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Copy Borrow Steal Vol. 5

I haven’t done a Copy Borrow Steal for ages. Inspired by Tim English’ fine book Sounds Like Teen Spirit (website and buy), it really is a very occasional series: this is the fifth article in two and a half years. In this instalment we’ll look at a Van Morrison hit that sounds a bit like a soul number from 1968/71; an early Elvis hit written almost a hundred years earlier; and a Led Zeppelin song that doesn’t draw inspiration from some blues singer, but from the Doobie Brothers.

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William Bell – I Forgot To Be Your Lover (1971).mp3
Billy Idol – To Be A Lover (1986).mp3
Van Morrison – Have I Told You Lately  (1989 — YouTube)

When Van Morrison wrote Have I Told You Lately, the committed and exceptionally gruff Christian was addressing God. Four years later, Rod Stewart donned his lounge lizard suit and turned it into the soup of mush  that now serves as one of a trinity of über-love songs which grooms croon to their wives (the others are Joe Cocker’s version of You Are So Beautiful and Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight).

Have I Told You Lately is utterly gorgeous, and very much a Van Morrison song, and therefore best heard in the version by one of the greatest songwriters of any generation. So I feel almost sorry to point out that the very line that gives the song its title is almost identical to the opening line of William Bell’s I Forgot To Be Your Lover, in melody and lyrics.

Far be it for me to accuse Morrison of plagiarism, or even deliberately copying somebody else’s melody. Morrison could even plausibly claim never to have heard the William Bell and Booker T Jones composition, which was a hit for Bell in 1968 and then was re-recorded for the soul singer’s 1971 album Wow… (it’s the slightly longer 1971 version featured here, because it is the more uncanny-sounding one).

Perhaps Van Morrison, a soul fan who described himself as a soul singer, heard it and forgot about it. Maybe it resided in the deeper recesses of his subconscious iPod, a forgotten but not erased memory, jogged perhaps by Billy Idol’s 1986 cover of  I Forgot To Be Your Lover, then retitled To Be A Lover (though Idol probably covered the George Faith version of 1977). Whatever the case, the similarity of the opening of Bell’s song and that of Morrison’s is striking.

Van Morrison doesn’t like his songs posted on blogs, so you’ll have to forgive its absence here.

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Frances Farmer – Aura Lea (1936)
Shelton Brothers – Aura Lee (1938)
Elvis Presley – Love Me Tender (1956)

Look at the label for Love Me Tender, Elvis’ first ballad to be released as a single, and you’ll find the writing credits as listing singer’s name and that of one Vera Matson — and neither had any hand in writing the title song of Elvis’ debut movie. The melody was in fact written in 1861 by an English-born chap called George R Poulton (1828-67) for the song Aura Lee, which would become a hit during the US civil war (a time in which the film Love Me Tender is set). It was popular with soldiers from both sides; so much so, it is said, that enemies by day would sing the song together across their positions at night.

Aura Lee made a comeback (as Aura Lea) in 1936 when it featured in the film Come And Get It, in which it is sung by the tragic Frances Farmer.

By the 1950s, Aura Lee was in the public domain, and with copyright out of the way, the Oscar-winning film composer and arranger Ken Darby (The King And I, Porgy & Bess, South Pacific — all as co-arranger – How The West Was Won) was commissioned to write new lyrics for what would be Love Me Tender. When the songwriting credits were assigned, Poulton’s name was missing. Elvis received his customary co-writing credit, and Darby ceded his rightful credit to his wife Vera Matson. The reason for that related to the distribution of royalties, but Darby had an even better explanation: “Because she didn’t write it either.”

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The Doobie Brothers – Long Train Running (1973)
Robert Johnson – Terraplane Blues (1937)
Led Zeppelin – Trampled Underfoot (1975)
In Sounds Like Teen Spirit, Tim English fingers just a few songs by Led Zeppelin which one might say benefitted from an overzealous spirit of drawing inspiration from the work of others. Some blues musicians successfully sued Led Zep for plagiarising their work; many others have provided the basis for songs by the hoary old rockers but have not been credited; and sometimes they even needn’t be.

By the band’s own admission, the lyrics for Trampled Underfoot, a stomper from 1975’s Physical Grafitti album, drew inspiration from Robert Johnson’s 1937 hit Terraplane Blues, and drummer John Paul Jones has said that he borrowed the beat from Stevie Wonder’s Superstition.

English has spotted another influence: the verses of The Doobie Brothers’ 1973 hit Long Train Running, saying it “betrays obvious melodic, rhythmic and even lyrical similarities” to the Doobies’ track. He does not allege plagiarism (and that is always refreshing when discussing Led Zep songs), but speculates that the band probably heard Long Train Running during their 1973 tour of the US, which coincided with the Doobie songs’ residence in the charts.

Whether Tim has a point, you decide.

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  1. March 8th, 2012 at 09:37 | #1

    Thank you for such well thought out and informatively penned posts, but more importantly interesting and enjoyable. As always, keep up the great job.

  2. Sonic
    March 8th, 2012 at 15:36 | #2

    Another good job. I know I am being a bit pedantic, but you know and I know that John Paul Jones was bassist, not drummer in Led Zep. Glad you kept away from the whole plagiarism topic, although I would like to see you tackle it sometime.

  3. Hugh Candyside
    March 10th, 2012 at 07:17 | #3

    You know that on Vanthology, the soul tribute to Van Morrison, William Bell covers “Have I Told You Lately.”

  4. halfhearteddude
    March 11th, 2012 at 08:21 | #4

    I didn’t know that. I’ll try to find that.

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