The Don Covay Story - Billy Vera August 1994
Don Covay story
Talk about your cult figures. This is a guy who the public knows almost nothing about, yet he has been worshiped and lionized by rock 'n' roll musicians on both sides of the Atlantic for decades.
Known primarily as a facile and prolific songwriter-his tunes have been recorded by artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to Bonnie Raitt, from Lena Horne to Fabian-Don Covey was also an influential singer and performer.
Some of Don's more successful songs include "Pony Time," Chubby Checker; "Letter Full Of Tears," Gladys Knight & The Pips; "You Can Run (But You Can't Hide)," Jerry Butler; "Long Tall Shorty," Tommy Tucker, the Kinks; "The Continenta Walk," Hank Ballard & the Midnighters; and "Three Time Loser," Wilson Pickett. Pop performers (like the Small Faces with Rod Stewart, Robert Palmer, Phoebe Snow, Dave Edmunds, Paul Young, Steppenwolf, Peter Wolf, Connie Francis and the Spencer Davis Group) and R&B artists (like Otis Redding, Etta James, Bobby Womack, Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Randy Crawford and Little Richard) all benefitted from Don Covay's extraordinary songcraft.
It is no secret that Mick Jagger has sipped at the font of the Don. With the Rolling Stones, Mick cut a version of Don's "Mercy Mercy," a year after the version heard here, on the Stones'album "Out Of Our Heads." Jagger's style and phrasing throughout his career can be traced to that of Covay's, making the latter's singing style far more familiar to the world at large than either his voice or his name.
Born the son of a Baptist minister in Orangeburg, South Carolina in March of 1938, Don moved with his mother, his seven brothers and his sister to Washington, D.C. in the early fifties. While performing with the family gospel group, the Cherry Keys, he discovered the joys of the devil's music at places like the Howard Theater, D.C.'s stop on the "Chitlin' Circuit"-that route of Eastern Seaboard theaters both loved and despised by generations of travelling black vaudeville acts.
Ever since Duke Ellington, numerous important black entertainers have called Washington D.C. home. In the fifties and sixties, the Clovers, Billy Stewart and Marvin Gaye all came from D.C.
Additionally, New Orleans' Lloyd Price and Chicago's Bo Diddley each moved there for a time at certain points in their respective careers. There were, too, dozens of obscure acts who made one or two records through the efforts of record store owners like Max Silverman (Waxie Maxie) of Quality Records or Lilian Claiborne. Acts like Frank Motley & his Crew, T.N.T. Tribble, the Heartbreakers and the Topps never played at the White House, but were local favorites.
In 1953, the city's Lincoln Heights gave birth to a new vocal group, one of many to form in the wake of the success of Washington's Clovers and sister city Baltimore's Orioles. They called themselves the Rainbows. By 1955, the group released the minor doo-wop classic, "Mary Lee," for Harlem record shop owner Bobby Robinson's Red Robin label. The record was re-released a year later on Pilgrim and saw some regional action.
Like so many teenage groups whose memberships were in constant flux, after "Mary Lee" the Rainbows lost all of its members except lead singer Ronald Miles and lead songwriter John Berry. Berry then recruited Chester Simmons and young Don Covay for the group. These four recorded "Shirley" for Pilgrim and "Minnie" for Rama. Both recordings flopped, despite local airplay, courtesy of their manager Washington disc jockey Jay Ferry who hosted a show on WOL. Don recalled, "Ferry was one of the first 'ofay' DJs to play soul music and he had a hell of a following."
Billy Stewart and Marvin Gaye occasionally filled in for absent Rainbows on live gigs, giving rise to rumors that they recorded with the group. Actually, Simmons, James Nolan (another former Rainbow) and Gaye became members of the Marquees, a group produced for OKeh by Bo Diddley, where they backed Stewart and had one release of their own. With the addition of the Dolls' Chuck Barksdale, the Marquees became the new Moonglows, backing Harvey Fuqua. Fuqua took Marvin Gaye to Detroit, where they each married one of Berry Gordy's sisters, which turned out to be a couple of good career moves.
Meanwhile, Covay had seen Little Richard in person and had an epiphany. "Little Richard represented what I wanted to be. He was, and still is, my idol," said Don in later years, "He was a $15,000 a night act!" Don managed to get a job as Richard's chauffeur, doing double duty as his opening act. This led to his first solo recording, backed by Richard's band, the Upsetters, for Atlantic. Don had copied Richard's high, processed pompadour, which led Richard to give Covay the moniker "Pretty Boy"-a misnomer if there ever was one. "Bip Bop Bip," one of the great overlooked-at-the-time rockers, came and went without causing a stir in July 1957.
