Cover songs were essential to The Beatles repertoire throughout their entire career. From the very first songs they performed as The Quarrymen to the very final days of the band’s existence, giving their takes on other artists’ songs was a key element to The Beatles’ way of working.
Sometimes this took the form of simply having enough songs to play multiple sets a night at Hamburg clubs. Sometimes these tracks were essential for the band to develop their own sound by imitating their idols. Much later, playing old rock and roll tunes helped the band connect with their roots as they were trying to strip back their sound during the Get Back sessions.
When it comes to their core group of recorded songs, The Beatles wound up putting 213 total songs to tape during their active career. Of those, only 25 were covers, but that still accounts for almost ten percent of the band’s total output. Covers became far less frequent as the band found their own signature style, but even as albums like Rubber Soul and Revolver saw the group expanding the sonic possibilities of rock music, they were still playing old school covers during live shows.
In terms of the cover song that they played most live, setlist.com indicates that three of the five most played songs by the band were covers. George Harrison often only got a single vocal turn in the early days, and his song of choice was often Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, which was played 203 times over the course of three years. A favourite to end the group’s sets was Little Richards’ ‘Long Tall Sally’, with McCartney belting out the song 250 times, including 173 performances of the song in 1964 alone.
But the cover that was played more often than any other is a song that came to become synonymous with The Beatles: The Tops Notes’ ‘Twist and Shout’. You’d be hard pressed to find someone other than a die-hard Beatlemaniac who knew that this song was a cover, considering just how enduring it is to the band’s legacy. They played it into the ground, too: from the time it was introduced in 1962, ‘Twist and Shout’ was almost never taken out of the setlist, and The Beatles wound up covering the song an insane 374 times. It could have been more too, but the band retired the song for their final tour in 1966.
But that’s just single songs. Which artists did The Beatles favour the most when plundering for their covers? In terms of verified recordings, Little Richard (‘Long Tall Sally’, ‘Lucille’, ‘Ooh! My Soul’), Larry Williams (‘Slow Down’, ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’, ‘Bad Boy’), and Arthur Alexander (‘Anna (Go To Him’, ‘A Shot of Rhythm and Blues’, ‘Soldier of Love (Lay Your Arms Down)’) all had three songs taken on. Carl Perkins, one of Harrison’s favourites, comes in second with six official covers (‘Matchbox’, ‘Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby’, ‘Honey Don’t’, ‘Sure to Fall (In Love with You)’, ‘Glad All Over’, ‘Lend Me Your Comb’).
But when it came to sheer quantity, nobody could beat Chuck Berry’s hold on The Beatles. Along with the aforementioned ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, the band also covered ‘Rock and Roll Music’, ‘Too Much Monkey Business’, ‘Carol’, ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Memphis, Tennessee’, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, ‘I Got to Find My Baby’ and ‘I’m Talking to You’ for a grand total of nine distinct covers. The Beatles loved Chuck Berry, and it showed within their constantly evolving setlists.