NEW YORK — Several years after its creation, Elvis Costello's album of cover tunes is finally about to emerge. Kojak Variety, a collection of 15 songs, will be released worldwide by Warner Bros. May 9.
"I made this record five years ago, and it always got taken over by more urgent things," says Costello. "When you have new songs, you always want to get them out. There was just never time to release this, but I thought if I've loved some of these songs for 30 years, I can certainly love them for 35 or 40."
Costello approached Warner Bros. about putting out the record this spring, and it quickly agreed the time was right. "Elvis fans have been curious about these songs for a long time," says WE product manager Peter Rauh. "They've surfaced in various formats. This recording session was one of those secrets that was always discussed, and people were wondering if this record would ever come out."
Costello says it is a "complete coincidence" that the album is coming at a time when several top artists, including Gloria Estefan, Luther Vandross, Annie Lennox, and Duran Duran, have just released collections of cover songs. "I think mine differs in that some of these songs haven't cast such a long shadow. If you choose songs that are too familiar, it will only remind people of the original."
Indeed, many of Costello's selections — all written between 1930 and 1970 — are unfamiliar, if not downright obscure.
The track listing and the songwriters are "Strange," Jay Hawkins; "Hidden Charms," Willie Dixon; "Remove This Doubt," Holland/Dozier/Holland; "I Threw It All Away," Bob Dylan; "Leave My Kitten Alone," John/Turner/McDougal; "Everybody's Crying Mercy," Mose Allison/Audre Mae; "I've Been Wrong Before," Randy Newman; "Bama Lama Bama Loo," Richard Penniman; "Must You Throw Dirt In My Face," Bill Anderson; "Pouring Water On A Drowning Man," D. Baker/D. McCormick; "The Very Thought Of You," Ray Noble; "Payday," Jesse Winchester; "Please Stay," Burt Bacharach/Hal David; "Running Out Of Fools," K. Rogers/E. Ahlert; and "Days," Ray Davies. Costello's version of the Davies tune was previously released on the Until The End Of The World soundtrack.
Discovering the songs was a process that covers Costello's entire life. He first got into music through his father, who, as a singer, would bring home all kinds of songs to learn. "I also had my own pocket money that I used to buy records, so in between those two things, I got to hear more things than other people," Costello says. "When I became a musician, I started tracing back stuff. I'd know one song that had filtered back to England, and I'd want to hear more. When I came to America, I went to all these thrift stores and got another layer of music."
Recording the project took much less time than discovering the material. Kojak Variety was made over a two-week period in Barbados. "It's all basically live," Costello says." We did it pretty much in the fashion that they cut the originals, although we said we don't want to tie our hands by doing it exactly the same. We had 24-track, so obviously we used that. We spent the morning in the ocean and the afternoon in the studio. We'd cut the stuff and go off and have some beer."
Part of the recording process included listening to the original versions and deciding what to "steal," as Costello puts it, or what to rearrange. For example, "Must You Throw Dirt On My Face," recorded by the Louvin Brothers, was revamped with a soulful R&B feel.
"I was trying to tip the hat to the kind of arrangement that Percy Sledge might do. Make the song more tragic," says Costello. "The beauty of the Louvins' voices was that they made it sound like they could just stand the Pain."
Costello's version of the Kinks' "Days" "is very different than Kirsty MacColl's take on it. Hers is a very bright version. Ours is a bit more druggy. That was the day the air conditioning broke down in the studio. There were no drugs involved."
"Leave My Kitten Alone" limns territory between Little Willie John's original and a never released but much talked about version by the Beatles. "We recorded that with Pete Thomas and Jim Keltner each playing half of a drum kit. It's slightly kind of disjointed," says Costello. "A little bit of invention helps keep you fresh."
Other musicians on the sessions are guitarists Marc Ribot and James Burton; keyboardist Larry Knechtel; and bassist Jerry Scheff.
The liner notes for the album, written by Costello, lovingly detail how he first became acquainted with each song and who originally recorded the tune. "Some of the songs that have gotten lost along the way are worth hearing again. I don't think we want to lose sight of some good things. So I've done everything but include catalog numbers and where (listeners) can hear the artists."
Although Costello worries slightly that some of his fans might be disappointed to discover that he's releasing an album of tunes he didn't write, he's confident they'll enjoy the music journey. "I feel a lot of affection for these songs because I've lived with them so long. But it's like up until now, they were just something I shared with the person who recorded them originally.
"Some of these songs, like 'Strange,' have the silliest lyrics imaginable. Heft in where I cracked up on the entrance. It's a song I never would have written myself. People imagine the songs I'd write would be more serious, and some of these are quite the opposite of songs I'd write myself. But it's nice to take a rest from the writing. There's the perception that I'm a cracked egghead. If this record doesn't break that, I'm headed to Las Vegas."
The album's first single, "Pouring Water On A Drowning Man," will go to album rock, modern rock, and album alternative stations. "But we're serving the whole record to those formats," Rauh says. "Our focus is on the record as a whole, and people should come to their own conclusion."
Costello will promote the album through a radio satellite broadcast on May 17 emanating from London's Shepherd's Bush Empire club. The hourlong conceit will be available in more than 15 countries.
"The show will go out to North America that night live and to the other territories on a delayed basis because of the time difference," says Rauh. "It's available to any and all radio stations who want it." Rauh estimates that more than 200 stations in the U.S. will carry the performance. The concert will be tied in with local retailers.
Immediately following the concert, Costello will do a one-hour conference via the Internet.
Television plans include an appearance May 16 on Late Show With David Letterman; the show will be broadcast live from London that week.
Although besieged with cover albums, retailers say they are looking forward to a new Costello offering.
"We always do well with Elvis Costello records," says David Lang, president of Compact Disc World, a nine-store New Jersey chain. "We think Kojak Variety will appeal to the core Elvis Costello fan, of which we have many. However, we are concerned that it. might not break out much beyond his base, because they're obscure songs and there's no underlying theme."
Lang says the album will "probably find its way onto our listening posts and will receive in-store play. Like with every Elvis Costello record, we'll do everything we can with it."
Roy Burkhert senior buyer for the 37-store, Troy, Mich.-based Harmony House chain, agrees. "His core audience will gobble up the record. How far it goes after that will depend upon radio play and other media exposure that it gets," he says.
The one thing about the album Costello won't explain is its somewhat odd title. "That will remain an enigma," he says with a laugh. "The only thing I'm ever going to contribute to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is what it means. They can put it in a time capsule and open it up in the year 2050."