A lesson in musician lingo means giving the front man a hook

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Sun, Nov 20, 2005 - Page 9

The Beatles covered Buddy Holly's Words of Love and Chuck Berry's Roll Over Beethoven, while 3,000 entertainers covered the Beatles' song, Yesterday. Peter, Paul and Mary covered Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind and Soft Cell covered Gloria Jones' Tainted Love.

I uncover extended meanings in our lexicon with the fervor of a recovering undercover journalist covering cover-ups for a cover story and have discovered that in the popular-music world, another sense of cover, noun and verb, ranges over much of what we hear.

"A cover is an artist doing a version of another artist's original song," says Joe Levy, an editor at Rolling Stone magazine.

In olden times -- three generations ago -- the singer who first popularized the song was often resentful of a younger or more famous singer who revived it. For example, at the Cotton Club in Harlem in 1933, Ethel Waters became identified with Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's Stormy Weather and was not happy when the young Lena Horne revisited it in a movie with that title a decade later and seemed to make it her own.

SINGER-SONGWRITERS

Such discomfort largely ebbed in the 1960s, when artists began writing their own songs.

"Dylan and the Beatles inspired people to write and sing their own songs," Levy recalls. "Nobody expected Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra to write a good song. Cover came along in the early `60s with the singer-songwriter."

Most were pleased with other singers' cover versions -- recordings of their works, now clipped to covers. At the start, the covers were often bowdlerized; Georgia Gibbs [Her nibs, Miss Gibbs] changed Hank Ballard's Work With Me, Annie and Etta James's retort, The Wallflower, to Dance With Me, Henry.

Now a singer frequently covers a song twice removed from the writer, a technique Lena Horne pioneered. Dionne Warwick first recorded Wishin' and Hopin', but it was Dusty Springfield's subsequent cover version of the song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David that became the big hit.

"Cover version still hasn't quite transcended its purloinious [is that a word?] roots," says Rob Hoerburger, a former music critic at Rolling Stone. [Rob, who has since risen to chief copy editor at the New York Times Magazine, has saved me from countless embarrassments, and you can blame him for any mistakes in today's column. And his "purloinious" coinage will not soon replace "larcenous."]

"Rock critics, who usually champion the writer's aesthetic, still use the term with mild derision, though I'm sure songwriters like Dylan and Carole King -- whose You've Got a Friend was a hit for James Taylor -- are only too happy to have the royalties that the cover versions have accrued for them," he said.

CRITIC

As artists reinterpret original works, they risk derision that is not always mild. A Michigan critic sent me this excerpt from his review: "He covers these songs in much the same way as a stud horse is said to `cover' a brood mare."

The singer Bono was described by Glenn Gamboa in Newsday as a "lover and fighter, gadfly and peacemaker, politician and preacher and, oh, yeah, front man for the best rock band around today."

One sense of front has a sinister connotation: A Communist front was a cover, in its nonmusical usage, for subversive activities. But as far back as 1936, American Speech quarterly defined front man as "the leader of the band." Today that term -- along with front woman -- means "main attraction of the group."

"Back in the `30s and `40s," writes a reader, John Strother, "it often had a pejorative connotation, such as when Bob Crosby `fronted' his band but had no involvement with the orchestrations, arrangements or musical operation of `his' orchestra. He may have waved a baton symbolically once in a while."

Others called front men were leaders in a personality sense, like Kay Kyser and Paul Whiteman.

Today, "the front man has to be a member of the band," said Sasha Frere-Jones, pop critic for the New Yorker. "Mick Jagger is the front man of the Rolling Stones." [That's the group, not the magazine; both have gathered no moss.]

"Some bands have had a compere, an Old World term for a `hype man,' onstage to exhort the crowd when the singer is out of breath, but that's not a front man. I can't imagine a front man who isn't the lead singer," she added.

(Compere, French for `godfather,' is used in Britain to mean `master of ceremonies.')

HOOK

"Listeners are treated to more than just Rowland on the hook of the song," writes Michael McGrath, 17, about Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child in the Houston Chronicle. "She is featured on the bridge, as well."

I turn again to Joe Levy of Rolling Stone to get hooked up to musicalingo: "The hook is the sweet spot, the easily remembered melody or rhythm figure. Beatles songs are packed with hooks. A hook is similar to a riff, which is instrumental, while a hook can be played or sung."

"It's the chorus of a rap song," said Serena Kim of Vibe magazine.

Back in 1982, the rock critic Lester Bangs defined the hook, which he first noted in a 1969 review of a Shocking Blue album, as "that one irresistible little melodic or rhythmic twist that'll keep you just coming back and back and back to buy and buy and buy."

It's frequently used in a sample, an interpolation of one bit of an artist's digitized recording into another's longer work. If you're a geezer trying to establish communication with a grandchild jiggling along to an iPod download, you might idly observe that sometimes a sample can be made into a hook.?