There are (depending on the musical tradition you're using) a somewhat limited number of notes, chord progressions or modes that make sense musically and are pleasing to the ear. Some rhythms and tones just work for humans and others simply don't. So over time, musicians repeat certain patterns and modes. This is unsurprising. The trick to being a successful creative musician seems to be less about discovering something completely new than to come up with your own version of what's worked in the past. There are of course many musicians who do come up with totally revolutionary ideas but those people are truly rare and not who I want to discuss today.
Just about everyone then, even most of the revolutionaries and visionaries in the musical world, is standing on the shoulders of those who came before them. We all know the Chuck Berry double stop riffs that started rock-n-roll in the fifties but it can be a little shocking to hear those same riffs being played by Pee-Wee Crayton, Goree Carter, Carl Hogan, Freddie Green or T-Bone Walker years before Berry was a known name. As great as Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn were, each learned a lot from Albert King's work. And so on all the way back.
But it's one thing for a musician to learn from and be influenced by his peers or previous musicians and something completely different again to steal their work and claim it as his own. One is the normal artist development and maturation. The other is cheating and really, it's criminal. Lots of musicians, artists, writers etc have done it of course but that doesn't make it right. If I were to write a serialized posting on this blog about vampires in a rural Michigan town called Caleb's Plot, featuring a troubled hero named Ken Steers, a vampire named Marlowe, a priest named Father Monaghan, and it got picked up and published, I would expect that a certain Maine writer of some note would send some nasty people to have a short, direct and highly unpleasant talk with me.
Below, I list some of the more egregious examples of theft. Some of these you may have heard of, others not. Occasionally, the original artist or songwriter had the resources to fight back and get correct attribution. In other cases they didn't. These aren't cover songs where the writer was properly credited. These are mostly songs where the original songwriter credit went up in smoke and the royalties were not correctly paid. I first list the original song by the performer who either wrote it or is most closely associated with it and secondarily the artist who recorded it without attribution or put his name as composer. Some of the stolen music may indeed be arranged in more dynamic or exciting ways to my ear, but that's not the point. Arrangement is not composition. If it were then we could argue that John Coltrane wrote My Favorite Things and Jimi Hendrix wrote our national anthem.
A great many of the original rock and roll, folk or blues artists were often bitter about such things (lampooned here in the classic Redd Foxx skit) and with good reason. Everyone has an ego and wants to be recognized for what they create. Of course some people shrugged their shoulders and moved on. If you didn't have the ability to do something about this sort of ripoff, I don't suppose being angry about it all the time did much for your health. I can't stand the idea of people getting over on me so if I were in that situation I wouldn't be forgiving or forgetful. Somebody would have to pay. I would get mad. I would want revenge. My patience would be at an end. So it goes.
Chuck Berry wrote Sweet Little Sixteen and evidently was upset enough by the Beach Boys' appropriation of it as Surfin USA to successfully sue. Chuck Berry also wrote Little Queenie but I don't know if Berry made Humble Pie stop claiming the group wrote Natural Born Boogie. Little Walter's Can't Hold Out Much Longer somehow appeared on a ZZ Top album as Mushmouth Shouting but without proper composer credit.
Elmore James' Stranger Blues has a slide riff and tone that would later show up in some Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynrd hits. That's okay influence I guess. But Fleetwood Mac "covered" James' Stranger Blues and put their name as writer. Not okay. The intro to Pee Wee's Crayton's Do Unto Others appears to have been "sampled" for the intro to The Beatles' "Revolution". I guess that's okay, no? A lawsuit revealed that The Chiffons' He's So Fine was the "unconscious" inspiration for George Harrison's My Sweet Lord.
The Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart was rather allergic to giving proper (i.e. paid) credit for songs they didn't write. BB King's Rock me Baby shows up on a Jeff Beck Group album as Rock My Plimsoul while Buddy Guy's Let Me Love You Baby is changed to Let Me Love You. Hmm, so I guess the dropping of one word in the title makes it a totally different song. Got it. The Jeff Beck Group also stole BB King's Gambler's Blues which they called Blues DeLuxe but "forgot" to give credit.
