I called it here first. Well, maybe not first. But well before Robin Thicke filed a preemptive lawsuit against Marvin Gaye’s estate to prevent himself from being sued over the musical similarities between his recent No. 1 hit, “Blurred Lines,” and “Got to Give It Up,” Gaye’s 1977 No. 1 single, I pointed out the obvious connection between the two songs.
Thicke reportedly offered a six-figure settlement to Gaye’s family (who allegedly refused it), but I wonder if he had to. Thicke’s song is clearly an homage to Gaye’s, but if he’d sung it in his baritone register instead of a falsetto, would I even be writing this introduction? It’s not as if it’s as clear-cut an instance of borrowing as when Huey Lewis filed suit against Ray Parker Jr. over the embarrassing similarities between Parker Jr.’s 1984 No. 1 “Ghostbusters” and Lewis’s “I Want a New Drug,” a Top 10 from earlier that same year. Columbia Pictures, the studio behind the 1984 film Ghostbusters, may have been wise to settle out of court, considering that Lewis initially had been approached to write and perform the movie’s theme song.
(Interesting fact: According to Parker Jr.’s episode of Unsung, he wrote Leo Sayer’s 1976 No. 1 “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing,” which was credited to Sayer and Vini Poncia. Parker Jr., who was working with Sayer at the time, was overheard working on the song by someone at Sayer’s label, who asked if Sayer could cut it. Capitol Records ended up neglecting to list Parker Jr. as its author on the single, and at 22, he was too inexperienced and overwhelmed to consider legal action.)
No lawsuits were filed over the following songs, and none of them made it to this great article on pop plagiarism that also omitted Lady Gaga’s “reductive” (in relation to Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” according to Madonna) “Born This Way” and The Fugees, who were almost sued by Enya for sampling her 1987 instrumental “Boadicea” for the rap trio’s 1996 breakthrough single “Ready Or Not” without permission. Aside from the first and final pairs, any suit involving these tracks probably would have been roundly dismissed, but I still think it’s fun to play spot the similarities.
“All Right Now” Free (1970)
“Rock ‘N Me” The Steve Miller Band (1976)
Steve Miller probably should have shared the publishing royalties from “Rock ‘N Me” with Free’s Andy Fraser and Paul Rodgers, or at least given them a co-songwriting credit, for so liberally inserting an interpolation of the classic guitar hook from “All Right Now” into Miller’s namesake band’s second No. 1 single.
“Pon de Replay” Rihanna (2005)
“Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” Beyoncé (2008)
The other day, my iPod landed on “Pon de Replay,” Rihanna’s debut single, and for a full 10 seconds or so, I was expecting “Single Ladies.” But before I could put a name on it, I remembered that in the Beyoncé hit, her singing begins at roughly the same time as the familiar drumroll, which is officially known as the “Diwali Riddim” and made pre-Rihanna Top 5 appearances in Sean Paul’s “Get Busy,” a 2003 chart-topper, and in one-hit-wonder Lumidee’s 2003 No. 3 “Never Leave You (Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh).”
“Everything Is Everything” Lauryn Hill (1998)
“Case of the Ex” Mya (2000)
Hill strikes me as being a stern and potentially litigious woman. I’m surprised she didn’t make a federal case out of “Case” when Mya was headed all the way to No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 with her biggest hit, whose soundalike intro came a mere two years after Hill’s single appeared on her multiple-Grammy-winning The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
“Just to See Her” Smokey Robinson (1987)
“Make Me Lose Control” Eric Carmen (1988)
In a similar scenario to the Rihanna/Beyoncé case of mistaken song identity above, a few days earlier, what I expected to be the second of Eric Carmen’s two late-’80s comeback singles turned out to be the first of Smokey Robinson‘s two late-’80s comeback singles, from the previous year. After the familiar introductions, the songs go to different parts of the pop/adult contemporary aural spectrum, but Robinson and Carmen easily could have traded introductions (doubling Carmen’s to make it as long as Robinson’s) without significantly altering either song.
(Interesting fact: Although Robinson wrote most of his own hits throughout his career, he didn’t write this or its Top 10 follow-up, “One Heartbeat.”)
“Mirror Mirror” Diana Ross (1981)
“Fall in Love with Me” Earth, Wind & Fire (1982)
The other day while I was watching the video for “Fall in Love with Me,” a Top 20 Grammy-nominated single by Earth, Wind & Fire, I kept superimposing the lyrics of Diana Ross’s “Mirror Mirror” on its melody in my head without missing a single beat. It’s too bad these early ’80s hits are largely forgotten today — which made me love Radio Capital TV even more for playing EWF’s — because they’d make an awesome retro-’80s mash up.
(Interesting Ray Parker Jr. fact No. 2: Three years before Ross’s 1981 No. 8 hit quoted a children’s fairy tale — Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — in its chorus, Ray Parker Jr. used a children’s nursery rhyme as the lyrical foundation for “Jack and Jill,” his 1978 breakthrough single with his then-group Raydio that also peaked at No. 8 on the Hot 100.)
“1 Thing” Amerie (2005)
“Take This Ring” Toni Braxton (2005)
If nothing else, I’m shocked that Amerie’s brilliant Rich Harrison-produced-and-co-written Top 5 single didn’t spawn a lot more near-imitations than Braxton’s Libra album track, which is actually more like Harrison’s homage to himself, since he wrote and produced it, too.
“Trans-Europe Express” Kraftwerk (1977)
“Pack Jam” Jonzun Crew (1983)
I hope the German band Kraftwerk received credit at some point for its musical contributions to Jonzun Crew’s 1983 Lost in Space album. The influence of “Trans-Europe Express” was all over the place on Space (particularly on the singles “Pack Jam,” whose haunted-house minor-key interpretation/interpolation of Kraftwerk’s most-famous motif was the short-lived electro-funk group’s best musical moment, and “Space Is the Place”), just as it had dominated Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force’s pioneering 1982 rap single “Planet Rock,” which did give Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider proper songwriting credit. But I don’t recall reading anything about Kraftwerk in the sleeve notes of the vinyl copy of Jonzun Crew’s album that I used to have in the early ’80s.
Mariah Carey: The Artist Who Once Refused to Copy Herself
Yes, artist. And yes, she’s employed her fair share of samples throughout her career: Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” was to her 1995 No. 1 “Fantasy” what “Trans-Europe Express” was to “Planet Rock” — probably even more. But two U.S. singles later, when it was time to remix 1996’s “Always Be My Baby,” instead of getting a big-name DJ to dress it up with some hot beats and call it a session, Carey turned it into an entirely different song — two of them. In addition to the No. 1 pop single, there was the David Morales club mix, for which Carey wrote a brand new melody and lyrics (and which is as radical a reworking of the tune as the version that seventh-season American Idol David Cook performed on the show in 2008), and the R&B “Mr. Dupri Mix,” which, despite having mostly the same lyrics, is also virtually unrecognizable from its source material.