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The Top 25 versions of ‘The Weight’ — Robbie Robertson and The Band’s song inspired by a Jewish bookseller

Who would have thought a song inspired by Ingmar Bergman and Luis Buñuel would create a rock ’n’ roll history

You wouldn’t necessarily figure a song inspired by filmmakers Luis Buñuel and Ingmar Bergman — and crammed with surreal lyrical imagery referencing everything from the Bible to the Jewish owner of a Manhattan bookstore — to become an iconic composition beloved and recorded by several generations of musicians and fans. And yet, in the 55 years since its original release, The Band’s “The Weight” has essentially become the “Louie Louie” of the Americana genre, with its oblique verses and rousing singalong chorus still inspiring artists to record their own versions or pull the song out for concert encores.

Like the album it hailed from, Music From Big Pink, “The Weight” came as a breath of fresh air amid the tumult and tear gas of the summer of ’68. The song’s relaxed yet mildly funky country-rock groove — delivered to perfection by drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko, guitarist Robbie Robertson and keyboardists Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel — felt like a warm and welcoming alternative to the increasingly frantic psychedelia of the day, while also being notably devoid of the “squareness” typically associated with mainstream country music. At the same time, Robertson’s lyrics (sung by Helm and Danko) about running into one uncooperative character after another while trying to do a favor for a friend were mysterious and colorful enough for “heads” to debate endlessly. Who was Fanny? What was the load the singer was trying to deliver for her? Did the mention of Nazareth, Moses and the devil mean that this was some sort of Biblical fable? And just what was Crazy Chester’s deal, anyway?

“The Weight” has since been recorded by well over a hundred artists, and covered by at least that many more in concert, so picking the 25 best versions of the song is no easy task. To narrow the playing field (and to avoid falling down endless YouTube rabbit holes), we limited the candidates to versions that made it on to actual album or single releases; likewise, this would be a very Band- and Staple Singers-heavy list if we included all the versions out there that feature at least one of their respective members, so those groups are limited to two appearances each here. Some of these renditions are well known, and some aren’t but should be. So take a load off Fanny … and take a listen.

25) Smith

One of the most iconic moments in the 1969 counterculture classic Easy Rider is the scene in which Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and a hippie hitchhiker ride their bikes into Arizona’s Monument Valley to the tune of The Band’s original recording of “The Weight.” But when the song’s licensing couldn’t be cleared for the film’s soundtrack, Dunhill Records sent the band Smith into the studio to record a carbon copy — which, while totally competent, seemed like a bit of a rip-off in the context of an album filled with songs by genuine heavyweights of the era like The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix and Steppenwolf. If they’d only let Gayle McCormick (who sang Smith’s hit version of “Baby It’s You”) take the microphone instead of guitarist James Cliburn, a far more memorable rendition might have resulted.

24) Paul Jones

His former band Manfred Mann tried to cop “The Weight”’s rustic vibe and tension-and-release chorus on their 1968 single “Fox On the Run,” but Paul Jones went ahead and covered the real thing for his 1969 solo album Come Into My Music Box. Jones’ enunciation and pronunciation is too posh by half (or “hoff,” as he sings it) for the material — and producer/arranger Peter Asher’s decision to go drop several verses while adding a gratuitous key change is a definite head-scratcher — but he delivers such a committed vocal performance that you almost don’t mind.

23) I Dik Dik

This long-running Italian pop group was an early adopter of “The Weight,” and an early adapter as well — “Eleonora Credi,” recorded for the flipside of their 1968 single “Dimenticherai,” swaps out Robertson’s original lyrics for words penned by popular Italian lyricist Mogol, a.k.a Giulio Rapetti. In I Dik Dik’s version, the singer tries to woo a girl named Eleonora by trying to convince her that he’s not a worthless cad like all the other guys. The banjo picking was presumably added to help him score some extra sincerity points.

22) Velvet Night

Heavily influenced by Long Island slo-mo rockers Vanilla Fudge, this sextet from White Plains, New York, released a self-titled (and now exceedingly rare) 1970 album featuring eerie, semi-psychedelic arrangements of songs by Donovan, Cream, Tim Hardin, and The Band. Though the stentorian vocals seem a bit at odds sometimes with the whimsy of Robertson’s lyrics, the recording’s gradually intensifying quiet passages — highlighted by an almost John Cage-like piano refrain — are a genuinely cool and unexpected touch.

21) Spooky T0oth

Released just two months after Music From Big Pink, Spooky Tooth’s Jimmy Miller-produced rendition of “The Weight” is a prime example of how deeply The Band’s brand of Americana resonated across the pond. In 1967, these same Brits had dropped the heavily psychedelic album Supernatural Fairy Tales under the moniker Art; now, less than a year later, the renamed act was getting “back to the land” with their earnest (if a bit too harmonica-heavy) Band cover, and London’s paisley-wrapped Summer of Love was receding quickly in the rearview mirror.

