Who Sang It Best? "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"
"Over the Rainbow" Is a Message of Hope That Something Better Awaits
In the 1930s, Americans in the heartland felt the one-two punch of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. When days grow dark, however, we Americans prefer to rely on resilience in the face of woe. When storm clouds brew, we look for rainbows and silver linings. And when headwinds blow, we brace ourselves and lean into them.
Beyond today's everyday troubles, something better awaits. That is the hopeful message relayed in this song. Perhaps that's why it was named as
- #1 on the Songs of the 20th Century list by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and
- the greatest movie song ever by the American Film Institute (AFI).
The original song title for "Over the Rainbow" was "Over the Rainbow Is Where I Want to Be." Written specifically for The Wizard of Oz, the ditty was deleted from the movie three times because producers judged it too serious for the role of Dorothy, who was supposedly a child of 12. However, Judy Garland's voice coach and an associate producer believed in the song and teamed up in advocating hard for adding it back in.
That was the right move. "Over the Rainbow" became not only Judy Garland's signature song but also won an Academy Award for Best Original Song. In the years since the iconic movie, the song has been recorded by hundreds of artists. Versions include doo-wop, R&B, country, rock, heavy metal, and everything in between. Fittingly, it was also the tune playing on actor Gene Wilder's deathbed. Find your favorite from among some of the most diverse and most prominent versions as we look at who sang it best.
"Who Sang It Best?": Here's How It Works
In the "Who Sang It Best?" series, we start with the original version of popular songs that have been covered multiple times. Then we present a set of contenders, artists who have released cover versions in any genre. Some cover versions honor the original artist's style while others are reinterpretations.
Since the original song version is typically considered "the standard," we don't include it in our overall rankings. Instead, we display it first for comparison, with up to 14 contenders presented next in ranked order. Use the polls below to vote on your preferences:
- Do you prefer the original song or a cover version?
- Which of the cover versions do you prefer?
The Classic Song
"Over the Rainbow" by Judy Garland (1939)
In the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy, the young character of Judy Garland, sings this classic tune before a tornado rips her from her Kansas home then transports her to the technicolor promise land of Oz. Trouble looms for Dorothy, as she stands in the barnyard and reflects upon her dilemma. Anxious, Dorothy cannot control her beloved dog, Toto, from repeatedly getting away from her. The dog has now bitten the vindictive townswoman, Mrs. Gulch, who has levied threats to retaliate against them both. ("I'll get you, my pretty … and your little dog, too!)
With a sense of soft melancholy, Dorothy imagines escaping her troubles. Her mind floats to a dreamland she once heard about in a lullaby. Garland channels her aspirations into the song lyrics as if her life depends upon it. The song effectively embodies all the innocence and earnestness of a 16-year-old girl.
For decades, the gold standard of this classic song has been Judy Garland's original. Can any contender possibly beat it?
Which version would you rather listen to -- Judy Garland's original song or your favorite cover version?
Cover Versions in Ranked Order
1. "Over the Rainbow" by Eva Cassidy (2001)
Breathtaking and cherubic. Eva Cassidy blesses listeners with her gossamer-like vocals in this delicate and wistful blues-tinged rendition that is over five and a half minutes long. She sounds like a sweet, clinically depressed angel who needs a dose of Prozac. With its unique inflections, she breathes into it a sense of loss, hope, and far more maturity than the original. Eva gives this song the gift of perspective, and this creatively rendered work of art sounds like an entirely different piece altogether. She elevates the song.
Add to this the listener's realization that this astonishingly talented woman bounced around the local District of Columbia club circuit, unable to support herself by her music alone, before dying in relative obscurity at age 33 from melanoma that had spread to her bones. It was our loss that songbird Eva Cassidy wasn't "discovered" until after she was gone. In the time since her death, her recordings have sold over 10 million copies, and she has since acquired famous fans, including Paul McCartney, Michelle Kwan, and Eric Clapton.
2. "Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" by Israel ("Iz") Kamakawiwoʻole (1990)
Initially, it seems preposterous that a voice so delicate and otherworldly could come from a human being in this packaging, but why not? Native Hawaiian Israel ("Iz") Kamakawiwoʻole brings a sense of wonder to his creative mashup of these two classic favorites with the steady, buoyant strumming of his tiny ukulele and his mesmerizing vocal lilt.
The decision to record this song was a last minute one, and it profoundly changed both his life and legacy. Iz's version was used in several films, television programs, and tv commercials ranging from those for deodorant to cars, soap to cereal.
