Editor’s Note: This list originally ran in August 2020 as The Beatles’ Help! turned 55 years old. Of course, “Yesterday” — a Beatles classic and reportedly the most covered song in modern music history — saw many anniversaries. Today, we’re revisiting these amazing covers in honor of the Yesterday EP, which came out on March 4th, 1966.
For the beginning musician, performing a cover is almost a rite of passage. It’s a win-win — the song is already written and, if chosen well, already beloved. So it makes sense that “Yesterday” — the most famous song off The Beatles’ 1965 album Help! — is not only one of their most popular tracks but also one of the most covered songs in history. With relatively simple music and lyrics, “Yesterday” is a pretty straightforward song to perform, but that doesn’t diminish its impact; the song’s beauty exists in its simplicity.
One of Paul McCartney’s greatest strengths is his ability to craft songs that not only remain timeless but continually reassert their relevance. For instance, “Blackbird”, an ode to the continued strength of Black Americans during the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s, has only become more relevant in the face of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. “Yesterday” has proven itself just as relevant, maybe even more so each day. In a time of crippling uncertainty in every aspect of life, there is no more appealing thing to believe in than yesterday (or maybe like six months ago). “Yesterday”, a song old enough to eat off the 55+ menu at Denny’s, has somehow found a way to symbolize everything 2020 longs for.
With that in mind and Help! celebrating 55 years today, we’ve compiled our favorite “Yesterday” covers from the past half-century. From Marvin Gaye to Billie Eilish, these covers capture the nostalgia, the regret, and the timelessness of a simple song about longing to be good again. Thankfully, “Yesterday” always will be — and these covers prove it.
From the collaborative Motown Meets the Beatles LP, Gaye sprinkles some magic on the folksy ballad by giving it just a little extra somethin’: soul. Getting the full blues treatment, we hear a syncopated guitar, a dainty xylophone, a swelling of cinematic strings, and a voice that is both soothing and unnerving all in one sweet falsetto lick. Gaye even amends the lyrics: “there’s a heavy, heavy” — emphasis on heavy — “shadow hanging over me.” You can almost hear him shaking his head, clutching his chest as he admits: “Now I need, I need a place to hide away.” In his cover, Gaye takes the delicate confessions of “Yesterday” and transforms them into a passionate lament; no wonder this is Sir Paul McCartney’s favorite version of the song. –Samantha Small
The Beatles loved their R&B. Whether you want to call it appreciation or appropriation, the gang of four “took inspiration” from the likes of Chuck Berry, Pee Wee Crayton, and many other African American artists to create their “rock and roll.” So, Ray Charles flips the script. From your ears to your heart, Charles always seems to sing with the intention of crushing your soul. And his cover of “Yesterday” is no different. In a deep, gravelly voice, Charles grieves for a better tomorrow while crashing on the keys — also not forgetting his “wait a minute,” “but listen,” ad-libs — right before the drums and strings kick in. It’s crushing. It’s beautiful. It’s fucking Ray Charles. If anyone can do The Beatles better than The Beatles, it might just be this legend. –Samantha Small
There are very few times, if ever, that a Beatles song has sounded this elegant. With an intro of glittering synths and a croon for the ages, Shirley Bassey makes the song her own in a way many musicians who cover it are scared to do. “Yesterday” is no longer a song to be sung in front of a stadium full of screaming fans, but rather one belted out in a cabaret with big-band instrumentation behind. Bassey’s commanding vocals almost put McCartney’s to shame, and a quiet, hopeful song turns into one bursting at the seams with power and ambition. –Jennifer Irving
Any person who has ever loved a great song always wishes they could go back to the first time they heard it and really soak in that moment. I mean, who doesn’t wish they could hear “Yesterday” for the first time again? That’s basically everyone — aside from Jack Malik, played by Himesh Patel — in 2019’s Yesterday. Waking up in a world where he’s the only one who remembers The Beatles means that everyone Jack knows is hearing these songs for the first time, including his inaugural performance post-accident of “Yesterday” for his three best friends. Despite being as bare-bones a performance as it could be, Patel as Malik highlights how special “Yesterday” is at its core. And although it’s just acting, it’s not hard to imagine people being as blown away in real life as his friends are in the movie the first time they heard it. –Jennifer Irving
For the 2020 Oscars, Eilish sits perched upon a stool aside her brother and collaborator, Finneas, to perform “Yesterday” for the annual “In Memoriam” segment, a portion of the awards that recognizes acclaimed artists who have passed that year. This version finds the 18-year-old(!) giving the beloved 55-year-old song a modern touch with her signature breathy, but staggering vibrato. Her deliberate, gradual delivery allows you to hear — and feel — every emotion-packed syllable. Finneas taps the keys and eventually brings in the strings to create a solemn, but touching moment to celebrate the lives of the creators of yesterday by the stars of tomorrow. –Samantha Small