VERSIONS: “Ol’ 55”

Welcome back to our popular VERSIONS feature. For those of you not familiar with it, the idea is that our writers pick a great song and then as well as presenting readers with the original version, also add three cover versions of that song. Rick Bayles sets the ball rolling with an early offering from the Tom Waits catalogue.

Tom Waits doesn’t write bad songs, and this has to be up there with some of his best, though it’s widely acknowledged as one of his more ‘conventional’ songs. ‘Ol’ 55’ is a song that celebrates the legendary 1955 Cadillac that was Waits’ pride and joy when he released his debut album, 1973’s “Closing Time”. The song was the lead single from the album and gave Waits a minor hit single in the American charts. I’ve always loved Waits’ use of words in his songs and ‘Ol’ 55’  has such a great opening lyric – “Well, my time went so quickly, I went lickety-splitly, Out to my ol’ 55”. Who else would think to rhyme ‘lickety-splitly’ with quickly? Obviously no one, or it would’ve been done before! It is, perhaps, the ultimate road song and is little more than a straightforward appreciation of driving a great, old car on the open road and enjoying your life, something the 24 year old Tom Waits was doing when he wrote this. Like many of Tom Waits excellent songs, it has been covered extensively and by quite a diverse group of artists, including Richie Havens, Sarah McLachlan, Eric Anderson, Gov’t Mule, Sass Jordan and many others, including our chosen Versions below!

Tom Waits (1973)

Waits is such a tour de force as a performer, that covers always tend to sound a little anaemic when compared to his originals. The ‘Closing Time’ album was produced, in its entirety, by Jerry Yester and he was a great choice for this album. A member of both The New Christie Minstrels and The Lovin’ Spoonful, he had previously produced albums by The Association, The Turtles and Tim Buckley and had a sensitivity for folk-rock tracks and for finding the commercial appeal in lighter material. For all Waits’ gravel-throated delivery, this is still a fun track, with no hidden agenda beyond a good car on the open road, heading home from a night with a girlfriend. The backing is beautifully judged, with the simple piano melody well to the fore and just a hint of drums, guitar and bass slowly coming into play. The song swells as it progresses, becoming quite anthemic without ever sounding bloated and you can see that road ahead in the early morning light. It’s a great song, delivered the way only Tom Waits can.

The Eagles (1974)

Taken from their third studio album, ‘On the Border’, this is probably the best known version of the song and, while Tom Waits might have appreciated the considerable royalties this recording brought him, given the success of the album and the fact that it was the B side to hit single ‘Best of My Love’, and has appeared on subsequent compilation albums, he has been more than dismissive of the quality of the Eagles’ version. In a 1975 interview Waits dismissed the Eagles’ version of his song as “a little antiseptic”. A year later, in an interview for NME, Waits elaborated, “I don’t like the Eagles. They’re about as exciting as watching paint dry. Their albums are good for keeping the dust off your turntable and that’s about all.” While I wouldn’t completely agree with his view of the band, I do find their cover of this track more than a bit insipid. Lead vocals are split between Frey and Henley, and they do a decent enough job, but the whole track is overproduced, and the harmonies are saccharine sweet, seeming to miss the whole point of the song; that early morning, more than a bit ‘tussled’ feel. The best thing about it is Al Perkins’ fine pedal steel playing but, ultimately, it’s too slow and too over produced. This clip is a live performance from around the same time as the album release and, while it doesn’t sound quite as overblown as the album version, the harmonies still sound overdone and the arrangement too rich for the tone of the song.

Iain Matthews (1974)

Almost the antidote to The Eagles version, this is slightly more up-tempo and the joie de vivre of the Waits original is intact. This comes from Matthews’ excellent ‘Some Days You Eat the Bear… album, when he was, perhaps, at the height of his American based career in creative terms. ‘Ol’ 55’ is the opening track on the album which features a great selection of musicians, including Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, B.J. Cole, David Lindley and Andy Roberts, among others. Produced by Matthews himself and featuring a good selection of original material and well chosen covers, this is one of the standout tracks on the album. After this album, Matthews would turn his attention to a more L.A. pop/rock sound but this album, and his cover of the Waits song, is a good indication of where his real talents lie.

Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer (2019)

Take from the excellent ‘Come On Up to the House: Women Sing Waits’ album, released in 2019, the album sees Shelby Lynne and sister Allison Moorer join the likes of Aimee Mann, Roseanne Cash, Phoebe Bridgers, Iris DeMent and other female artists in celebrating the work of Tom Waits. The album was released by Dualtone Records, and initiated by the label’s president, Scott Robinson, to mark Waits’ 70th birthday. Warren Zanes was invited to produce, and it seems he personally contacted the artists he wanted on the album and invited them to cover the song of their choice for the recording. Lynne and Moorer were the only ones to go back to Waits’ debut album for their choice, and their rendition re-imagines the song as a slow-time country waltz with exquisite harmonies. This may be my favourite of the four versions here, largely because I adore the voices of both sisters and, when they sing together, something really magical happens. A perfect version of a great song.


About Rick Bayles 354 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
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