I always thought it was odd that David Bowie chose to put a non-original song in the middle of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars - which served not only as his statement of artistic purpose but was a storytelling concept album to boot. Not the most propitious place for a cover, you'd think. Plus, the song in question, "It Ain't Easy," is quite possibly - depending upon how you feel about "Rock 'n Roll Suicide" - the worst track on the record.
But what makes it even odder is where Bowie got the song from. It was originally done by a gentleman named Ron Davies on his 1970 album Silent Song Through the Land. Davies' work sounds unexceptional to me, just another acoustic troubadour of the early 1970s, but he was able to get Leon Russell to play on that record, and at the time, Leon Russell was big bananas indeed. Bowie then cut the song in September 1971, as the first one done for Ziggy Stardust (which also seems strange, doesn't it? Maybe the concept didn't emerge till later).
But Bowie wasn't the first one to get to the song. I can't find a release date for the Davies album, but "It Ain't Easy" appeared very quickly on the album of the same name by Three Dog Night in April 1970. The following year, Long John Baldry, who was best known for giving Elton John his start in his band Bluesology, also made Davies' song the title track of his own album. (Has any other non-holiday song served as the title track for two different artists' albums? I can't think of any). One side of Baldry's It Ain't Easy was produced by Elton John, and the other side was produced by Rod Stewart. I wouldn't make this up.
So where did Bowie hear the song? It's tempting to say he got it from Baldry, who was very well-known in England. The album also contained Baldry's only American hit, "Don't Try to Lay No Boogie-Woogie on the King of Rock and Roll." I can't pinpoint a release date for Baldry's record, but one source says it was a hit throughout the summer of '71, leaving plenty of time for Bowie to record the song that September.
So Bowie may have gotten it from Baldry, but Baldry probably got it from Three Dog Night. It's hard to overstate how big 3DN was in 1971; they had had seven Top Ten hits from 1969-71, and two Number Ones. It Ain't Easy had the Number One "Mama Told Me Not to Come," as well as the gorgeous "Out in the Country," which somehow peaked at only Number Fifteen. (R.E.M. would later cut a version as the B-side of "Bad Day.")
Three Dog Night is somewhat out of fashion now, in part because they famously didn't write any of their hits. But this is what they did: they found great unknown songs, often by then-obscure writers like Randy Newman and John Hiatt and Laura Nyro. And by writers who remained obscure, like Ron Davies.