The Blasters / Little Willie John: “I’m Shakin'”
The Blasters (1981)
Little Willie John (1961)
Today’s Cover Friday post could have been my first “triple cover” post. Well, I suppose that’s actually true for most of them, since there are usually many cover versions I could choose from for a given song. But usually I have a particular cover in mind first when I do these, so from there it’s just a matter of also including the original. In this case, however, I was first inspired to post about “I’m Shakin'” by the cover done by Jack White on his recent album, Blunderbuss. That song made me immediately think about the Blasters’ great version from their incredible self-titled 1981 album. And from there it was just another step to Little Willie John’s classic original, from his 1961 album, Sure Things. But since I’ve been such a big fan of the Blasters version for so long, I’ll just thank Jack for the reminder — his version is very good but doesn’t necessarily add much to the conversation.
The Blasters were the greatest of the roots-rock revivalists of the ’80s — or anytime since. Loaded with a surplus of musical talent, the Blasters were also one of the great live bands of their time. Brothers Dave and Phil Alvin were an explosive duo: Dave, the amazing songwriter and guitarist, and Phil, with his remarkably intense and vintage voice — Phil was born to sing this material, lending it an aura of total authenticity blended with the punkish modernity of fellow L.A. roots-punkers X. Along with my musically like-minded college friends, I saw the Blasters play live at least a couple of times, and I don’t ever hope to see a more energetic, committed — or sweaty — show. Phil and Dave totally inhabited the music they were playing. And their cover of “I’m Shakin’,” a song about the anticipation of good lovin’, was a standout moment in those shows (with excellent baritone sax by Steve Berlin, later of Los Lobos), as it also was on the Blasters record. They truly made it their own.
Little Willie John is legendary as well — he’s among the most influential early R&B/soul singers, but also one of the less well-remembered. Among his most famous songs is the original version of “Fever,” which has been recorded countless times since, and “Leave My Kitten Alone,” which the Beatles covered in 1964 while recording Beatles for Sale but never released — it finally saw the “official” light of day in 1995 on Anthology 1. Little Willie John influenced all of the great early soul singers, from Sam Cooke to James Brown, but as was so often the case in the early days of rock and roll (and certainly still happens to this day), the influenced became better known than the influencer. But music archivists that they are, the Alvin brothers knew where to get the goods from when selecting songs to cover: from the pioneers of R&B and the blues. And with “I’m Shakin’,” they couldn’t have chosen better, and may in fact have improved upon the original. Sadly, there are certain to be many younger listeners who think it’s a Jack White original…but we know better, don’t we?