A cover version is a new performance of a song originally recorded by somebody else. When an artist covers a song made famous by another performer, it is an homage to the song and the songwriter. Far from merely imitating the original, most artists try to put their own stamp on the song.
One example is Jose Feliciano’s restrained version of the Doors’ hit “Light My Fire.” Frank Sinatra, no admirer of rock ‘n’ roll, nevertheless said the Beatles’ song “Something” was one of the most beautiful love songs ever written and covered it with full orchestral treatment. Both Cat Power and Devo completely remade the Rolling Stones classic “Satisfaction” (in two radically different ways). Otis Redding wrote and originally recorded “Respect” in 1965, though it reached anthem status only when Aretha Franklin made it a hit two years later.
Some songs are so good, and/or so adaptable, that hundreds and even thousands of performers cover them. To identify the most covered songs in music history, 24/7 Tempo reviewed listings in the online cover song database SecondHandSongs. Christmas songs and folk songs were excluded from consideration. It should be noted that the number of covers given is probably a minimum, as other sources list considerably more versions for some songs. (Speaking of good songs, these are the 50 absolute best songs in history.)
You’ll find many tunes from the so-called Great American Songbook here, with its pantheon of composers like Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, George and Ira Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, and Cole Porter. Jazz giants Duke Elllington and Thelonious Monk are represented, and many of these songs have become jazz standards, used at the basis for improvisation.
More contemporary songwriters are represented by bossa nova pioneer Antônio Carlos Jobim and by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. In one of Lennon’s last television interviews, on the “Tomorrow” show in 1975, host Tom Snyder asked him why he had recorded a cover of the Ben E. King classic “Stand by Me.” Lennon replied simply that a great song is a great song. That has been the rationale for multiple cover versions throughout the decades. (Here’s a list of the most popular song every year since 1970.)