As most readers know, I’m always looking for an interesting cover of a familiar song. And I found one this morning. On this date in 1969, a cover of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” by a group called the Mad Lads was sitting at No. 90 in the Billboard Hot 100:
It turns out that the Mad Lads recorded for Volt in Memphis. Originally from Detroit, the lads got three singles into the lower reaches of the Hot 100, starting in 1965. But after “Phoenix” peaked at No. 84 in 1969, the Mad Lads were gone from the charts and, one would guess, were mostly forgotten.
Tthe song certainly wasn’t. According to Second Hand Songs, more than ninety artists or groups have covered Jimmy Webb’s tune since 1966, when Johnny Rivers included it on his album Changes. A year later, Glen Campbell saw his version of the tune go to No. 26. And after that came Floyd Cramer, Johnny Mathis, Henson Cargill, Larry Carlton, O.C. Smith, Burl Ives and more, right down to singer Carol Welsman earlier this year. (It’s interesting to note that the next-to-last version of the tune listed is the one by Webb and Campbell from Webb’s 2010 album Just Across the River.)
The vast majority of covers of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” came early, with forty-six versions listed in 1968 alone, including versions I’d love to hear by saxophonists Ace Cannon and King Curtis. I can probably get by without the version by Ray Conniff and the Singers, though. As often happens, a foreign language version of the tune intrigues me, this one a 1969 cover of the tune in French – “Le Temps Que J’arrive à Marseille” – by Claude François. (Both videos available of François’ version, sadly, chop off the last few seconds.)
But no one, I’m sure, could match what Isaac Hayes did with Webb’s song, stretching it for more than eighteen minutes and most of the second side of his great 1969 album, Hot Buttered Soul. For nine minutes, over a quiet but insistent beat, Hayes tells the back story of the song, the tale of the man who’s driving toward Phoenix and away from the woman who’s broken his heart over and over. Then he breaks into the song. Some strings sweeten it, and horns, piano and then organ provide punctuation as the track pulls the narrator toward Albuquerque and Oklahoma and, finally, home.
(An edit of Hayes’ long version was released as a single and went to No. 37. I’ve never heard the edit, and I think I’d like to. I saw several edits available for purchase online this morning, but I have no idea which one, if any, is true to the 1969 single. Even when I finally hear it, though, I doubt that it could be any better than Hayes’ original version.)