Originally posted August 25, 2009:
This will be brief, but I wanted to begin to look at some of the recordings readers have mentioned since I asked for thoughts on the best cover versions.
One band I’ve never really gotten is Talking Heads. I’ve listened to them, and I acknowledge the influence the group has had. I’ve admired the song-writing of David Byrne and the musicianship of the group. But I’ve never much enjoyed the group’s work.
On one level, that’s fine. When I’m selecting a CD or an LP to play in the background while I read or do the dishes, limiting myself to things I like – which actually cover a pretty broad spectrum – is fine. But on the level of understanding the evolution of rock and pop music through the years, it doesn’t matter if I like the band. If I’m going to understand what happened in pop/rock music between 1977 and 1988 – the years that Talking Heads was active – I need to listen to enough of the group’s music to understand how the group fits in the continuum that runs from Jackie Brentson’s “Rocket 88” in 1951 all the way to whatever will be considered significant in years to come from 2009.
I’m not there yet.
Nevertheless, I do recognize the Talking Heads’ talent, as I said above, and the group’s own evolution, going from – as All-Music Guide said – the “nervous energy, detached emotion, and subdued minimalism” of Talking Heads: 77 to recording “everything from art-funk to polyrhythmic worldbeat explorations and simple, melodic guitar pop.”
More Songs About Buildings and Food, released in 1978, was the group’s second album, and among the songs was the group’s cover of “Take Me to the River,” written by Al Green and Mabon “Teenie” Hodges for Green’s 1974 album, Al Green Explores Your Mind. The Talking Heads’ version was released as a single and went to No. 26 on the Billboard Top 40.
Through 2003 – the point at which my Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits ends – the Talking Heads’ version of the song is the only one to make the Top 40. But there have been plenty of groups and artists who’ve covered the song. The list includes Paul Anka, Canned Heat, Exile, Bryan Ferry, Foghat, the Grateful Dead, Levon Helm, Etta James with the Memphis Horns, Syl Johnson, Tom Jones, Annie Lennox, Delbert McClinton, Ellen McIlwaine, Mitch Ryder, Shalamar, Jabbo Smith, Tom Tom Club and Steve Winwood.
Here are the original by Al Green and the versions by the Talking Heads, Delbert McClinton and Foghat.
“Take Me To The River” by Al Green from Al Green Explores Your Mind 
“Take Me to the River” by Foghat from Night Shift 
“Take Me to the River” by the Talking Heads from More Songs About Buildings and Food 
“Take Me to the River” by Delbert McClinton from The Jealous Kind