Don Covay, Influential R&B Artist and Songwriter, Dead at 78
Don Covay, an R&B singer and songwriter who wrote songs that would be covered by the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard and others, has died. His daughter, Ursula, confirmed the singer passed away on the morning of Saturday, January 31st, following decades of battling disabilities brought on by a stroke. He was 78.
In the Sixties, Covay’s soulful voice and skill for writing upbeat R&B songs made for a number of hits for both him and the artists who covered them. His first radio hit, 1961’s “Pony Time,” reached Number One for Chubby Checker the following year. His biggest pop hit, 1964’s “Mercy Mercy,” which featured Jimi Hendrix on guitar, would go on to be the lead track on the U.S. version of the Rolling Stones’ 1965 album Out of Our Heads. And his 1965 hit “See Saw,” which he co-wrote with Steve Cropper, would become a Top 10 hit for Aretha Franklin three years after it came out. Prior to that, though, Franklin made a Number Two hit out of “Chain of Fools,” a song that Covay had written with Otis Redding in mind in the Fifties.
Additionally, as songwriter and onetime employee at famed songwriting outpost the Brill Building, Covay would write hits for Solomon Burke (“I’m Hanging Up My Heart for You”), Gladys Knight and the Pips (“Letter Full of Tears”), Wilson Pickett (“I’m Gonna Cry”) and Little Richard (“I Don’t Know What You’ve Got but It’s Got Me”). He also wrote songs for Etta James and Redding, and his own recordings have been covered by several artists, including Gene Vincent, Steppenwolf, Bobby Womack, Small Faces and many others.
Covay was born Donald Randolph in Orangeburg, South Carolina in 1936, the son of a Baptist preacher. He performed in his family’s gospel quartet, the Cherry Keys, and made his first secular recordings in the mid-Fifties with the doo-wop group Rainbows. By 1957, Covay found a gig chauffeuring Little Richard, who nicknamed him “Pretty Boy,” and appearing as an opener in the Little Richard Revue. His boss went on to produce his first single, “Bip Bop Bip,” which failed to chart. Although he recorded other singles in the Fifties, his first hit came in with “Pony Time.”
After finding success with both his own singles and as a songwriter, Covay put together an R&B supergroup, the Soul Clan – which found him singing alongside Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Joe Tex and Arthur Conley, in 1968. Their single, “Soul Meeting,” charted in the R&B Top 40. Toward the end of the decade, Covay was playing in another group, the Jefferson Lemon Blues Band, with Shirelles guitarist Joe Richardson and folk musician John Hammond. Their single, “Black Woman,” bowed at Number 43 on the R&B chart.
In the Seventies, Covay worked in A&R for Mercury Records, but also scored one of his biggest solo hits, “I Was Checkin’ Out, She Was Checkin’ In,” in 1973. He also scored hits that decade with “Somebody’s Been Enjoying My Home,” also in 1973, “It’s Better to Have (And Don’t Need),” in 1974, and “Rumble in the Jungle” – a tune that was inspired by Muhammad Ali’s famous match with George Foreman – in 1975. He notched his last hit, “Badd Boy,” in 1980. In 1986, Covay contributed backing vocals, alongside the likes of Tom Waits, Jimmy Cliff and Patti Scialfa, to the Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work.
In 1992, Covay suffered an inter-cranial stroke, which prevented him from performing. He nevertheless continued to write songs.
The following year, a number of artists who had drawn inspiration from the singer-songwriter put out the tribute compilation, Back to the Streets: Celebrating the Music of Don Covay. It featured contributions from Rolling Stones guitarists Mick Taylor and Ron Wood, Bobby Womack, Iggy Pop, Ben E. King, Todd Rundgren, Robert Cray and others. Also, in 1993, the Rhythm and Blues Foundation gave Covay a Pioneer Award.
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The singer-songwriter put out a new album in 2000, Adlib – which featured contributions by Paul Rodgers, Wilson Pickett, Paul Shaffer and Huey Lewis, among others, and art by Ron Wood. A collection of rare Covay recordings, Super Bad, came out on 2009.
A statement from the singer-songwriter’s family said that when Covay assessed his career, he shrugged off being called “a genius songwriter.” Instead, he said he was simply “a song physician.”