In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, in honor of Amanda And Jack Palmer’s covers album, we’re picking some of our favorite cover songs.
The Isley Brothers, “Hello It’s Me” (1974)
Writing a song is like having a child. You pour your all into making sure your creation is the best it can be, then accept that once it takes on a life of its own, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. “Hello It’s Me” is the first song Todd Rundgren ever wrote, first recorded with his band Nazz in 1968 before Rundgren released a more uptempo version on his 1972 album Something/Anything. It sounds like the first song someone ever wrote, with lyrics that describe with great specificity a complicated relationship that was too beautiful to live, but wouldn’t die.
It’s such a clearly personal song, it’s almost a shame that Rundgren’s rendition of it—either of them—is no longer the best. That distinction belongs to the “Hello It’s Me” recorded by The Isley Brothers for their 1974 album Live It Up. Ron Isley is easily one of the most underrated vocalists in history, and his take on “Hello It’s Me” is distinctive and skillful enough to make his the definitive version. Groove Theory recorded its own cover of the song in 1995, and Erykah Badu took a run at it on last year’s But You Caint Use My Phone mixtape. In both cases, it’s the Isleys’ version of the song, not Rundgren’s.
The secret, beyond Ron’s plaintive, passionate vocals, is the slower, soulful arrangement. Rundgren’s wistful lyrics (“It’s important to me that you know you are free / ’Cause I never want to make you change for me”) lose some of their gravity in Rundgren’s mid-tempo yacht-rock version. Slowing the song down highlights how bittersweet the song is, while giving Ron plenty of time to wring all the pathos out of every word and ad lib as only he can.