The tune begins with his stunning rendition of Judy Garland's "Over the Rainbow," then it melts seamlessly into "What a Wonderful World," made famous in 1967 by jazz great Louis Armstrong. You'd never know they were two separate songs written almost three decades apart. His more up-tempo approach than Judy Garland creates more optimism. (I've always thought this version would make a terrific, albeit unconventional, song for a funeral or memorial service.) Then, towards the final few lines in the song, Iz artfully returns full circle to "Over the Rainbow."
You may notice the video features distribution of Iz's ashes in the ocean. Weighing over 757 pounds at his heaviest and about 500 pounds at his death, he died of obesity-related causes in 1997 at age 38.
3. "Over the Rainbow" by Frank Sinatra (1944)
Man, Ol' Blue Eyes shows off his voice of velvet here. He wasn't even 30 years old yet in this recording. Backed by singers and an orchestra that sound like they're straight outta Disney's Bambi movie, Mr. Sinatra promotes this song to a work of art with his smooth voice that floats through several lines of extra lyrics in the middle. Although he didn't creatively reimagine the song like the first two contenders, his vocals are impeccable. Classy. Top-notch. They don't make 'em like this anymore.
4."Over the Rainbow" by Jewel (2009)
Jewel begins this rendition of "Over the Rainbow" with a near whisper, and she generously affords listeners the bonus of a little-known introduction that Judy Garland sang only once in public. Did you know this little prelude existed?
When all the world is a hopeless jumble,
And the raindrops tumble all around,
Heaven opens a magic lane,
When all the clouds darken up the skyway
There's a rainbow highway to be found,
Leading from your window pane.
To a place behind the sun, just a step beyond the rain.
Part of a collection of children's lullabies, Jewel's cover is enchanting in its emotional authenticity. Additionally, unimpeded by heavy music, this version allows Jewel's pristine voice to tiptoe, twirl, and flutter its way acrobatically through the lyrics. (She was raised by a yodeller then operatically trained in college, thus vocal acrobatics are her forte.)
Jewel's contribution is extremely strong and should remind the listener that this was an artist who was Grammy-nominated in two other genres. She's an expert, not a one-trick pony, and this is among her best work.
5. "Over the Rainbow" by Pink (2014)
Pink followed in Jewel's footsteps and included the rarely sung introduction to "Over the Rainbow" when she performed the classic tune at the 2014 Academy Awards. It was the 75th anniversary celebration of the Wizard of Oz movie's release, and among those in attendance were Judy Garland's children, including daughter Liza Minelli.
The singer captivated her audience her raspy vocals and her emotional performance. Her voice was full of gusto, and at points, it simply soared. There was no question that Pink was imaging what the lyrics meant within context of her own dreams. Then she went in for the big ending, an effort that was divine and deserving of the standing ovation she received.
6. "Over the Rainbow" by Eric Clapton (2001)
Whereas some renditions of "Over the Rainbow" are melancholy, this one is not. It's something you can sway to, a smoky, laid-back R&B rendition heavy on hope and recorded live in concert. Clapton is chillin' with his guitar doing what he does best. (And if you look closely, you'll notice he's wearing tennis shoes. Only a man of a certain age who has stopped giving a flying f*ck about what people think does that, and you have to respect him for that.) The man, the voice, the legend.
7. "Over the Rainbow" by Patti LaBelle & The Bluebells (1966)
Although she waited until 1977 to launch her solo career, lead singer Patti LaBelle makes it clear in this song that she does not need back up, thank you. The woman has some powerful pipes, and she uses them here to add hurt to this slow rendition of "Over the Rainbow." The only negative thing is the ineffective doo-wop sing-song effect added by her back-up singers. If anything, it accentuates LaBelle's exceptional vocal talent.
8. "Over the Rainbow" by Trisha Yearwood (2018)
Country star Trisha Yearwood brings in an orchestra to back her up and does yeoman's work in replicating the classic song. But while her rendition is pleasant enough she plays it safe and does not take chances vocally beyond belting out the line, "Somewhere over the rainbow." Yearwood sidesteps the opportunity to reimagine this song with a fresh approach like some other singers, thus I found her contribution to lack creativity and compelling emotional depth in comparison to higher ranked contenders. Sorry, Trish.
