Jeff Buckley: The Greatest Cover Artist of All Time

By: Aiden Holczer

Like many fans of Jeff Buckley, I was introduced to his music through his hauntingly beautiful rendition of Leonard Chohen’s “Hallelujah”. And while the other-wordly quality of Buckley’s voice struck me almost immediately, it was not the first thought that crossed my mind. Some part of me deep down knew that this was the voice of a dead man; a man taken too early from this world. Unfortunately, my suspicions were correct. Buckley had passed away in 1997 after drowning during a late night swim.

This ominous feeling of death is a hard one to convey through writing, and it’s the same feeling I had experienced previously when listening to Nick Drake’s “Things Behind the Sun” for the first time. It’s as if your psyche cannot fathom a bright spark of talent existing in the physical world for an extended period of time. Like a star, surely they must burn out.

“Hallelujah” not only served as an introduction to Jeff Buckley, but it illuminated a pattern in his work. That pattern was the consistent and expert use of covers inside of his short, but spectacular discography. And when I mean expert use of covers, I mean it. Because Jeff Buckley is the only artist I have ever heard that meets or improves upon the quality of any song he has covered.

Buckley’s rendition of “Hallelujah” is on the same level of Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, and in my opinion surpasses it, taking the title of the greatest cover of all time. I already know I will struggle to find words outside of “hauntingly beautiful” to describe Buckley’s vocal performance throughout this article, because in truth, it’s the best way to describe the quality of his voice. This vocal quality is on full display in “Hallelujah”. He distances himself from Cohen’s matter-of-fact delivery, and instead goes for a showcase of his other-wordly vocal range. Oh, and just for kicks, he finishes the song with a twenty-two second high-note that critics have swooned over for more than two decades. 

While I believe “Hallelujah” to be Buckley’s best cover, my favorite has to be his rendition of “Strange Fruit”. Put simply, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is one of the most important songs of all time. Holliday, who was not only black but a woman, deftly performed this song of protest towards the lynchings of African Americans in the South in front of white audiences across the country during a time where black people put their lives at risk by not stepping aside when a white person walked towards them on the sidewalk. Add to this that “Strange Fruit” is one of my favorite songs of all time, and you have a recipe for high expectations. Yet, in typical Buckley fashion, he shattered them once again.

The song begins with Buckley utilizing his criminally underrated guitar skills in one of the best instances of improvisation you will ever hear. He bends the notes to create the illusion of his guitar crying, this fits the somber ballad of racial opression and discrimination better than any vocal inflection ever could. Well, that’s what you would think anyways. Of course, Buckley couldn’t help but use every inch of his vocal range and pull from the wealth of vocal inflections at his disposal as he recounts the horrifying sights of “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.”

To rival Billie Holiday on her own track is a feat not many can claim they have the distinction of having, Holiday being one of the greatest artists of all time afterall. But what about out performing an artist who many consider to be the greatest of all time? Well, Buckley holds that distinction as well. That’s right, Jeff Buckley outperformed the likes of Bob Dylan not once, not twice, but three times.

In my eyes, Bob Dylan will always be the greatest artist of all time, and I was raised in a household where my father practically worshipped him. But I’d be lying if I said the original versions of “Mama You’ve Been On My Mind”, “If You See Her Say Hello”,  and “Just Like a Woman” were better than Buckley’s re-recordings. In the easiest way I can put it, Buckley took the only aspect of these songs that could be improved upon, that being Bob Dylan’s trademark nasally voice, and replaced it with one of the greatest voices of all time, Buckley’s own of course. My father may consider this to be blasphemy, but deep down I know it’s right.

Speaking of blasphemy, let’s talk about one of music’s most controversial figures of all time, Morrissey. The lead singer of The Smiths has said many controversial and downright disgusting things over his long career, but the one thing that is undeniable is his incredible musical prowess. Morrissey, commonly referred to as Moz or Mozzer, has one of the most unique and impressive singing voices across any genre of music ever. Out of all the artists I have named so far, Moz is undoubtedly the hardest vocalist for Buckly to try and outdo. But that didn’t stop him from doing it.

Released in 2016 as a part of his posthumous album You and I, Buckley’s rendition of “I Know It’s Over” is so good that when I first heard The Smiths original version of the song I thought they were covering Buckley’s attempt. The easiest way to judge the quality of a cover is to ask yourself “did the cover artist make the song their own.” And utilizing his hauntingly beautiful (there it is again) falsetto voice, Buckley indeed accomplished this. 

So far, it may appear as though Buckley was attempting to collect the musical equivalent of Marvel’s infinity stones, and if that’s the case, then this final cover is the soul stone. And by that, I mean something you can only attain by losing something close to you. Buckley’s performance of “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain”, stands as the single greatest live performance I have ever seen. Yes, it beats out Jimi Hendrix’s national anthem, Jeff Mangum’s performance of his album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea at the Occupy Wallstreet protests, and Dylan going electric for the first time.

None of these artist’s came close to carrying the emotional weight that Buckley carried during his cover of “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain.” I think now is the time to give you more background about Jeff Buckley outside of his tragic passing. Jeff Buckley’s biological father was legendary folk-rock artist Tim Buckley, however the elder Buckley was absent from his son’s life and only met him two times before his own death in 1975– twenty-two years before his son would follow. 

I would like for you to try and picture being an aspiring musician with a legendary father, and instead of using this to your advantage, you are basically considered to be his bastard child by his entire fan base. Why would his fanbase think this you may ask? Well, that’s because the song in question “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain” was written by Tim Buckly while his son was still inside his mother’s womb, and explained to the world how Tim planned to abandon him, and expressed his thoughts on how his son would grow up hearing about his father in a negative light through the eyes of his single mother.

Naturally, this song would be a touchy subject to a young Jeff Buckley, but things didn’t just stop there. After his father’s death in 1975, Buckley didn’t receive an invitation to his father’s funeral, but his father’s adopted son did. Then, nearly sixteen years later, Buckley was reached out to by a group planning a tribute concert in his father’s memory at St. Ann’s Church. They asked him if he would like to perform a song in his father’s honor, and at first he denied them. Upon giving it a second thought, he decided he would go through with the performance.

And so, a twenty-five-year-old Jeff Buckly walked onto a stage in front of his father’s fans, and with a legendary ensemble made up of Gary Lucas, Cheryl Hardwick, Hank Roberts, Greg Cohen, and G.E Smith, performed a song about the resentment his father predicted his absence would cause, proving him wrong in the best way possible. Buckley’s performance could’ve been literal garbage, and I would still mention it based solely on the guts it would take him to perform it. But as always, Buckley knocked it out of the park, and his father’s fans exited the church talking about how they had just heard “Tim Buckley’s haunted voice.”

In my mind, Buckley is undoubtedly the greatest cover artist of all time, but I feel as though I would be remiss to not mention the quality of his own personal works. If anyone is looking to get into Jeff Buckley’s work, I would emphatically recommend you start with his 1994 album Grace, which contains what I consider to be the greatest use of the human voice ever. Buckley was a master of his craft, a man I believe to be the greatest vocalist of all time, and someone taken too soon from this earth. However, in his short time here, he made an impact that will last generations, and songs that will stand the test of time.

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