Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is the 9th most covered song, according to Mental Floss. In 2009, Cohen even expressed the opinion that the song might have been covered too many times and used in too many movies and television shows.
While Cohen came to terms with the song’s exposure, it is worth noting that, were it not for two covers, the song might be barely known. Cohen first released Hallelujah on the LP Various Positions (1984). Neither the song nor the album made much impact. It took the covers by John Cale (1991) and Jeff Buckley (1994) to cement the song’s reputation.
The above video was recorded live at MTV Japan, Tokyo, in January 1995. While inspired by John Cale’s cover, Buckley’s reading is significantly more sorrowful. As Wikipedia notes, Buckley’s version, which appeared on his album Grace, “has been called ‘Buckley’s best’ and ‘one of the great songs’ by Time, and is included on Happy Mag’s list of “The 10 Best Covers Of All Time” and Rolling Stone’s list of ‘The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time'”.
Jeff Buckley was the son of the cult folk and jazz singer-songwriter Tim Buckley, who died of an accidental overdose at the age of 28. Buckley’s mother was classically trained (piano & cello) and his stepfather introduced him to rock when he was a toddler. After high school, Buckley played an eclectic mix of music at various small venues to little notice until he started playing regular gigs at Sin-é, Manhattan, NY, in 1992. 26-year-old Buckley signed a deal with Columbia in October 1992.
The above song, Grace, is the title track of Buckley’s critically acclaimed debut album (1994). Initially, the sales of Grace were paltry and the songs were barely played on the radio, despite the album receiving praise from Bob Dylan and David Bowie. Buckley and his band embarked on a series of lengthy tours to promote the album, including tours across the US, Canada, Europe and Japan. His popularity grew organically.
In 1996, Buckley started working on his second album. On the evening of 29 May 1997, while in Memphis for a recording session, Buckley took a swim in a channel off the Mississippi river. He was caught up in the wake of a tugboat and drowned. The autopsy showed zero traces of drugs or alcohol, and his death was declared an accidental drowning. He was 30 years old.
Following his death, Jeff Buckley’s reputation has been burnished by a number of posthumous releases.
In 2004, commenting on Buckley’s reading of Hallelujah, Time Magazine suggested that, “Buckley treated the … song like a tiny capsule of humanity, using his voice to careen between glory and sadness, beauty and pain … It’s one of the great songs.” Whereas, Leonard Cohen, sang his song like a dirge.