From “Mercy, Mercy” to “Chain of Fools,” Don Covay wrote some of R&B’s most powerful songs. Peter Wolf became a fan during his musically formative years and has continually paid tribute to Covay (who passed away January 31st) in his work with the J. Geils Band and during his solo career. In this exclusive remembrance, Wolf shares his fondest memories of Covay’s greatest work and unforgettable personality.
I attended high school in Harlem and I would go to the Apollo Theater once a week where I saw such greats as Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Joe Tex and Wilson Pickett. It was my college of musical knowledge. Like all artists, they were constantly on the search for new songs, and Don Covay had this reputation among them as an incredible writer. His songs were primal, street primal, they had an honesty about them – “Mercy, Mercy,” “Chain of Fools,” “See Saw,” “Sookie Sookie,” “Letter Full Of Tears” and “I Don’t Know What You Got, But It Sure Got Me.”
Don, along with most of the soul greats, grew up in the church. His father was a minister in South Carolina. In the late 1950s, Don got his start with a doo-wop group, The Rainbows, and later started working with Little Richard who nicknamed him “Pretty Boy.” Don would open up Richard’s shows and act as his assistant. He was known around the circuit and started establishing himself as a writer, like Bobby Womack did with Wilson Pickett.
Don used Richard’s band, the Upsetters, on his early recordings, along with an amazing guitar player called Jimmy James, AKA Jimi Hendrix. Don told me that it was Jimi playing on his Atlantic recording of “Mercy, Mercy.” The Stones went on to record it and you could easily hear how Don inspired them. I remember Keith Richards saying that if you put Don and Mick Jagger’s voices on a graph, they would probably be sonically identical. When they were recording Dirty Work, I brought Don in to meet Mick. Also with him on the scene was Bobby Womack and between the two of them, there was enough soul power in the room to last for 40 days and 40 nights!
When The J. Geils Band was recording our first album, Atlantic Records put us together with two R&B producers, Dave Crawford and Brad Shapiro. After we finished the recording, one of the producers asked me which of the soul artists they were working with would I like to meet, knowing I was a lover of soul music and had a vast collection of different soul records. I said, “I’d like to meet Don Covay.” Quite surprised, he said, “Don Covay? You could meet Wilson Pickett or Solomon Burke.” I replied enthusiastically, “But I love Don Covay.” I had the Mercy! record and all the singles. My first band, before The J. Geils Band, covered a lot of Covay songs. Don used to always come to see The Geils Band when we played the Fillmore and we had him join us onstage to perform a song of his that we recorded called “The Usual Place.”
In the early 1980s, Don’s wife passed away and he was pretty distraught. A good friend of mine, “The Big M,” also knew Don and suggested I call him up. This was at the time when there was a lot of creative tension going on in The J. Geils Band. The rest of the band wanted to go in a more techno direction and I wanted to stay more rootsy. So I gave Don a call and said, “Don, let’s write some songs.”
We met at a friend’s apartment in New York and began to write together. We started throwing around ideas about two lovers in a dark room dancing together and that’s how we came up with the song, “Lights Out.” While we were working on the bridge of the song, Don said, “We gotta get some wine.” So I ran down to the store and came back with a bottle of some fancy French wine. Don took one look at the bottle and said, “No, man, I’m talking about drinkin’ wine!” And he went out and came back with one of those big bottle jugs full of wine.
It was a hot August day, and he’s yakking and sipping away and had his shirt off, and in between working on the song, he would go into long narratives about all the soul artists that he was close to and how Sam Cooke inspired them all. He told stories of traveling and working with Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke and Otis Redding and how each one developed their own style and personas. He said Otis could have run for president, because he could charm anybody.
Don had a real street sensibility in his work and he also lived by it. When “Chain of Fools,” a song Don wrote, became a huge hit record for Aretha Franklin, he told me he was staying at the Americana Hotel. Everyone at Atlantic Records was so excited because Aretha finally made it to the top of the charts. He took another big swig from the jug and told me about the time he called up Jerry Wexler, one of the heads of Atlantic Records. He said, “Jerry, I’ve got a song that is going to just blow ‘Chain of Fools’ right off the charts. This one’s a killer!'”
Jerry told him to come to his office immediately so he could hear it. Don said, “No Jerry, I can’t, it’s in my head, I got to lay it down first. Can you call Manny’s Music Store and have them send me one of those deluxe keyboards?” And Jerry sent him the keyboard. About a half hour later, he called and said, “Jerry, I need a guitar. I gotta put this funky guitar line down, it’s amazing!” And Wexler said, “No problem.” Another half hour goes by. He said, “Man, this mamma jamma needs some killer bass. I gotta get it down. Pete, long story short, I ordered a huge amount of the most expensive top-of-the-line, best grade A equipment sent to my hotel room.”
And with another swig of wine, he stood up from his chair and raised his arms out like he was in church and came an inch from my face with a big smile and said, “Peter, You know what I did with all that stuff? I sold it! You know why? Because I know when the day comes for my royalty checks, they’re gonna rob me, so I might as well rob them back while I can! Gave ’em a little taste of their own medicine……ha!” Classic Don.