The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is a defining songs from one of my favourite music periods, the Britpop era. In the late 90s, you could hear this song everywhere. It was in indie clubs, on the Cruel Intentions soundtrack, on Nike commercials and every time England played international football matches. The “Bitter Sweet Symphony” melody is based on a sample from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra cover of the Rolling Stones’ 1965 song “The Last Time”. Legal controversy meant that the Verve only received token royalties for one of the most popular 90s songs. But what is the “Bitter Sweet Symphony” original?
“The Last Time” itself is heavily inspired by the Staple Singers’ “This May Be the Last Time”. Also, it is the Andrew Oldham Orchestra recording that features those distinctive string passages heard in “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. That’s why I wonder if “The Last Time” really can be considered the “Bitter Sweet Symphony” original.
The Whatta Man original, paving the way for female empowerment
In the 1960s American R&B musician, songwriter, radio personality and Atlantic Records producer Dave Crawford wrote a song in celebration of good men. Twenty-five years later, hip-hop trio Salt-N-Pepa and En Vogue brought out a version of “Whatta Man” that reached the top ten in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US. The accompanying video clip, which won three MTV music video awards, featured cameos by Tupac Shakur and Treach from Naughty by Nature. It’s ironic that a song representing such a strong female point of view was written by a man. It’s also interesting that the singer of the 1968 “Whatta Man” original, Linda Lyndell, was white.
The Hanging on the Telephone original found on a mixtape
In 1973, Jack Lee wrote “Hanging on the Telephone” for his band, the Nerves. The band released the “Hanging on the Telephone” original on their self-titled 1976 EP, but it was a commercial failure. Despite their limited lifespan and success, the Nerves were ahead of their time. They became founding members of the US West Coast power pop and new wave scenes. Blondie discovered the “Hanging on the Telephone” original on a mixtape and recorded their version in 1978. It was an international hit.
Buying The First Cut is the Deepest original for 30 quid
In 1965, 17-year-old Cat Stevens wrote “The First Cut is the Deepest”. It’s a song where the singer wonders if they can overcome the pain of their first breakup to begin a new relationship. (One of the most relatable song themes I can think of.) Stevens sold his song to American expatriate soul singer PP Arnold for £30. Arnold recorded the “First Cut is the Deepest” original and in 1967 it was a hit. It was also a hit for Keith Hampshire, Rod Stewart, Dawn Penn, Papa Dee and Sheryl Crow.
In the mid-60s, the teenage Cat Stevens (born Steven Demetre Georgiou, later known as Yusuf Islam) was an unknown musician. He recorded a demo of “The First Cut is the Deepest” in 1965 but believed he had a better chance of success as a songwriter than a singer. So he sold the song to Arnold. Stevens’ solo career took off in 1967, the same year Arnold released the “First Cut is the Deepest” original.
PP Arnold’s 60s career
Known professionally as PP Arnold, Patricia Ann Cole was born in 1946 in Los Angeles. Part of a family of gospel singers, she performed as a vocal soloist for the first time at just four years old. Arnold married young, had kids and worked two jobs until a friend contacted her about an offer. Maxine Smith, an ex of Arnold’s brother, and another friend, Gloria Scott, had an audition to replace the Ikettes, but they needed a third singer.
The audition to provide vocal and dance accompaniment for the Ike and Tina Turner Revue went well. The three young women were offered the job on the spot. Arnold left her abusive husband that night (after another beating) and joined the Ikettes.
Arnold stayed with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue until late 1966 then quit following their tour with the Rolling Stones in the UK. Encouraged by Mick Jagger, Arnold stayed in London to establish a solo career. Things started to take off for her and she landed a solo contract with Immediate Records, a label founded by Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham. Arnold released several major British hits with Immediate Records.
A young black woman on her own in America in a white environment would not have been treated as well as I was in England.”
Recording and release of the First Cut is the Deepest original
Cat Stevens was part of the same London music scene, and his song “The First Cut is the Deepest” found its way to Arnold. She recorded it for her debut album, The First Lady of Immediate. Immediate released the “First Cut is the Deepest” original as a single in mid-1967.
Arnold sings the “First Cut is the Deepest” original as a fairly uptempo soul song. She’s accompanied by harpsichord, vibraphone, horns and strings. Arnold has a powerful, soulful voice. Some say she lacks the power of singers like Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin, but I think the “First Cut is the Deepest” original is a fantastic soul-rock version.
Arnold’s the “First Cut is the Deepest” original went to number 18 on the UK charts. In later years, she said the song was a perfect fit for her, having survived an abusive marriage.
It encapsulated everything that I was at the time. Having the courage to get out of that [abusive relationship] and create a life for me and my kids. What a blessing.”
PP Arnold’s later career
In 1968, Arnold scored another UK hit with her cover of “Angel of the Morning“, which reached number 29. She collaborated with many artists including the Small Faces, Barry Gibb, Rod Stewart, the Rolling Stones Graham Nash, Eric Burdon and Eric Clapton. In the early 70s, Arnold worked on the musical stage and moved back to LA. She withdrew from performing in the mid-70s when her daughter Debbie tragically died in a car accident.
