Run For Cover is a weekly music column comparing cover songs to the original version. Prepare for a major bending of rules as we hear musicians throw around genres, tempos, style, and intent. Whether they’re picking up another’s song out of respect or boredom, the results have impressed us.
America has been blessed with its fair share of famous musicians. We saw the rise and fall of George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Elvis Presley. We saw ragtime fizzle with flair and jazz change its shape. We saw Billie Holiday and Judy Garland prove women deserved the spotlight. Today, there are few singer-songwriters who have made as big a dent in history as them. The one that comes to mind, though, is certainly still kicking. He just sold out TD Garden… again.
For someone in his 60s, Stevie Wonder is more than an American icon. He’s a prodigy.
The Michigan-born musician was born prematurely with retinopathy of prematurity, a condition that result in his retinas detaching and Wonder becoming blind. Despite the setback, he picked up numerous instruments from the getgo, teaching himself piano, harmonica, bass, and drums, eventually playing on street corners with his friends. It didn’t take long for him to be signed to Motown’s Tamla label at age 11 when the CEO heard Wonder sing his own composition, “Lonely Boy”.
Over the years, he had a private tutor for academic matters while his musical knowledge grew from experience. He began tossing out hit after hit, dropping classics “Superstition”, “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” like it was a no-brainer. “I Wish”, his perky soulful number from 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life that rocked bright horns without shoving them down your throat, was yet another to peak at #1 on both the Pop and R&B charts.
Almost 23 years later, renaissance family man Will Smith got his hands on it and worked his magic. The 1999 action comedy Wild Wild West came out starring Smith as the protagonist. We watched as the west got a steampunk makeover to match the 1960s TV series of the same name, only the gadgetry was far more innumerable and bizzare than before. Take a nitroglycerin-powered flying bicycle, for example, or that giant mechanical spider. Since the film was ridiculous, Smith made the theme song a little more classy than the rest of its endeavors.
Today, the world very much knows that Will Smith can do no wrong.
The musician turned TV actor turned movie star turned family man has done his fair share of work winning over hearts. He was born and raised in West Philadelphia (really) where he started out as one half of hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. The two won the first ever Rap Grammy in 1988 and eventually became embedded in Smith’s TV show about his life, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, two years later when he was looking to come back from near bankrupt.
Will Smith knew that and didn’t even try to play with the original “I Wish”. Instead, he got as ridiculous as it gets in “Wild, Wild West”. Lyrics that began as the story of child naivety now unfolds as an unhinged western. There’s a deep bass that slides up and down while Smith spits out his beautifully hilarious rap. The beginning of the album version (which, never forget, is flawlessly titled Willenium) features his son Jaden, then an infant, asking to hear the song in adorable baby sputter.
The eight-note bassline clops about on an electric piano, giving a creeping feeling that keeps the listener on their toes, if they aren’t already up and dancing. The splash of horns are essentially the finger snap “Mhmms” of agreement, the snippets of soul that burst from the chest. Smith couldn’t cut this out. Instead, he raps over it. It’s 15 years later and the world still needs to hear this live. If Stevie Wonder can still tour, Will Smith needs to, too.