A long article by me on The Weight by The Band is on The Band website (linked). I’ve often discussed cover versions and recently found a copy of New Musical Express for 7th September 1968, which is the UK release date for the single. This short article has an extract from the main one, and simply addresses the initial releases in 1968 to 1969.
Music From Big Pink’s initial success was, in retrospect, surprisingly modest for an album which frequently appears in lists of the Top 100 Rock Albums of All Time. It got to #30 in the US charts while the single, The Weight, written by Robbie Robertson, reached only #63.
New Musical Express, week ending 7th September 1968. Island advert
Spooky Tooth got in fast with a very direct cover. That was released on the same day as The Band version, and Island took the full front-page advert in New Musical Express, and predicted a number one hit. It wasn’t though their version was magnificent live. See link to video from the German Beat Club. Gary Wright had moved to piano leaving Mike Harrison to focus on lead vocal.
This was a typical British “instant cover” to grab chart priority, but that habit had ruled from 1955 on, but was already fast dying out. By the next year, it was rare. Spooky Tooth in their previous incarnation as Art (without Gary Wright) had tried the same with For What It’s Worth a year earlier … another clever choice.
The song was not on It’s All About Spooky Tooth, but is a bonus track on the CD reissue, which is a live version from BBC Radio’s Top Gear session on 30th August 1968, with wailing harmonica. This suggests they were either previewing it or it had been out a week before the full page advert. The single version had to wait for The Best of Spooky Tooth.
In contrast, The Band’s original version was on page 3, in an advert shared with other EMI releases for the day.
New Musical Express, week ending 7th September 1968. EMI advert.
They get half the space of DeShannon, and less than a quarter of the space for Spooky Tooth. Hey Jude was released the same day, as was Those Were The Days – the first two singles on Apple, and both got full page adverts in the issue, so maybe EMI had blown its advertising budget.
The Band won the chart battle in the UK, entering the chart on 18th September (BBC chart) and just failing to get into the top twenty (#21 on September 28 1968). It stayed in the chart for nine weeks. It was the only version to chart in the UK. It got to #35 in Canada, but only to #63 in the USA.
The advert closer up (corrected) with Big Pink US version photo from inner sleeve.
Other artists had more sucess with covering The Weight. The Jackie DeShannon version was already out in the USA and already a hit judging by Liberty’s advert.
DeShannon proudly insists she was the first artist to cover The Weight, and that her version charted higher than the original in America (US #55, 1968). I like what she did with The Weight. Not the best cover version … I’d rate The Staples there … but still very creditable. Of course, The Weight combines country, folk, gospel and soul roots … all areas DeShannon had worked in before. As the first cover, she also started the tradition of The Weight covers with a big soul voice chorus.
New Musical Express, week ending 7th September 1968. Liberty advert.
Her version appears on Laurel Canyon. The LP sleeve adds “Including The Weight” below the title. The band on Laurel Canyon placed Mac Rebbenack (Dr. John) on piano, with Harold Battiste on electric piano, both from Gris Gris. Barry White was part of the backing vocal group. , I Got My Reason (YouTube linked) on the other side of the Laurel Canyon LP, lifts the rolling piano part and most of the melody of The Weight. It’s a fabulous performance, but much too obvious a lift. Barry White claims he wrote it. Yeah, right, Barry.
Aretha Franklin on Atlantic: European sleeve
Atlantic UK pressing of The Weight
Aretha Franklin’s hit version on Atlantic was a 1969 release, with Duane Allman on slide guitar (US #19, April 1969, US R&B #3). Backng vocalists are Cissy Houston, Dee Dee Warwick and Sylvia Shemwell. Aretha played piano herself with Barry Beckett on electric piano. David Hood was on bass, Roger Hawkins was on drums, Jimmy Johnson on guitar. King Curtis played sax.
Jerry Wexler suggested she record it. He later regretted it:
Jerry Wexler: I was trying to make a bridge over to the flower children … I bitterly regret having done The Weight with her. The song is totally incomprehensible to her basic rhythm and blues constituency. Aretha cannot have a big hit unless it is also a hit with her black constituency. It’s got to be both, so this is where commercial stupidity and greed got the upper hand in me.
(Sleeve notes to CD reissue of This Girl’s In Love With You)
American copy on Motown. It was not released in the UK.
The Supremes with The Temptations (US #46, September 1969) all charted. Significantly for both royalties and for general public awareness, the Diana Ross and The Supremes With The Temptations’ album from which the single was taken reached US #2 and the Aretha Franklin album, Soul 69, reached US #15.
Diana Ross & The Supremes With The Temptations album released early in 1969 joined Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers and Jackie de Shannon in bringing out the soul roots of The Band’s most famous song. It was recorded as a response to Aretha’s version. It was a hit too in the USA (R&B 33, Pop 46)… and probably is the version which started the shifting of vocals not only between verses (as in the original) but within the verse. It wasn’t a UK single. It’s also not just Diana Ross (she gets the first line) but gives each Supreme and Temptation a go at singing lead. The lovely chuckle is Diana. It was produced by Frank Wilson and features very different but still fascinating guitar, a riffier bass line and the addition of a horn part. It was Motown’s first stereo 45 rpm release. It is the answer every time Levon Helm fans protest that all The Band should have shared Robbie Robertson’s songwriting royalties because they contributed their parts to the arrangement. This is unquestionably “The Weight” but every instrumental part differs strongly from the original.
Easy Rider: UK sleeve
The Weight was also heard on the soundtrack of the Peter Fonda / Dennis Hopper film Easy Rider in 1969, which in turn spawned a successful soundtrack album (US # 6 in October 1969 and 41 weeks on the chart). The Band agreed to their version being used on the film soundtrack, then refused permission for it to appear on the subsequent album. Smith did a close cover version which can be heard on the Dunhill soundtrack album.
Demo copy of UK single of The Weight by Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper 1969
Versions also appeared on albums by Bloomfield and Kooper (Live Adventures of Bloomfield & Kooper), The Staple Singers and King Curtis. Note the USA PRODUCTION on the CBS demo by Bloomfield and Kooper. In 1968 to 1969, CBS were intent on stamping either UK or USA on singles. Whether this was pride in their new UK production facilities, or disowning UK productions is another question.
Virtually every cover cuts out a verse or two. Four hit singles as well as its presence on even more albums within a year means a high profile, in spite of the modest sales of the original single.
I Shall Be Released: UK B-side
I Shall Be Released was the B-side, and that attracted covers too, notably by The Tremeloes, who charted in December 1968 and reached UK #29. Rick Nelson followed with a cover in 1970.
In other words, the Band were not solely responsible for making the song a rock classic, but it is the number they are most associated with, and it turns up on every anthology and nearly every recorded live concert.