Next stop was Juggy Murray's Sue label, where he cut one single as Don Covay (written under his real name, Donald Randolph), then to Big Records for another record as Pretty Boy. The business at large saw Don's talent and gave him chance after chance, but nothing seemed to click with the public-yet.
Don began writing songs with his old pal from the Rainbows, John Berry. Together, they came up with a tune based on the old Hank Ballard & the Midnighters "Sexy Ways," a dance song called "Pony Time." A Philadelphia label named Arnold put it out under Don's name and it made enough noise to be noticed by the powers at Cameo/ Parkway, who proceeded to cover the tune with their more famous (and more telegenic) artist, Chubby Checker. As he had done with his cover of Hank Ballard's "The Twist," thanks to Dick Clark and American Bandstand, Chubby took "Pony Time" to number one on both the pop and R&B charts in February of 1962. At BMI royalty statement time, Covay and Berry quickly learned that the real money in the music business was in songwriting.
Another Philly act quickly latched on to Covay-Berry gems. Fabian recorded their "Hold On" and "Tongue Tied" on Chancellor. Still, various labels kept taking shots with Don as an artist. Big Top released "I'm Coming Down With The Blues," but Don was becoming better-known as a songwriter than as a singer. Yet, Don still had eyes to become a star.
Then, after years of Mitch Miller's anti rock'n'roll reign of terror, Columbia decided to go into the rock'n'roll business. They signed Dion and Don Covay. Dion, of course, hit big with "Ruby Baby" and "Donna, The Prima Donna," while Cove failed to score. The failure of Don's three Columbia releases says more about the company's inability to promote R&B than about the quality of the records, as a listen to the sides here will confirm. Frank Loesser's "(Where Are You) Now That I Need You" (previously recorded on the Rainbows' old label, Red Robin, by the Mello-Moods) is a nice slice of the retro doo-wop so popular in 1961, the era of the first "oldies" revival. "See About Me" is a Ben E. King-styled item, complete with faux Leiber & Stoner production.
Back in Philadelphia, Don signed with Cameo/ Parkway for a series of singles, one of which, "Popeye Waddle," a variation on the 1962 New Orleans dance craze, made it to #75. More hits to Covay as a writer piled up: Jerry Butler's "You Can Run (But You Can't Hide)," Gladys Knight & the Pips'"Letter Full Of Tears" and the ever-popular "Mr. Twister" by Connie Francis.
In 1964, Don's old boss, Little Richard, cut "l Don't Know What You've Got But It's Got Me," with guitar licks courtesy of a fledgling Jimi Hendrix, then a member of Richard's Upsetters. Around this time, Don also wrote, with Wilson Pickett, the Wicked One's first Atlantic side, "I'm Gonna Cry," which features another great, but lesser known guitar player, the amazing master of tremolo and former Ohio Untouchable, Robert Ward-who has been recently rediscovered and recorded by Black Top Records.
Around this time, Don started doing demos at A-1 Studio on Broadway, owned and operated by Herb Abramson, one of the founders of Atlantic Records. Herb says, "Don and I co-wrote 'Long Tall Shorty' as a follow-up to Tommy Tucker's 'High Heel Sneakers,' both of which I produced. 'Long Tall Shorty' is still one of the most active songs in my catalog' thanks to the constant reissuing of the Kinks record."
WWRL disc jockey the Magnificent Montague, backed the session at A-1 which produced Covay's first major hit as an artist, "Mercy Mercy." The record came out on Montague's Rosemart label, named after his wife, Rose, and his son, Martin. Rosemart was picked up for distribution by Atlantic and, after the second record, "Take This Hurt Off Me," the artist was absorbed into the main label where he was to begin his most prolific period. Montague moved on to Los Angeles, where he became infamous as the originator of the phrase, "Burn, Baby, Burn," the rallying cry of the 1965 Watts Riots.
"Mercy Mercy" was one of those magical records that turned both musicians and the masses on their ears. It was R&B; it was soul and it was rock'n'roll, too. It was a guitar band's idea of the New Orleans piano-driven rhythm of the line. The 1964 New York World's Fair had brought Joe Jones's Crescent City band to one of the pavilions and, as I recall, those guys had all the club musicians in town talking. The way the bass player (somebody named "Preacher") and the drummer (Charles "Honeyman" Otis) had the beat turned around from the way most musicians were used to playing, it was simply the dawn of a new era.
Chart positions can be misleading. there are many factors-not the least of which is payola- used in determining them. In 1964, the relative popularity of black records was even more difficult to determine because Billboard magazine had discontinued its R&B chart. Who knows how "Mercy Mercy" might have gone had there been a R&B chart at the time? As it was, all we have to go by is the pop chart, where it reached #35. By comparison, in 1965, after Billboard had reinstate their R&B chart, Don's 'See Saw" reached #5 R&B with a mere #44 Pop showing.