The Rivingtons had hits with Papa Oom Mow Mow and Bird's The Word and were upset when The Trashmen came out with Surfing Bird which didn't credit The Rivingtons. The Rivingtons contacted attorneys who forced The Trashmen to correct the credits.
Ike and Tina Turner released Black Coffee in 1972 with lyrics written very much from a black pov which gave a nod to the black power/black is beautiful movements of the day. This didn't prevent Humble Pie from covering the song a year later, adding one or two lyric changes and claiming writer's credit for their bassist. This may have since been corrected. Muddy Waters also had a hit with Louisiana Blues. For some reason Humble Pie also felt entitled to claim writer's credit on their cover of Louisiana Blues. Speaking of Ike Turner though, back in the day Guitar Slim had a MASSIVE hit with The Things I Used to Do. Shortly afterwards Ike Turner came out with The Way You Used To Treat Me which is almost exactly the same song as Guitar Slim's right down to the Ray Charles inspired shout at the end, except for that pesky little composition credit. JJ Fad's Supersonic seems to have at the very least "anticipated" Fergie's Fergalicious.
Of course saving the best (or in this case the worst) for last leads me to Led Zeppelin. They are a favorite group of mine but they didn't always give proper credit. Actually they usually didn't. And this is not just a question of putting your name on songs that were hundreds of years old and in public domain. That's still dishonest but not that harmful to other current songwriters. No, I'm talking about taking other people's work that's under copyright, erasing their name and putting your own.
Muddy Waters had middling success with the Willie Dixon written You Need Love. Led Zeppelin rearranged this as Whole Lotta Love but had to be sued to give composer's credit. Howling Wolf's Killing Floor has a really cool riff and beat which is probably why Led Zeppelin redid it as The Lemon Song. Again, a lawsuit was required to compel them to give credit. Bert Jansch's version of the traditional Black Waterside was redone as Led Zeppelin's Black Mountainside but Jansch's arrangement was unacknowledged; Jimmy Page claimed sole writer's credit. Bobby Parker had a hit with Watch Your Step. Jimmy Page was a fan and tried to sign Parker to a record contract. It didn't pan out but Moby Dick certainly seems to allude to Watch Your Step. Theft? I'm not so sure.
Blues-Gospel giant Blind Willie Johnson wrote Nobody's Fault But Mine as far as we can tell. We certainly know that Page and Plant didn't although their version gives them writer's credit. Blind Willie Johnson was one of the first people to record the traditional gospel Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed. This was later recorded as In My Time of Dying by Josh White and in a slightly different version by Bob Dylan. White's version seems to be the direct inspiration for the Led Zeppelin version which again claimed sole authorship by the band. Joan Baez had a hit with the Anne Bredon written Babe I'm Gonna Leave You. Led Zeppelin did a version of this but did not credit Bredon, a situation which has since been rectified. And lastly Jake Holmes wrote Dazed and Confused, not Jimmy Page, though Page's is by far the better known version. Holmes's lawsuit is currently pending.
Page and Plant have by turns been dismissive or defensive about these issues over the years, often pointing out that all music derives from somewhere else. Perhaps so but I wouldn't advise trying to use their music without permission or credit. Because when it's money out of their pockets they have shown themselves to be fierce defenders of copyright protection. Jimmy Page wrote Kashmir and years later prevented usage of Schoolly D's Kashmir inspired Signifying Rapper for Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant soundtrack. Never mind that Signifying Rapper was itself primarily a updated traditional toast that goes back to before Black people arrived in America.
Moral of the story? It's important to protect whatever you create. No matter what you create or how popular, amateurish, obscure or remunerative it may be, someone out there will try to steal it.