Some songs get covered all the damn time, and I’m not sure why. A few months ago, I wrote about five different versions of Little Latin Lupe Lu for my record of the day — today I’m going to do the same thing, only with a song that has been recorded a million times, or at least 33 times, according to Wikipedia. And that’s just by artists we’ve all heard of. I mean, even Aaron Carter and the Smashing Pumpkins are on the list, though they won’t be making it into my top five, you’re welcome.
It’s a song we all know well. Originally titled My Girl Sloopy, Hang On Sloopy is one of those forever jams. Like Louie Louie, you can’t recall the first time you ever heard it. It’s just always been there, part of the 1960s zeitgeist that is still hanging around nearly 60 years later, at least if you turn on a radio from time to time, or walk into any business with canned music. It’s a song that is everywhere and always, and we have Bert Berns to thank for that.
Bert Berns wrote a ton of hits, his story is tragic and amazing, and I recommend both his biography and documentary (the soundtrack is perfect, start to finish) if you’re interested in learning more about the man who wrote not just Sloopy, but also Twist and Shout, Brown Eyed Girl, Piece of My Heart, Cry to Me, and plenty of other fantastic songs.
But today we focus on Sloopy. Rick Derringer of the McCoys says the song was actually written by a high school kid in St. Louis and sold to Berns, but since Bert isn’t around to refute that, I’m going to take it with a large grain of salt. Especially because it’s said that the muse for Sloopy was a jazz singer from Ohio, one named Dorothy Sloop. I mean maybe in 1964, high school kids in St. Louis were super into little-known Ohio jazz performers, but that kind of inspiration seems to be more in Berns’ arena.
I could go on about Bert Berns for ages, but that’s not why we’re here today. It’s Sloopy time. Below are my five (plus one) favorite versions of the everlasting tune, from my least to most favorite:
Honorable mention: The Supremes (1966)
Not many women have covered Sloopy, and that’s a bummer. But the Supremes did it, so here they are. The arrangement is, sadly, a snooze. I’m really only putting it on this list for the vocals and the harmonies. This was recorded in the Florence Ballard/Diana Ross/Mary Wilson years, and I’d listen to those women sing anything and consider myself lucky to do so.
5. Jan and Dean (1965)
This is a weird one, and probably no one else has this on their top-five Sloopy list, but I dig it. I am an admitted Jan and Dean lover, but what I really like about this song is the overbearing arrangement, which almost borders on obnoxious with all that damn harmonica. But Sloopy is such a simple song, I think it works somehow. It adds another, larger element, and then when the fellas start to get wild at the end and the horns come in, it’s like the whole thing gets wrapped up in a big bow and you just don’t want it to end. Or maybe that’s just me.
4. Arsenio Rodriguez (1966)
There are two awesome Spanish covers of Sloopy, but I’m putting the most ridiculous one, the one I heard first, and the one that came out on Bert Berns’ own label, Bang, on my list. The spoken word silliness and the percussion really do it for me, because my exact idea of a good time is dancing around to an Afro-Cuban beat while someone shouts QUE PASA, SLOOPY? NO TE VAYAS! over and over. I think I need to add an entire Arsenio Rodriguez record to my collection, and soon.
3. Ramsey Lewis Trio (1974)
This mostly instrumental version is hoppin’. The piano and percussion are on point, it is Ramsey Lewis after all, and the song even won a Grammy the year it came out. When you hear the McCoys do this song, it sounds pretty simple, straightforward. Then you put it in the hands of an amazing composer and it just becomes a whole other thing. I love it.
2. The Remains (1966)
This version, from a 60s college dude cover/party band, a genre I can’t help but love, perhaps wasn’t even released, and if so definitely not widely, but it freaking wails. I picked up this record in the used bins on a whim the other day, and when I took it back to the listening station to check it out, I burst into giggles when this song kicked things off. I didn’t listen any further. I had to own it. And now I do.
1. The Vibrations (1964)
That’s right, the McCoys didn’t even make my list. Why? Because their version just isn’t that good. It’s boring, it’s dated, and I don’t love it. This is the original recording of the song, and it’s the one that should have made it big. Those background harmonies, the breakdown, the loping beat, the bass vocals … there’s just no contest. This is Sloopy how we ought to remember her.
If you’ve got a favorite version of Hang On Sloopy that I didn’t mention, or if you’d just like to tell me how wrong I am, let me know, here or over on twitter @dammitdacia. I’ve listened to at least a dozen versions today and I’m not even tired of it yet.