It’s often that The Beatles are given the label of saving rock and roll, and usually that’s for overblown reasons. Yes, they were incredibly creative, fully embraced technical advancements and managed to propel popular music into a more advanced form. However, it’s perhaps most important that they always had their own particular identity.
Early rock and roll was largely “race music”– gritty and visceral–often only a few steps removed from blues numbers that had traveled up the Delta. While The Beatles were influenced by Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochran, they were just as much, if not more appreciative, of black artists like Chuck Berry, Arthur Alexander, and Barrett Strong.
McCartney may have covered “That’s Alright Momma,” but The Beatles covered far more songs from black groups. In fact, all of the covers from Please Please Me (“Chains, "Boys”, “Baby It’s You”, “A Taste of Honey”, “Twist and Shout”, and “Anna (Go To Him)”) were done originally by black artists, and only “Til’ There Was You” a number from the Broadway play The Music Man was an exception to the rule on With The Beatles. Lennon would later recall, “We didn’t sing our own songs in the early days – they weren’t good enough – the one thing we always did was to make it known that there were black originals, we loved the music and wanted to spread it in any way we could.”
Of particular note is “Anna (Go To Him)” which stands as perhaps my favorite Lennon cover outside of “Twist and Shout”.
Originally written and recorded by Arthur Alexander, “Anna (Go To Him)” was released on September 17, 1962.
Alexander’s version is maudlin, even slightly off-kilter, given the knee-jerk rhythm and the placid nature of Alexander’s vocal. Though Lennon insisted “it was only natural that we tried to do it as near to the record as we could – i always wished we could have done them even closer to the original,” The Beatles rendition of “Anna (Go To Him) has two distinct differences.
Perhaps most obvious is the piano’s melodic hook being shifted to a very clean guitar hook, and more importantly, they shifted the key up a step to D major.
It was February 11th, 1963, and Lennon was battling a rather nasty case of pneumonia, but this was a time of 4-track tapes and no sure road to stardom. What remains from this day’s session of recording is probably some of the most passionate singing Lennon has on record.
It should be noted here that most contemporaries who were doing what The Beatles were doing, e.g. The Rolling Stones, typically tried to emulate the exact vocal performance of the original. "Mercy, Mercy” is a fine example (and originally recorded by the criminally unknown Don Covay).
Already starting around the top of his vocal range, the emotional heft of the song and the strain on his vocal chords bring an additional resonance to Lennon’s delivery–it crackles and wails, pleads and begs. And it’s his own.
“Twist and Shout” would be the last song Lennon sang that day after chugging a glass of milk to soothe his throat, but that’s a story for another day.
- Particularly great vocal harmony work on “Anna (Go To Him)” from the hauntingly sultry “Aaanna” call and response in the beginning to the more traditional backing vocals that try to steady Lennon’s emotional waver in the refrain.
- Don Covay’s “Mercy, Mercy” would be one of the earliest appearances Jimi Hendrix ever made on a record (though uncredited)
- Covay would also be responsible for this great hit
- Most of Lennon’s quotes here come from a quickly scribbled letter he had written on a plane in 1971 in response to a New York Times article titled ‘So in the End, the Beatles Have Proved False Prophets’. While Lennon’s memories were famously suspect, his “P.S. What about the ‘B’ side of Money?” line manages to both reference something he held dear and be relevant to the discussion at hand. The ‘B’ side in question? “Oh I Apologize”.