Song ownership goes, figuratively speaking, beyond record labels and publishing entities. It also goes back to who does the signature version and who made the song meaningful, perpetual, and famous.
“People” – Barbra Streisand
“Poinciana” – Ahmad Jamal
“Giant Steps”, “A Love Supreme” – John Coltrane
“Little Girl Blue” – Nina Simone
“Strange Fruit”, “God Bless The Child” – Billie Holiday
“All Blues”, “So What” – Miles Davis
There are certainly others I’m not mentioning, but I hope this makes my point.
As such, any artist who attempts to cover these iconic songs needs to show respect. You can invent new things, experiment, vamp on the original, but also remember where the song came from. The original songs, after all, are iconic and evergreen.
UK artist Tricky covered Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”–the song shatters with tragedy and couldn’t even be played on the radio for years after Lady Day recorded it back in 1939. Their version kind of jumps along gingerly, the chords and music is totally off, and it’s disrespectful to a song about lynching and murder. People who don’t know anything about the song or who don’t listen to the lyrics will have no problem here. Few artists ever covered the song in the three decades that followed, Josh White and Nina Simone being the exceptions, but they handled the song with respect and care.
On the other hand, Laura Mvula, the UK songstress, does a beautiful job with Nina Simone’s immortal “Little Girl Blue” on the 12 Years a Slave Soundtrack. The Bach chords are there, she sings it wistfully as the song requires, and does Nina right all the way through.
Keith Jarrett likewise does a beautiful job with Ahmad Jamal’s beautiful song “Poinciana” from his live album Whisper Not. Miles Davis brings the wistfulness, sadness, and loss of Nina Simone’s “I Loves You Porgy” on his timeless Porgy and Bess album with Gil Evans’ lapidary arrangements.
It kind of reminds me of movie remakes of films like La Femme Nikita, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and others: the originals are always superior. Just have to read the subtitles.