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Honouring the success of tribute albums

Published Oct 24, 2014, 9:24 am IST
Updated Mar 30, 2019, 7:20 pm IST
There have been tributes or covers recorded before albums became technically feasible
Sonu Nigam sang Rafi Resurrected: A Tribute To Mohammed Rafi, a 2008 tribute album.
 Sonu Nigam sang Rafi Resurrected: A Tribute To Mohammed Rafi, a 2008 tribute album.

One of the most tried and trusted manners of having consumers purchase music is by recording a tribute album featuring cover versions of songs or of instrumentals. The tribute album concept can be further sub-divided into either various artistes making a tribute album of songs of a single artiste, or a single artiste making a tribute album of songs of another single artiste or of songs of various artistes.

There have been tributes or covers recorded before albums became technically feasible; Enrico Caruso’s 1907 recordings of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera, Pagliacci, is one early example. But the birth of the “modern” tribute album was, for me, actually two albums that I found in my father’s collection during my school days in the ‘70s: Golden Greats by The Ventures, wherein the band performed renditions of popular instrumentals from the earlier decade and, the other, The Chipmunks Sing The Beatles Hits. This was years before I discovered the “originals” performed by The Fab Four.

As I grew older, I learnt that the person behind all the Chipmunks’ voices was, in reality, a single person named Ross Bagdasarian Sr (more popularly known as David Seville), who scored a major coup for his Chipmunks franchise when he ventured to London seeking approval to release an entire album of Beatles’ covers. As it turned out, the band was familiar with and actually fans of the brand, and permissions were duly granted.

Closer home, there are a multitude of “tribute” albums, sung by various artistes, that remain available; as examples: Shraddananjali A Tribute To Shammi Kapoor, A Tribute To Legends: 100 Retro Songs, Kahan Ho Tum Tribute To Rajendra Kumar, and Yeh Mera Prem Patra A Tribute To Shankar Jaikishan, but one of the more popular tribute albums was released during my last stint at Saregama called Rafi Resurrected: A Tribute To Mohammed Rafi, a 2008 album sung by Sonu Nigam. It was released following his concert by the same name in Europe. The double album features 75 members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which arranged and orchestrated 18 popular Rafi tracks in conjunction with Sonu.

Meanwhile, in the West, tribute albums appear to be the flavour of the season. It commenced early, in September actually, as Barbra Streisand launched Partners, her 34th studio album featuring duets with an all-male line-up including Stevie Wonder, Michael Bublé, Billy Joel, John Mayer, Andrea Bocelli, Lionel Richie and, thanks to studio technology, even a duet with the late Elvis Presley on Love Me Tender. The album went onto reach no.1 in the US.

Less than a month later, an album named Cheek To Cheek appeared as an unlikely collaborative effort by American singers Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, which consisted of jazz standards by popular composers like George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and Irving Berlin. The album was inspired by Bennett’s and Gaga’s desire to introduce the songs to a younger generation. The album climbed to no.1 on the pop chart!

Two singers who had massive pop hits from the past joined the band wagon of tribute/cover albums with Barry Manilow releasing My Dream Duets on September 15, and Bryan Adams launching Tracks Of My Years two weeks later.

October 20 saw the release of Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics, which is the singer’s 38th studio album. The first single released from the album is a remarkable rendition of an Adele song, titled here as Rolling In the Deep (The Aretha Version) which, includes an interpolation of the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell hit, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. On the same date, one-time Eurythmic, Scottish Annie Lennox released Nostalgia, a collection of Lennox’s favourite songs from youth.

But what makes tribute or cover albums so lucrative for artistes? The single most important factor is that it is a tried-and-trusted model that offers a low-risk alternative for an artiste to take a creative break and, yet, maintain public presence. If sales are the governing factor to gauge success and they are watch out for more tribute or cover albums being uncovered or, as the case is, discovered before 2014 ends.

(The writer has been part of the media and entertainment business for over 23 years. He still continues to pursue his hobby, and earns an income out of it)