Sheryl Crow, playing The Joint, reflects on new album, memories of Michael Jackson

A famous singer once told me that women should cover songs made famous by men, and male singers should cover songs made famous by women.

The rationale: If a woman covers a song that’s already known for having a female voice attached to it, then the cover version will be compared to the original.

But if a woman covers a guy’s song, then it will be viewed as a fresh interpretation.

I don’t remember which singer told me this. (Joan Osborne maybe?) But it definitely wasn’t Sheryl Crow — even though her new album, "100 Miles From Memphis," includes three cover songs made famous by dudes.

Crow covers Citizen Cope’s "Sideways," The Jackson 5’s "I Want You Back" and Terence Trent D’Arby’s "Sign Your Name."

I asked her if she set out to do dude covers.

"I never even thought about it," she says.

Instead, she came about "Sign Your Name" (a 1988 hit for D’Arby) during studio playtime.

"We had been talking about (recording) different covers," she tells me. "My manager just picked it out of thin air. … He mentioned it, and everyone kind of went, ‘Eh.’

"But then, as soon as we started playing it, it became completely and totally obvious it was gonna be a great cover, no matter how we did it."

"Sign Your Name" is one of the best tunes on her new album. It’s faithful to the original, yet it feels slightly interpretive.

"It was a great song (by D’Arby). And that was a great song that somebody like me could go in and record in a completely different way," Crow says.

"I hope that wherever Terence Trent is, that he’s happy."

(Since 2001, D’Arby has been recording and performing in Europe under his legally changed name of Sananda Maitreya. Yeah, who knows what that’s about?)


Crow’s cover of Michael Jackson’s "I Want You Back" is not interpretive at all, however. Nope. It sounds exactly like the original. In fact, Crow’s lady voice is nearly a dead ringer for Jackson’s young throat.

Crow knew Jackson back before she was famous, when she was his backup singer on tour, when she sang "I Just Can’t Stop Loving You" with him onstage.

I asked her if she ever sang "I Want You Back" as a backup. It took her a few moments to remember that far back.

"I think it was part of the medley that had ‘PYT’ and several old songs," she says.

But she memorized "I Want You Back" a very long time ago.

"It was the first record I ever owned. I got it from Santa Claus when I was 6. I grew up as a kid, like every other kid, watching the ‘Jackson 5ive’ Saturday morning TV show. I wanted my own television show, like he had."

That was in the 1970s, when black-white relations were incredibly more strained than they are today.

"He transcended racial barriers. Every kid, whether you were black or white, watched The Jacksons and watched the TV specials. I loved them."

Imagine, then, how emotionally tied she was to Jackson when she landed one of her first major gigs in the 1980s, touring backup for him.

"So I have a special connection to him," she says.

Crow’s cover of "I Want You Back" on her album came by chance, though — once again during playtime in the recording studio.

"It wasn’t calculated. We were playing another song that had nothing to do with that, and the rhythm track was so similar, I started singing it as a lark — and ultimately ended up putting it on the record."

By coincidence, that studio day fell on the year anniversary of Jackson’s death, she says.

"So it seemed like a great idea," Crow says.


Crow has deep feelings about Jackson’s death.

"My perspective is different, because I worked with him. When I saw the movie, ‘This Is It,’ I saw the guy I worked with — the guy who’s very present and way involved in the production of his tour and the arrangements and the choreography. I didn’t see a guy that was struggling with a very bad drug addiction."

Yet, she says, his death somehow shocked her, as well as saddened her.

"But what I cherish are the memories of what I have of him onstage, and just how divinely brilliant he was.

"He had something nobody else had. And that’s probably why so many people strived to suck the life out of him."

I told Crow that, as a famous singer, she must see many sycophants suck the life out of stars.

"Not really like that," she says. "That’s a different kind of height of fame. You kind of recognize it. It’s like watching a train wreck to a certain extent, because there’s nothing you can do about it."

Doug Elfman’s column appears Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. E-mail him at delfman@ He blogs at

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