One happy Father’s Day Matt Smith gave me the superb gift of a mix of 42 recordings of “Sunshine of Your Love”—just the 42 most notable ones—starting with the original 1967 Cream track and running up to an Ozzy Osbourne version in 2005. Matt’s well-curated collection offers an exceptionally full perspective in which to consider the make-up and power of this stupendous song.
Maybe the most natural way of thinking about covers is that cover artists filter the material through their own sensibilities, producing a savory blend of the original artists’ styles with their own. (This perfectly describes the 1994 Living Colour version of “Sunshine,” by the way, my favorite of the covers, as well as Eric Clapton’s salting of his own solo-career trademarks into his basically faithful 1991 live version.) There’s the effect of a reply to the original, and sometimes of an appropriation at one of two levels—where can the later artists take the material? Or what if the song had originally been theirs?
While the gestures of cover artists are interesting in their own right, I wonder more about what’s inherent in the song itself, which sounds too blank and passive when it’s referred to as “the material.” I like to think that a songwriter, like an intrepid Mayan archaeologist, has gone to a certain hidden place in the jungle of musical possibility and brought out some treasures, the crucial and valuable elements of the song. Did the writer (or original performance) get everything worth getting? Have the finds been cleaned up and presented adequately? We say “classic” when we feel sure and happy about this. But even with a classic it might be revealing to head back to that place and try to see what else is there, what else can be carried out, how otherwise the goods can be delivered.
What is that place actually? What actually is there? One might understand this place to be simply an emotional state that anyone might attain. But no, a fleeting emotional state qualifies only to be an “inspiration” of the song—perhaps interfused with the spirit of a certain moment—not its true compositional basis, which ought to be sturdier. Suppose instead, then, that the sources of songs are hard eternal things like Platonic forms, independent of time and space restrictions; after all, even though not everyone would know how to find a particular song source on their own, anyone (even an ancient Mayan) could be there, or be in touch, simply in hearing the song, I mean really hearing it. But no: it seems doubtful that an ancient Mayan could access the essence of “Sunshine of Your Love” in the absence of a larger blues and rock context, a historically contingent (though large-scale) spirit that would be born centuries later.
Within that spirit, the “Sunshine” covers show, when they’re not mere copies or hijacks, that musicians can somehow explore the grounds of the original “Sunshine” and experiment with different arrangements of its elements. And they can get different compelling results, which shows that “Sunshine’s” basis, if it’s a form, is a fecund sort of form. (That’s how genes work, they say, not as blueprints but as home-cooking recipes.) But they can’t succeed in just any old way. Examining the results in seven main dimensions of the song, we seem to see better what’s in that place in the jungle.
1. Verse. In the main riff—a perfect model of sexual passion with its first third a proclamation of intense interest, its second third a series of helplessly falling dominoes, and its last part a detonating climax—there are decisions to make about each of the three sections. (1) The essence of the first section is an evenly pounding four-note return to the tonic which can be construed either as the melodic figure popularized by “Cocaine” or any other blues scale Tonic-X-X-Tonic sequence, e.g. E-B-D-E. (This is debatable, though: one could reasonably insist on the original’s Tonic-Tonic-X-Tonic.) (2) The essence of the second section is the falling feeling of descending notes from the fifth in which the flatted fifth must be featured. A sludge metal affinity can come to the fore here in fuzzed-out off-beat descending power chords (Fudge Tunnel, 1991; Earth Crisis, 1998).
(3) The essence of the third section is the back-on-beat flaring up of the penultimate note, usually a heavy-vibrato or ornamented third. That note expresses the moment of sexual explosion; it’s a shame when the sharpness of this moment is dulled by a meandering alternative.
Toto (2002) cuts the last beat and the last two notes of the riff before repeating it fully, a 15/4 pattern altogether; they’re going for an appropriately panting, stop-start feeling in the course of making the great sexual statement. Unfortunately it also sounds like a computer edit.
2. Chorus. The chorus is made by sustained chords revolving around the fifth—the promised sustain cut off in the first statement of the V chord but given back in the VII and IV chords in the original. Some versions amplify the sustain by filling all those measures with choral voices, sometimes achieving a soaring quality by adding the V chord’s ninth (which puts a turbo effect on the relation of the fifth-centered harmony of the chorus to the harmony of the tonic-centered verse). This touch was pioneered by Long John Baldry and (more aggressively) The Fifth Dimension in 1969 and picked up by the Dondero High School Choir in 1995; Ozzy Osbourne rediscovers or retrieves it in his last trip through the chorus in 2005. I won’t say I now regard this ninth as essential to the song, but I’m impressed by its marginal persistence.