20) Diana Ross & The Supremes and The Temptations

By 1969, the cultural tremors caused by “The Weight” were even being felt over at Motown, where Berry Gordy directed the The Supremes and The Temptations to cut the song for their second duets album Together. Though the recording has its charms, including some playful vocal trade-offs between Diana Ross, Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, and a twangy touch of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”-style electric sitar, its breezy variety show vibe failed to connect with record buyers. The single stalled at #46, the worst showing by a Supremes single since 1964, and worst by a Temptations single since 1962.

19) John Denver

Those who only remember the late singer-songwriter John Denver as a mild-mannered Rocky Mountain balladeer — or as The Muppets’ genial human foil — might be surprised to hear the fire he breathes into “The Weight.” Originally recorded in 1970, but unreleased until 2004, Denver’s version has some serious gusto to it; sure, he fluffs a couple of lyrics along the way (Go down Miss Moses?!?), but he’s clearly feeling the song.

18) Weezer

LA alt-rockers Weezer aren’t exactly known for their rootsy sound or influences, which made their cover of “The Weight” — included as a bonus track on the international release of their 2008 self-titled album (also known as “The Red Album”) — a total left-field surprise. Even more of a shocker was the fact that these wiseasses actually played it pretty straight; despite the heavily distorted guitar running through their version to make it “rock,” bassist Scott Shriner and guitarist Rivers Cuomo sing the song with obvious affection and respect.

17) Hoyt Axton

A prolific singer-songwriter and character actor, the late, great Hoyt Axton had the talent, gravitas and rootsy chops necessary to pull off “The Weight.” His arrangement of the song on 1990’s Spin Of The Wheel may lack a little something in the way of originality, but the warmth of Axton’s vocal presence — and the hint that it always exuded of having seen some serious shit — more than makes it a worthwhile listen.

16) The Ventures

On their 1969 album Underground Fire, America’s premier instrumental combo branched out from their typical modus operandi of covering recent pop hits by recording an entire side of original material — and then, on the LP’s all-covers side, going much deeper into country territory than usual with a nicely twangy rendition of “The Weight.” Though an instrumental version of the song could easily become monotonous, The Ventures’ arrangement — with the first verse melody played by a low and rumbly guitar, the second by a higher-pitched one, and the third by two guitars in not-quite-unison — definitely keeps things moving.

15) Joe Cocker

It’s surprising that Cocker’s blustery version of “The Weight,” recorded live during his March 1970 dates at NYC’s Fillmore East, was left off the resulting Mad Dogs & Englishmen album; Cocker sounds in fine form here, and the gigantic Leon Russell-led band behind him really cooks. Maybe it was because Cocker accidentally reversed the third and fourth verses — or maybe just too many other artists had come out with covers of the song by the time the album was being readied for release. In any case, this recording (which was finally included on the 2005 deluxe edition of Mad Dogs) simply comes across now like classic Cocker.

14) Travis

Scottish indie rockers Travis recorded “The Weight” as a bonus track for the Japanese release of their 2000 single “Coming Around.” Rather than ramp (or camp) up the song’s country elements, the band made the wise decision to ignore them almost entirely, focusing instead on its indelible melody and mournful groove. Fran Healy’s world-weary vocals bring out the frustration in the lyrics — making you think about how maddening it would ultimately be to encounter such a parade of eccentric characters — but also highlight their sense of resigned acceptance.

13) Giant Sand

For over four decades, the Tucson-based collective Giant Sand has specialized in an idiosyncratic brand of Americana that’s more often than not resembled a woozy, sun-baked version of The Basement Tapes. So it was perhaps inevitable that Sand frontman Howe Gelb would try his hand at “The Weight”; this version, which closes the band’s 1988 album Storm, has a loopy charm to it that really brings out the “shaggy dog” aspect of Robertson’s song.

12) The Chambers Brothers

The Chambers Brothers’ underrated 1973 album Unbonded was an all-covers affair, with their take on “The Weight” just one of its many highlights. Primarily sung by bassist George Chambers — who throws in a few choice licks after each chorus — the song gradually builds from a groovy country-funk hootenanny to a stirring gospel tent revival.

11) Sammi Smith

Though “The Weight” would be covered by numerous country artists in the ’90s and beyond, Nashville didn’t seem to want to have much to do with the song in the years immediately following its release. Sammi Smith — coming off her breakthrough hit “Help Me Make It Through the Night” — became the first mainstream country artist to cover it when she included the song on her 1971 album Lonesome. Maybe her contemporaries just didn’t get it, but Smith clearly did; her reading is a strong one, and the little cackle she throws in after “Do me a favor Sam/Won’t you stay and keep Anna Lee company” makes it sound like she and Anna Lee are gonna head down to the saloon in a few minutes and drink the locals under the table.

