up being even more popular than Gaye's, peaking at no. 5 on the Hot 100 and topping the Easy Listening chart. All that said, Taylor's rendition isn't so dramatically altered that we feel it deserves the high status listeners have granted it. Sure, as a folk musician he took the song and made it a tad morew acoustic, but it still bounces around as the original did. This isn't a bad thing: and we suppose our frustration isn't that Taylor turned the song into crap (he didn't) but rather because he ended up more successful with the track than its original performer, and we have enough white guilt to deal with. It's similar to if Bruno Mars took a song Usher released during 2003 and released a version where he plays guitar. It might still be good but is it great?
03) Michael Bublé (2005)
This was definitely the cover that we approached with the most caution, as Michael Bublé is a guy who's essentially made a career on being a good cover artist. Take any American standard (especially those by Frank Sinatra), have Bublé sing it with his gorgeous croon and BOOM: Every mother in America buys the album. Don't get us wrong: The guy's got talent but we're not fans of the constant covers approach (indeed, three of the four singles released from It's Time were rehashes). It ain't bad on "How Sweet It Is" however. We wish he would have stuck with the roadhouse blues guitar he opens the track with (and reappears toward the end) rather than relying on his typical swing-style instrumental backing.
02) Grateful Dead (1972)
What song wasn't covered by the Grateful Dead at some point during its existence (not a sincere question)? We've found at least one instance where the guys covered "How Sweet It Is," during a 1972 concert at New York City's Academy of Music. As you might imagine, this version more than doubles the length of any other rendition of the single we know of. What makes it a better song for a jam band like Grateful Dead versus the Allman Brothers is the former's willingness to keep a low-key tone when called for. No offense to jam bands that excel in bluesy guitar solos, but that would have stolen from the finger-snapping pop vibe inherent to "How Sweet It Is." It's tough to notice that the band has even differed widely from the original when the lengthy bridge draws to a close, on account of the musicians just cruising with the melody and never trying to trump it.
01) Junior Wallace & The All-Stars (1966)
This is definitely a first. Normally when we throw together lists based on covers of classic songs, the first covers to emerge in the shadow of the original tend to be, well, pathetic mirror images. After all, it was common for labels such as Motown to recycle its hits (which were written in-house) among the acts on the label. The band that ended up following in Gaye's big footsteps was Junior Walker & The All Stars, which fortunately had a whole band built into its set-up. Walker was more noted for his ability on the tenor saxophone than as a vocalist (not to suggest his vocals were subpar) and therefore his group's rendition of "How Sweet It Is" got a lively contribution in the form of his horn, which the Gaye single could have used. We might even rank this cover as better than Gaye's classic.