TOP TEN: Covered songs of the 20th century

10. “Moon River” – Henry Mancini & Johnny Mercer

“Moon River” first appeared in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, performed as an acoustic version by its star Audrey Hepburn. It went on to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song and a Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1961. Check out The Smiths’ frontman Morrissey’s version of “Moon River.”


9. “Eleanor Rigby” – Paul McCartney & John Lennon

Despite its relative obscurity, “Eleanor Rigby” boasts a huge number of covers. It appears on at least 62 studio albums, in addition to countless live versions. Written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon for The Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver as a departure from the band’s ‘pop’ aesthetic, this song is powerful because it relates to humanity’s fear of loneliness and death.


8. “Imagine” – John Lennon

Written by John Lennon in 1971, “Imagine” is the best-selling single of his solo career.

Representing Lennon’s statement about collectivist positivism and inspired by poems from Yoko Ono and the idea of positive prayer, this song has had international success and touched generations. Noteworthy covers by Elton John, Madonna and Neil Young.


7. “Body and Soul” – Johnny Green, Edward Heyman, Robert Sour & Frank Eyton 

First introduced in the 1930 Broadway musical, Three’s a Crowd, “Body and Soul” has become a jazz standard covered most famously by tenor saxophone legend Coleman Hawkins and recently interpreted by Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse. Though considered relatively challenging, the song allows for quite a bit of improvisational freedom, which has added to its success.


6. “Over the Rainbow” – Harold Arlen & E.Y. Harburg

This Academy Award winning ballad, was written in 1939 for The Wizard of Oz, where it was famously sung by actress Judy Garland. The song has received the top spot on many influential lists as “the song of the century.” Many covers have been performed, but none as significant as Hawaii-native Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s ukulele version in 1993.


5. “Yesterday” – Paul McCartney

With more than 2,200 covered versions, “Yesterday” is a modern pop masterpiece! Written by Paul McCartney, for The Beatles’ 1965 album, Help!, the lyrics are simple and relatable, lamenting a break-up. This song was covered by an eclectic mix of artists, including Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye.


4. “St. Louis Blues” – W.C. Handy 

Praised as the first blues songs to succeed as a pop song, “St. Louis Blues” is a fundamental jazz classic, notably performed by Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Stevie Wonder.

At the time of his death in 1958, composer W.C. Handy was earning royalties upwards of $25,000 annually for the song.


3. “Greensleeves” – Traditional

This traditional English folk song, first registered in 1580, could be a reference to the way grass stains might be seen on a woman’s dress if she had engaged in sexual intercourse outdoors.

It first appeared in print in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1602. The character Mistress Ford exclaims: “Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of ‘Greensleeves’!”


2. “Summertime” – George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin & DuBose Heyward 

With more than 33,000 covers, this song originally hails from the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. 

Following the style of the African American folk music of the period, American soprano Abbie Mitchell first sang “Summertime.” Since then, the song has been reinterpreted as a jazz standard and famously covered by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin.


1. “Happy Birthday to You” – The Time-Warner Corporation?

Here’s something to consider next time you gathered around a birthday cake:

According to copyright registration, The Time-Warner Corporation has owns the rights to “Happy Birthday to You” since 1935, an ownership that is not set to expire until 2030. Any unauthorized public performances of the song are technically illegal unless royalties are paid to Warner.

In 2008, Warner profited about $5,000 per day ($2 million per year) for the song.


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