10) Truman Thomas

Organist Truman Thomas recorded what may well be the funkiest version of “The Weight” in existence — which isn’t a huge stretch, given that Thomas also served as a sideman with Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin and The Isley Brothers. Featured on the flip of his equally smokin’ 1969 single “Twenty-Five Miles,” Thomas’s mostly instrumental version sounds like it was recorded at a backyard barbecue, where the “load” he was taking off Fanny was actually a giant plate of sauce-slathered ribs.

9) Jackie DeShannon

Singer-songwriter DeShannon — whose songs were recorded by The Byrds, The Searchers and Marianne Faithfull, among others — clearly knew a good tune when she heard it. Her cover of “The Weight” was one of the first to be recorded and released, reaching #55 on the Billboard Hot 100 in September 1968. DeShannon’s country-soul version, which later appeared on her classic 1969 album Laurel Canyon, also featured the added bonus of a pre-fame Barry White on distinctly audible backing vocals.

8) The Staple Singers

“You could ask those [Band] guys what the song was about and they’d say, ‘We don’t know,’” recalled Mavis Staples in 2014. “I guess they didn’t want to go through a long explanation. My brother said, ‘Mavis, I know what the song is about. This song is about drugs.’” But there’s nothing remotely druggy about the Staples’ lovely gospel-infused version, which was waxed in September 1968 with the MG’s and the Memphis Horns for their first Stax album Soul Folk in Action. Robertson and the rest of The Band were so impressed and honored by this cover, they would invite the Staples to perform it with them for their Martin Scorsese-directed documentary The Last Waltz.

7) King Curtis

Less than six weeks after Aretha Franklin recorded her hit version of “The Weight” (see below), her bandleader King Curtis returned to Muscle Shoals to cut his own instrumental rendition of the song. The track, included on his 1969 album Instant Groove, finds Curtis’ wailing tenor sax sparring mightily with Duane Allman’s searing slide guitar; not only are these two brilliant musicians playing their asses off, but you can really hear how much they enjoyed pushing each other to greater heights. Sadly, both Curtis and Allman would head to the great jam session in the sky just a few years later.

6) Rickie Lee Jones

One of the many highlights of Jones’ 2012 all-covers album The Devil You Know, “The Weight” finds her completely retooling The Band’s classic into a brooding solo piano meditation. It’s like you’re sitting next to her at some bar, listening to her tell a rambling and somewhat incomprehensible tale while the joint’s exhausted piano player absent-mindedly strokes the ivories in the background — but she’s telling it to you with such compelling conviction that you simply don’t want to miss a word.

5) The Rotary Connection

A multi-racial psychedelic soul aggregation, Chicago’s Rotary Connection specialized in radical reworkings of popular songs, utilizing arrangements that showcased legendary producer Charles Stepney’s kaleidoscopic sonic vision. Though their experiments sometimes missed the mark by a wide margin, the Rotary Connection’s rendition of “The Weight” — included on their 1969 album Songs — really nails it, playing up the gospel angle suggested by the “pulled into Nazareth” lyric, while also throwing in some cinematic strings and a few deliciously funky drum fills for good measure.

4) Cassandra Wilson

For her 2002 album Belly of the Sun, jazz singer Wilson tackled a wide variety of non-jazz material, employing largely acoustic instruments to give the songs a down-home feel that harkened back to her Mississippi roots. Wilson led off the album with this stunning version of “The Weight,” which sets her warm contralto against mandolin, acoustic bass, hand drums and a resonator guitar; the deeply hypnotic results sound as soothing as a child’s lullaby and as haunting as an ancient fable.

3) Aretha Franklin

Of all the versions of “The Weight,” the Queen of Soul’s fiery rendition was the most successful, reaching #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 and going all the way to #4 on the magazine’s R&B singles chart. And for good reason — not only does Aretha deliver a primo performance, but the Muscle Shoals “swampers” backing her here (including Duane Allman on some deliciously funky slide guitar) kick up some serious dust with the help of Aretha’s bandleader, legendary soul sax man King Curtis. Favorite moment: When Aretha sings, “My bag is sinking low, and I believe that it’s about time,” her backing singers answer with a sassy “You said it girl!”

2) The Band

Given the song’s immediate cultural impact, it’s kind of amazing that The Band’s original version of “The Weight” charted no higher than #63 nationally in the late summer and early fall of 1968, though it did garner substantial airplay in certain regional pockets. For all the covers it has since spawned, none have surpassed the sheer perfection of the source material — with one exception…

1) The Band featuring The Staple Singers

There aren’t too many four-and-a-half minute chunks of musical celluloid more heart-expanding, tear-inducing and goosebump-raising than this clip from Martin Scorsese’s 1978 Band documentary The Last Waltz, which brings the song and its characters to vivid life in a way that no one else has ever really managed. Mavis and Pops Staples’ verses alone are worth the price of admission, and their presence seems to inspire Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson to take it up a notch or two in their own performances. It would have been nice to see more of Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson here, of course, but that’s a small quibble in light of the brilliance that Scorsese’s cameras did capture.

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