9. "Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" by Cliff Richard (2001)
They say imitation is the highest form of flattery. The same artist who brought us the 1976 pop hit "Devil Woman" offers this positive, uplifting, cover of Judy Garland's original. In it, he channels Iz's spirit, minus the ukelele, and offers a rock version of Israel Kamakawiwoʻole's blending of "Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World." Although I wish Richard offered something different vocally than simply trying to imitate another musician's sound, his voice floated effortlessly through the song, and I liked the rock instrumentals.
10. "Over the Rainbow" by Katharine McPhee (2006)
At least she wasn't a one-hit wonder. Katharine McPhee was the runner-up on the fifth season of American Idol, and her 2006 cover of "Over the Rainbow" peaked at #12 on the Billboard Hot 100, followed the next year by "Over It." After several years of not having any other hits on the Billboard Hot 100, she turned her attention to acting and Broadway. (I believe her talent is well placed there.)
McPhee's rendition of "Over the Rainbow" performed well on the chart, but rather than a genuine attempt to convey an emotional experience, it was instead an exercise in vocal gymnastics. Granted, while she's particularly good at hitting her marks when it comes to those high notes, McPhee seems to be going through the mere motions. Vocally, she seems to be saying, "Look what I can do!" and relies entirely upon too much vibrato. Her version lacks the ability to truly connect, and I found it fairly standard.
11. "Over the Rainbow" by Pentatonix (2017)
When they started off with "do do do do," I was already thinking "no no no no." Since they burst on the scene in 2011 as winners of NBC's The Sing-Off, Pentatonix has us so spoiled with their unbelievable a capella renditions of popular songs that when they produce one that's just average, it's a bitter disappointment. This cover lacks their usual spark, and particularly later in the song, it becomes clear that there are too many people involved in this venture.
12 "Over the Rainbow" by The Geezinslaws (1990)
I promise this is different from any version you've ever heard. If you want a creative interpretation of "Over the Rainbow," here it is by Austin, Texas-based country music comedy duo The Geezinslaws. They performed together for over five decades.
Some might say they slaughtered the song. I say if you enjoy bluegrass-tinged country music then you'll appreciate this as a wildly reimagined cover that Judy Garland would have never suspected (as if she'd have expected a ginormous Hawaiian guy with a ukelele to cover it.) Their cover has a "hoedown" style contagious beat. Even if this is not your style of music, something is wrong with you if you're not toe-tapping by the end of the song. Pass the cornbread and give it a listen, even if it's just for the shock value.
13. "Over the Rainbow" by The Demensions (1960)
The Dimensions reinvented "Over the Rainbow" as a doo-wop song. It was their highest charted single, rising to #16 on the Billboard Hot 100. Because they had no other songs that hit the Billboard Hot 100, consider them one-hit wonders.
I found that the doo-wop ditty concept of this song worked better than its reality. The members of the quartet sang over one another, so it was difficult to clearly understand some of their words at times even though I knew the lyrics. Also, the song seemed to drag, and it acquired an unappealing "sing song" quality. Although the listener gets the point within the first minute of the song, it was worth a listen.
14. "Over the Rainbow" by Rufus Wainwright
This rendition is so heavy on the hurt that it's hard to listen to. Rufus sings like he has a killer migraine. (Do you notice him holding his head and stroking his face in a self-comforting manner?)
He draws out his lyrics dramatically—I didn't say effectively, just dramatically—and he fails to enunciate his words. You would have to be a die-hard fan to savor this offering. Playing it on repeat might make a good albeit unusual form of punishment for uncooperative prisoners. They'd say "uncle" pretty quickly. Don't punish yourself by listening to this song to intensely.
Readers Weigh In
Reader Poll: Your Favorite Cover Version
So which CONTENDER do YOU think sang it best?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
How are contender songs selected? I was wondering why this famous Australian rock star, Billy Thorpe (now deceased) did not make the list?
"Who Sang It Best?" is a series, and for each song I present the original song plus 14 who also recorded the song (I call these artists "contenders"). There is no scientific process for selecting contenders. Indeed, there are sometimes hundreds of artists who have recorded a song. Thus, I try to select some of the most popular versions and a few by popular artists that didn't seem to garner a lot of attention. Also, I try to represent multiple genres (rock, country, pop, and sometimes even metal artists), and sometimes I'll include an especially surprising version, either good or bad. In all of this, I guess Billy Thorpe just didn't come up for this song. I try to allow an "Other" option for the contender vote and encourage comments in the Comments Section so that readers can surface other versions they like. I'm including the link to Thorpe's rendition for those who want to listen. https://youtu.be/m62gip2biWsHelpful 3
© 2019 FlourishAnyway