3. Vocal style. Attempts to sing “Sunshine” seriously as a rock song tend to stick very closely to Bruce’s original prototype or to reduce melodic variation. (Facetious approaches are another matter.) A more articulate approach like Ella Fitzgerald’s (1969) sounds misguided.
Jack Bruce’s own later variations sound unfortunate; Clapton’s updates aren’t so bad. It’s damned hard to improve on the balance between rock drive and melodic interest in the original. It’s aesthetically super-robust.
4. Guitar sound. The most successful voicings are those that reproduce or sound like an homage to Clapton’s in the original. The only way to vary from it is hotter/thicker, which is scarcely possible. (Bruce’s distinctive bass sound, though utterly crucial to Cream’s sound generally, seems less crucial for covers of this song.) A very significant exception to the rule that the song depends on Clapton’s guitar sound is Bobby McFerrin’s all-vocal version (1988), in which the grabbing power of the voices reveals the extent to which electric guitars are already singing.
(The surprising implication of the overly delicate cover by the Hampton String Quartet  is that violins can’t sing as well.) Horns, as so often, are a mistake: the substitution of horns for guitar (Spanky Wilson , Baldry, Fitzgerald) destroys the sexual gravitas of the song, turning it into show music.
5. Solo. The original guitar solo, especially its first two “Blue Moon” measures, is almost inescapable. To his credit, Vernon Reid doesn’t copy it (though he does include clever references to it) for Living Colour, but as a result he stakes no claim to the essence and wins no allegiance. (It would be insulting and wrong to say that his masterful solo is forgettable, though.)
About the keyboard solos that have been ventured, and indeed all the keyboard contributions to “Sunshine” I’ve ever heard, all I can say is, it’s a free country.
6. Drums. Living Colour’s Will Calhoun does a nice job of sounding like his own frisky self while supporting a very faithful “Sunshine.” Cozy Powell plays twice as many notes as in the original Ginger Baker part, but within the same pattern, for the industrial band Forcefield in 1987, and that works. Leslie Mandoki, drumming with his all-star “soul mates,” including Jack Bruce, in 2005, finds a looser gait that shambles more than dances—I approve.
Otherwise I haven’t noticed that any drummer has come up with a really good new idea that would be essential to the “Sunshine” heritage. Many of the rhythms are downright jaunty, which is wrong (as to why, see my comment on Tempo). Jack Bruce keeps the congas in strict enough harness (in the verse—they run wild a bit in the chorus) to make his 2001 version an acceptable Latin-ish alternative.
According to Tom Dowd, the “Indian” TOM-tom-tom-tom beat that he suggested to Cream in rehearsal was the factor that made the song snap into focus. How awful and interesting it would be to hear a rehearsal tape from before that suggestion!
7. Tempo. The heavy sexual quality of the song calls for a nearly slogging pace; an up tempo puts it in a different emotional zone entirely and so is unwelcome, except that Jimi Hendrix (everything he touches turns to gold) makes it gloriously snappy in his instrumental version of 1969; though faster, it’s still built on the original drum pattern.
The Goo Goo Dolls’ fast hardcore version (1987) would work as an instrumental, but the rushed lyrics sound ridiculous—moreover, the rush throws time out of joint, as Johnny Rzeznik sings “I’ll stay with you darling, soon.”
So far, I’ve not yet found a successful cover with a non-blues-rock feel. The one that comes closest is Darla’s (2005); it has an appropriately pensive pace and a lot of nice jazz chords, yet it can’t keep from sliding into the gratuitous “jazz stylings” that sunk Ella Fitzgerald’s version.
But there could be a righteous smoky acoustic version. Cassandra Wilson could pull it off. Thinking of the approach she might take and remembering too how Clapton quieted “Layla” in his Unplugged concert, I took a shot.
In my version, the key to the melody is to stay plaintive while cool, avoiding anything wise-ass (the jazz pitfall). So the sung part is even simpler than in the original, and soft. The flatted-V chord is the star of the verse, in cool major-seventh form.
In the chorus I go for a haunting sustain in the statement of the V and stay sad by moving to the III (relative to the V, a VI) rather than VII and IV.
If I could, I’d have played a Wes Montgomery-style solo in octaves.
Have I been to the place? I hesitate to claim that. I think I’ve been to a place in my own part of the jungle where I found some interesting resonance with the original “Sunshine” inspiration. I drew from my own well—but let it be noted too that “Sunshine” poured into my well all those years ago.
 Tom Dowd and the Language of Music (Language of Music Films, 2003).