New Music for Old People: Celebrating the Musical Life of Singer-Songwriter-Producer Don Covay (1936-2015)

By , Columnist

Donald James Randolph was born in Orangeburg, South Carolina on March 24, 1936. He passed away on January 31, 2015 at the age of 78. Under the stage name of Don Covay he blazed a trail through the R&B world starting in the '50s as a warm-up singer for Little Richard’s live shows. Little Richard got him a record deal and produced a single for him in 1957 called "Bip Bop Bip" which was released on Atlantic records under the pseudonym Pretty Boy.

His first successes were as a songwriter. In 1961 Chubby Checker had a #1 record with Covay’s composition "Pony Time" followed up in ‘62 by the Covay composition "Letter Full of Tears" which broke the group Gladys Knight & The Pips. After attempts at solo recording on a plethora of labels, including Columbia, Sue, Epic, RCA and Parkway, he had a bona fide hit on a small label called Rosemart in 1964 called "Mercy, Mercy" by Don Covay and The Goodtimers (including a young Jimi Hendrix on guitar). It peaked at #35 on the Billboard Hot 100. Thus began his influential solo career. The Rolling Stones covered this track on their third album. Here’s a short list of smart folks who covered Covay songs in this time period: Little Richard, Etta James, Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler, Tommy Tucker, Hank Ballard, and Wilson Picket. Whew!

Atlantic Records bought his record contract and sent him to Memphis to record with the Stax crew (i.e. Booker T & The MGs) where he scored two self-written dance hits in 1965, "See Saw" (later covered by Aretha) and "Sookie Sookie" (later covered by Steppenwolf). Aretha covered "Chain of Fools," resulting in a top ten smash all across the board in 1967. A few influential solo albums followed, and some amazing tracks were recorded under producer/keyboardist Barry Beckett’s supervision at Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama. I have assembled ten of my all-time faves here in memory of one of the pioneers in the pantheon of ‘60s R&B music.

RIP, Don Covay...

Feb202015 by Lisa67 on Grooveshark

1. "Mercy Mercy" — Don Covay & The Goodtimers (2:25)

This was the breakthrough track that started the ball rolling. On these first three tracks, I believe one can hear a young James Marshall Hendrix on guitar graduating from the School of Hard Knox. When Brian Jones figured out these guitar parts, he hadn’t yet discovered the compleat Jimi.

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2. "Saviour Pass Me Not/Can't Stay Away" — Swan Silvertones/Don Covay and The Goodtimers (3:21)

Don’s dad was a minister in South Carolina and that must be where he digested the Swan Silvertones. They are my all-time top gospel aggregation and when I heard this Covay tune, I knew immediately where the opening and closing came from. I have taken the liberty of starting this track with an excerpt of the Swans that got ‘borrowed’ by Don in his tribute to his musical beginnings. Please understand I am not criticizing here as I have done the same or worse in my career and understand what ‘tribute’ is all about. Don’s track has great piano-playing that sounds like New York studio stalwart Paul Griffin to my ears.

3. "Take This Hurt Off Me" — Don Covay & The Goodtimers (2:28)

This was the followup to "Mercy Mercy" and it's a worthy one. Covay kept the soprano vocal asides originated by the Swan Silvertones' Rev. Claude Jeter intact on this track. In fact, they remained a signature sound on Covay’s records throughout his long career. Sounds like Hendrix is getting better on this one as well. I think these two singles influenced many white R&B bands, especially The Stones and Steppenwolf, and that more than a handful of these ‘students’ had Covay at the core. The first album Mercy in many ways is like a textbook in the freshman year of the Covay class.

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4. "I Was Checkin' Out (She Was Checkin' In)" — Don Covay (3:02)

Chronologically, this speeds ahead to the aforementioned Muscle Shoals sessions where Don is backed by the Swampers and arranged by the late, great keyboardist/arranger Barry Beckett. This is a great lyric and tells a fascinating tale about an evening's events at The Hideaway Motor Inn. Don is in great form and the Swampers are supreme.

5. "I Stayed Away Too Long" — Don Covay (2:41)

Locked in a great upbeat groove, this is another notch in the Shoals sessions. Guitars and keyboards are playing great figures while Don recounts an incident that happened to a married man who enlisted in the Vietnam war and came home to a busted marriage.

6. "Memphis" — Don Covay (2:54)

For MY taste, this the jewel in the crown of the Alabama sessions. The arrangement for this Chuck Berry staple is totally Kingston, Jamaica and executed by southern white men as if they grew up in Trenchtown. This is why Jerry Wexler brought Aretha, Wilson Pickett, and so many others to this groove haven in the middle of nowhere. Don’s vocal is superb and his ad libs always put a smile on my face. He must have LOVED this.

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7. "Why'd Ya Put Your Shoes Under My Bed" — Don Covay (2:57)

Another rhythmical upbeat number with the band almost pushin’ Don out the door. This is great.

8. "Somebody Been Enjoyin' My Home" — Don Covay (3:20)

A rare non-Don composition here — but a typical Covay theme. I can see why he related enough to record it. This is later period, i.e. the '80s.

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9. "Money (That's What I Want)" — Don Covay (1:55)

The oft-recorded Barrett Strong chestnut never quite sounded like THIS. It gets totally Covayed. I made up a word!

10. "Chain of Fools" — R.L. Burnside (3:05)

I put this in as it is my favorite version of songwriter Don’s big hit with Aretha. This is like Roebuck Staples with a really loud Marshall amplifier. I could listen to this all night ... and I often do.

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Legendary musician (Bob Dylan, Blues Project, Super Session, Blood Sweat & Tears), producer (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Nils Lofgren, The Tubes) and author (Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards), Al is happy to join the staff of The Morton Report in an effort to help his fellow listeners stay in tune!

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