Eleanor Rigby is not the most covered song by The Beatles, but it is up there. Whosampled identifies over 130 covers of the song. It could be argued that it is a difficult song to cover well. So much of what makes it great is the string arrangement from George Martin, not only the affecting vocal performance by Paul McCartney (one of his best). Nonetheless, here are ten versions. We’ve primarily focused, as you’d expect, on soul versions of the song. Which is your favourite?
The Four Tops
One of our favourites. It has an amazing arrangement, which is funky as hell. One of the things we have noticed in this game is that sometimes the backing vocals can be problematic, however, as you’d expect from The Four Tops, the backing vocals are awesome. Bass guitar, probably James Jamieson, is exemplary. If anything could be said negatively about this version, the mood is slightly lost by the music – it is hard to sympathise with an old woman’s plight when you’re having this good a time. 8/10
Another great version. Again a funky reading of the song, albeit in a slightly lollopping way. The vocals are great – as you’d expect from the Duke of Earl. The instrumentation is solid; nice flute solo and a very restrained use of strings throughout. 7/10
Having double checked the studio or the live version, this HAD to be the live version, which is funkier and fuller – more energetic on all fronts. The arrangement is amazing. I like how she takes ownership of ER, singing it in the first person. Overall, this is a soulful version but the soul is not intrusive or distracting in the way that it is in Ray Charles’ version. Also of note, the backing vocals very good 9/10
Richie Havens has one of the best voices of all of these versions. Furthermore, Havens is one of those artists who is hard to pigeonhole. Is he soul? jazz? folk? Much like Nina Simone or Terry Callier, he straddles all of these genres at some point. Consequently his version is similarly different. It is jazzier, with an odd arrangement. One of its main drawbacks is an over-busy piano accompaniment. I like the funky drumming in places, though, although it can get a little martial at times. 5/10
This was one of the first soul covers of the song that ever registered for me and it is a doozy. Fundamentally, it is a less busy version of Aretha’s, but with less funk and more drive, and a chilling string arrangement. While it doesn’t smack you upside the head with its horns (like Bobby Taylor’s), they are dramatic. And Weston’s voice is awesome too. 8/10
P.P. Arnold was, like Gloria Jones and Madeline Bell, an American soul singer who set up camp in the UK. However, her proximity to the original has not really helped here. She is a good singer, and she offers a nice, clean performance. However, it never really moves me. The arrangement is nice, enough! It is restrained with a pleasing use of flute, but it is hard to get exciting. There is a break mid-song, which leaves me very cold – I wish it finished at that point, despite the fact that the instrumental coda is quite pleasant. 4/10
Ray Charles is another voice that you can never get enough of – so it is never outstays its welcome. That said, Charles’ version has a very full arrangement, that is too musical. Consequently, it lacks mood and feeling. It’s just another Ray Charles tune, rather than Eleanor Rigby. I also found the Raelette’s backing vocal distracting at times. Definitely not a contender 5/10
One of the most interesting versions. This is certainly going to one of the more distinctive – Bonnie Gentry is best pegged as a Country singer, although with a solid Southern pedigree and thus not SO dissimilar to the soul versions noted above. Firstly, Gentry’s is voice beautiful and presented very intimately (she is so high in the mix). It is a very restrained arrangement and performance. The instrumentation is relaxed, but isn’t afraid to make it’s presence felt where it counts. This is definitely a version worth noting. 8/10
Can’t find on youtube! So here’s a Spotify link.
This is the biggest, most bombastic, overwrought version. It begins with a trebly wah-wah guitar and weirdly choral vocals before breaking into a psychedelic groove. The horns, the timpani, the echoes – This moves so quickly into an over-dramatic territory with repeated stabs of horn, strange almost industrial noises, gushing strings. Frankly, I love it, but I can see just as well how it might have an opposite effect. Taylor is a great singer – vastly under-rated in the Motown stable – and he throws everything ever at it. Oh yes, it’s over six minutes long… 9/10
Without doubt this is the odd one out. The psyche-rock band killed it with their cover of ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’, but here… not really. The album version has an unbearably long intro, which leans towards the avant-garde. When the vocals finally appear, they are suitably mournful, but ultimately this is all too psyche to succeed. I do quite like the vocal round in the final two minutes, but getting to the five and half minute point is asking too much for most, I’d say. Shame. But then, on youtube, I came across this three minute version. It is much tighter. 7/10
In Conclusion, who wins? It’s a tough call, but you don’t get to be the Queen of Soul for nothing. I think that her version pips it. But I really want to give Bobby Taylor’s version a big plug. Play it loud, it is irresistible.