At this point in the history of Atlantic Records there were two camps. Ahmet Ertegun had seen the writing on the wall and began to sign a number of the white acts-which would turn the Company into a major label. Jerry Wexler, on the other hand continued to record the majority of the label's black artists. Wexler had begun to record outside of New York in places like Memphis. Wexler: "I think dry-rot set in. The arrangers were out of ideas, the players were out of licks. Our ears had become dull and we were making the same record.''
Like all of Atlantic's R&B artists of the period, Covay was dispatched to the favored studio of the moment. First it was Stax, then Chips Moman's American Sound (both in Memphis). Then it was Rick Hall's Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals; when Hall's staff became dissatisfied with his pay structure, Wexler bankrolled the band in their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound.
At Stax, artists had the additional luxury of co-writers like Steve Cropper, who assisted on "See Saw" and "Sookie Sookie," or Booker T. Jones and Eddie Floyd, who, with Cropper, wrote "Iron Out The Rough Spots." Don's work in the Memphis and Muscle Shoals studios had that little something extra which set him apart from other soul artists of the day, something which qualified him as a rock'n'roll, as much as an R&B performer. I have always felt that, until The Band came along, these were the last authentic rock'n'roll, as opposed to 'rock," recordings.
During his Atlantic period, Don continued to get tunes cut by other artists, notably "Watch Dog" and "I'm Gonna Take What He's Got" by Etta James and "Think About It" and 'demonstration" by Otis Redding. His biggest songwriting successes were with a pair of top-tenners by Aretha Franklin, her remake of ''See Saw" and a fifteen-year-old song Don had submitted to Wexler for the Sweet Inspirations, "Chain Of Fools.'' Jerry says, "I crossed him up on that one... and fattened his wallet in the process."
But Covay's own recording career had reached an impasse, so he began taking what seems now like desperate measures. First, he organized the Soul Clan, a one-off "group" of Atlantic stars including Solomon Burke, Arthur Conley, Ben E. King, Joe Tex and himself for a minor chart maker called "Soul Meeting." Again Wexler "He put that one together so he could be in it."Another ill-conceived attempt was the Jefferson Lemon Blues Band, which featured former Shirelles guitarist Joe Richardson and John Hammond, a favorite of the Greenwich Village coffee house folk/blues crowd. The album, recorded at Herb Abramson's A-1 Studio, was aimed at what was then called the "Underground" audience. In 1970, Atlantic's brand of Southern soul was beginning to dry up as well. Jerry Wexler had set up shop and residence in Miami, along with the company's master engineer, Tom Dowd. Meanwhile, bands like Led Zeppelin and Crosby, Stills & Nash were turning Atlantic into a different animal. In two years, the Spinners, as dished up with the lush arrangements of Thom Bell's Philly Sound, would forever change the premier soul label. In 1972, Don left Atlantic and cut a critically acclaimed album for Janus which failed to sell. A year later he took a job at Mercury as an A&R man, with the freedom to make his own records as he desired. Running counter to the current soul trends, he made two masterful and unique albums, "Superdude" and "Hot Blood." One single,"Overtime Man," a take-off on Betty Wright's "Clean-up Woman," didn't meet its sales expectations.
I remember in the summer of 1973, driving in my car and hearing "I Was Checkin' Out While She Was Checkin' In" and, not recognizing the artist, I thought I was hearing the best record The Rolling Stones had ever made. At the end, when the jock announced it was Covay, I was overjoyed, thinking my hero had just made the record of the year. It reached #6 R&B and #29 Pop, a respectable showing but hardly the Grammy-winner it deserved to be. In 1974 "It's Better To Have (And Don't Need)" copped the same gospel quartet feel as Paul Simon's hit, "Love Me Like A Rock," but minus the huge pop success. This must have brought Don back to his youth, when he sang gospel with his brothers John and Sammy and his brother-in-law Julius in the Cherry Keys.
After Mercury, it was back to Philadelphia, where Covay joined forces with Gamble & Huff, at their Philadelphia International label for one album, "Travelin' In Heavy Traffic," which contained the single "No Tell Motel." The album did not sell and, except for a couple of small label items, not much has been heard from Covey since.
In 1993, Joe Ferry and Jon Tiven produced a tribute album of various artists doing versions of Covay tunes. Also, the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, honored Don Covay with one of its prestigious Pioneer Awards. Unlike most "prestigious" awards, this one comes with a nice, healthy check. Sadly, a combination of a recent stroke and a New York blizzard kept the Don away from the night's festivities.
Don Covay's songs continue to be sung, played and recorded. His records are still played by musicians, turning their friends on to yet another unheard Covay gem, and now some of the best of Don's output has finally seen the laser light of CD.