Don Covay and the Goodtimers, "Mercy, Mercy" (1964)
The Isley Brothers' West Coast trek in the spring of 1964 brought Hendrix through his hometown of Seattle, where he reconnected with an old girlfriend. The rendezvous likely played a role in his decision to spend the night in the city, with promises to meet up with his bandmates in the next town on their itinerary. "We said OK because we thought he knew where the next gig was," remembered Ron Isley in Becoming Hendrix. "He didn't show up, and we didn't see him until a week later in New York. His guitar had been stolen." In the confusion Hendrix returned to his Gotham apartment, where he ran into a nightclub singer named George "King" Clemons. The pair was friendly, and Clemons asked the guitarist if he wanted a job recording a song with R&B titan Don Covay. "Jimi and I used to live in the same apartment building – around 81st," Clemons later told author Steven Roby. "Don Covay came around shopping for a record deal. He used to go down to the Harlem clubs looking for somebody to use … on songs he was looking to sell to Atlantic [Records]. He'd say, 'I got this tune I want you to help me with, come on down to the studio.'" On May 18th they entered A-1 Sound Studios to cut a song called "Mercy, Mercy." The future soul classic would ultimately reach Number 35, giving Hendrix his first appearance in the upper echelons of the Billboard chart.
Although he would later describe "Mercy, Mercy" somewhat dismissively as a "very straight Top-40 R&B rock 'n' roll record," he maintained a fondness for the tune, performing it during his stints with Curtis Knight and the Squires, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, and even an early tour of France with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Perhaps more crucially, it earned him an audience with Stax session guitarist Steve Cropper later that autumn. Hendrix made a point of dropping in on him at the Memphis studios – clearly hoping for a chance to record – and ended up flagging him down as he stepped out for lunch. "I found him at the soul restaurant eating all this stuff right across from the studio in Memphis," Hendrix told Rolling Stone in 1968. "I got into the studio and said, 'Hey man, dig, I heard you're all right; that anyone can come down here if they've got a song.' ... He showed me how to play certain songs and I showed him how I played 'Mercy, Mercy.'" The mere mention of the song was enough to break the ice. "That about knocked me to my knees ... because that was one of my favorite records at the time," Cropper says in Becoming Hendrix. "I hadn't worked with Don yet, but I asked Jimi to show me that great lick he played. So after we finished eating I took him over to Stax. We didn't have the tape running, but Jimi took my guitar and started playing that sucker upside down. I laughed and told him, 'I can't learn that lick by looking at it that way!'" Cropper recorded an instrumental version with Booker T. & the M.G.'s the following year.