However, over the last decades Arnold has released her own singles, performed on stage and sung with many notable groups. In May 2020, she performed lead vocals on the Fratellis single “Strangers In The Street”. Arnold has been a significant contributor to the music industry since the 60s.
Cat Stevens’ First Cut is the Deepest
Stevens’ own version of “The First Cut is the Deepest” appeared on his second studio album New Masters in December 1967, seven months after Arnold released her original version. Mike Hurst produced both Arnold’s and Stevens’ recordings, and sang harmony on the chorus of Stevens’ version. Big Jim Sullivan played guitar. Stevens never released “The First Cut is the Deepest” as a single, believing Arnold’s version to be definitive.
New Masters failed to chart in the UK, but Stevens’ solo career still took off at that point. He won songwriting awards for “The First Cut is the Deepest”, including two consecutive American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers songwriting awards for 2005 and 2006 Songwriter of the Year.
Unlike later versions, Stevens’ “The First Cut is the Deepest” has a 60s rock sound to it. Sullivan’s guitar solo is lovely, as are the strings, horns and Stevens’ vocals.
In 1973, English singer Keith Hampshire released the first chart-topping version of “The First Cut is the Deepest”. It reached number one in Canada. This version has more of a power ballad sound to it.
Rod Stewart’s version came out in 1976. Recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama. “The First Cut is the Deepest” appeared on Stewart’s seventh album A Night on the Town. It spent four weeks at number one in the UK and became one of Stewart’s signature tunes. His gravelly voice goes perfectly with the tune. And if you want to see Stewart in a matching blue, yellow and white striped jacket and jumper plus the most spectacular glam rock mullet ever, the official video clip is worth a look.
Swedish rap, ragga and dancehall musician Papa Dee recorded a reggae cover of “The First Cut is the Deepest” in 1995. While I’m not keen on this version, it did very well in Scandinavia.
Sheryl Crow released “The First Cut is the Deepest” in 2003 as part of her compilation album The Very Best of Sheryl Crow. This version reached number 14 on the US Billboard Hot 100.
Of all the versions, I most prefer Arnold’s “The First Cut is the Deepest” original followed by Cat Stevens’ version.
Check out more 60s tunes and their unknown originals here.
California Dreamin’ original recorded before the Mamas & the Papas
Newlywed singer songerwriters John and Michelle Phillips wrote “California Dreamin'” in 1963. It’s a song about longing for the warmth of Los Angeles during a cold New York winter. The Phillips’ group, the Mamas & the Papas, released a version of the song in December 1965. This version is widely recognised for ushering in the counterculture era. However, it was folk rocker Barry McGuire who recorded the “California Dreamin'” original earlier that year. The Mamas & the Papas sung backups for McGuire’s original version.
As well as marking a transition from yeah-yeah 60s to hippie 60s, I find “California Dreamin'” highly relatable. That’s because I detest the cold and am constantly dreaming of someplace warm.
Two Michael Jacksons and the Blame It on the Boogie original
Michael Jackson sang the “Blame It on the Boogie” original. Not Michael Jackson of the Jacksons, but Michael (Mick) Jackson of Yorkshire. He wrote the song with his brother, David, and Elmar Krohn. Mick Jackson originally wrote “Blame It on the Boogie” for Stevie Wonder, but Global Records Munich asked him to record a version of his own. He recorded the “Blame It on the Boogie” original in 1977 and released it in 1978, just weeks before the Jacksons’ version.
The Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother original: a poignant ballad
In the late 1960s, songwriters Bobby Scott and Bob Russell wrote their only collaboration, the ballad “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”. The song became a worldwide hit for English rock group the Hollies in late 1969. It was also a hit for Neil Diamond the following year. Earlier in 1969, American singer, songwriter and record producer Kelly Gordon released the “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” original. This song about helping others is one of the most famous ballads in the world and has beautiful lyrics. It’s all the more poignant when you learn that Russell was dying of lymphoma at the time he and Scott wrote the song.
Bacharach, David and the Wishin’ and Hopin’ original
American songwriting duo Hal David and Burt Bacharach wrote “Wishin’ and Hopin'”, a 1960s pop song told from the perspective of a girl giving advice on how to snag a man. The song became Dusty Springfield’s first American top ten hit in 1964. It was also Bacharach and David’s first hit with a British Invasion artist. However, it was another Bacharach-David artist, Dionne Warwick, who recorded the “Wishin’ and Hopin'” original two years earlier. Although Springfield’s song was more successful, both versions have that fantastic stop-start sixties-sounding melody.
In 1967, songwriter Chip Taylor wrote “Angel of the Morning”. The song was about premarital sex, a topic mainstream media at the time still considered as taboo. “Angel of the Morning” earned American singer Merrilee Rush a Grammy nomination in 1968. Country rock singer Juice Newton released the most successful version in 1981. She also received a Grammy nomination for the song in the same category as Rush. However, Brooklyn-born Evie Sands released the “Angel of the Morning” original back in 1967.
American songwriter Chip Taylor wrote “Wild Thing” in the mid 60s. In April 1966, English band the Troggs released a version that spent eight weeks in the top ten and became a garage rock standard. However, six months previously New York outfit the Wild Ones released the “Wild Thing” original.