Justin Timberlake’s ‘Hallelujah’: The Story Behind The Cover

Leonard Cohen's 1984 song, covered at the 'Hope for Haiti Now' telethon, has been recorded by nearly 200 performers.

With [artist id="1231683"]Justin Timberlake[/artist] and Matt Morris’ moving performance of “Hallelujah” during MTV’s “Hope for Haiti Now: A Global Benefit for Hurricane Relief” on Friday (January 22), the duo joined the ranks of nearly 200 performers who have recorded the melancholy ballad.

Written by singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen and released on his 1984 studio album Various Positions, the song reportedly took a year to write and includes 80 available verses and at least two wholly original renditions. The song contains several biblical references, including allusions to Samson and Delilah and King David and Bathsheba, heightening the song’s hymn-like quality.

The first notable cover came courtesy of Welsh singer/songwriter John Cale in 1991, whose stripped-down rendition appeared on the 1991 Leonard Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan as well as Cale’s live album Fragments of a Rainy Season, released in 1992.

In 1994, Jeff Buckley released arguably the most famous cover of the song on his album Grace. Three years later, the 30-year-old singer drowned in Memphis, Tennessee, giving his cover an eerie resonance.

Nearly 200 additional covers have been recorded by artists as diverse as k.d. lang, Bob Dylan and Rufus Wainwright, whose version was included on the “Shrek” soundtrack, though it was Cale’s rendition that was used in the film. Cale’s version was also included in an episode of “Scrubs,” while Buckley’s accompanied episodes of “The West Wing” and “The O.C.”

In 2008, “American Idol” contestant Jason Castro performed the song on the competition series, earning accolades from notoriously fickle judge Simon Cowell, who called his performance “absolutely brilliant.” The performance helped Buckley score a posthumous hit on the Billboard Hot Digital Songs chart. Later that same year, Buckley’s version along with “X Factor” winner Alexandra Burke’s version held the top two spots on the U.K.’s singles chart. Rolling Stone ranked the song 259th on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Cohen, now 75, told Canadian broadcaster CBC in 2009 that he found the sheer number of “Hallelujah” covers ironic, seeing as Sony would not release its album Various Positions. “They didn’t think [Various Positions] was good enough,” he recalled. “It had songs like ‘Dance Me to the End of Love,’ ‘Hallelujah,’ ‘If It Be Your Will.’ So there was a mild sense of revenge that arose in my heart.”

Learn more about what you can do to help with earthquake-relief efforts in Haiti , and for more information, see Think MTV. Visit HopeForHaitiNow.org or call (877) 99-HAITI to make a donation now.

iTunes customers can exclusively pre-order the “Hope for Haiti Now” full-performance album ($7.99) and the full two-hour video telecast ($1.99). Pre-orders will be delivered in the days following the telethon. Individual audio performances will also be available for purchase and download for 99 cents each in the days following the telethon. Apple, the record labels and the artists will donate their share of the proceeds to Haiti relief funds managed by “Hope for Haiti Now” charities, including the Red Cross and Wyclef’s Yele Haiti foundation. Performances will also be available for purchase in the days following the event through Amazon’s MP3 service and Rhapsody, through distribution provided by INgrooves.