Soul Serenade: Don Covay, “Mercy, Mercy”

Written by Ken Shane's Soul Serenade, Music

Paying tribute to a recently departed soul legend

Soul Serenade - Don Covay

Don Covay left us recently. He left behind a splendid resume that reflected his work as a singer and songwriter. Covay never allowed himself to be pigeonholed into one genre or another. His music reached out to fans of soul, R&B, and rock and roll alike. In fact, one of the musicians that Covay worked with early on eventually became the most iconic guitarist in the history of rock and roll.

Covay was born in South Carolina, the son of a Baptist preacher who died when Covay was eight years-old. It wasn’t long before the family picked up and moved to Washington, DC, where Covay joined his siblings in a gospel group called the Cherry Keys. He was still in middle school when friends talked him into expanding his musical horizons and Covay joined a doo wop group called the Rainbows.

The Rainbows had a hit with “Mary Lee,” but that was before Covay came aboard, and by the time he did, most of the original lineup was gone. His first record with the group was something called “Shirley” that was released in 1956 and landed with a dull thud. Covay hung around long enough to record one more single but “Minnie” didn’t do any better than “Shirley” had.

It has long been rumored that soul legends Marvin Gaye and Billy Stewart were members of the Rainbows while Covay was in the group, but that is just what they are, rumors. It is true however that both Gaye and Stewart filled in from time to time during Covay’s tenure with the group.

Covay scored a job as Little Richard’s driver, which eventually led to Covay becoming Richard’s opening act. Richard also produced Covay’s debut single, “Bip Bip Bip,” which Atlantic Records released under the name Pretty Boy in 1957. It was another swing, and another miss for Covay. From there he set out on a label odyssey that began with Sue Records and then found him releasing four singles for four different labels, Big, Blaze, Firefly, and Big Top. All of them had one thing in common — they made no impact on the charts.

Covay kept at it though. He signed with Columbia Records, which was a big deal at the time. In 1961 alone he released three singles for the label, “Shake Wid the Snake,” “See About Me,” and “Now That I Need You.” The three singles were wildly different in styles, but they were the same in terms of chart success. They had none. To say that Covay was having trouble finding success as a recording artist is an understatement.

Covay’s failures as a recording artist convinced him that he should focus more on songwriting, and that change in focus began to pay off. Together with former Rainbows band-mate John Berry, Covay wrote a dance song called “Pony Time,” and recorded it with a band called the Goodtimers backing him. It was the first time Covay hit the charts, reaching #60 on the Billboard pop chart, and when Chubby Checker recorded his version of the song in 1962 it shot to the top of the pop chart. It was a start for Covay. Finally.

More singles, for more labels, followed. Covay recorded one single for Scepter Records, and a bunch more for Cameo Parkway. Of all of these singles, only a novelty record called “The Popeye Waddle” saw any action at all. While his recording career continued to stall however, Covay had a string of songwriting hits penning “You Can Run (But You Can’t Hide)” for Jerry Butler, “Letter Full of Tears” for Gladys Knight & the Pips, and “Mr. Twister” for Connie Francis.

Don Covay

The next stop on Covay’s record label journey was a little company called Rosemart Records. It was an intensely creative period for Covay. His very first single for the label in 1964 was called “Mercy, Mercy,” and it featured a still unknown guitar player by the name of Jimi Hendrix. It was a Top 40 record for Covay, and got even bigger when the Rolling Stones recorded it the following year for their Out of Our Heads album. Mick Jagger’s vocal take on the song made it clear that Covay’s style had a lot of influence on him.

The details of Covay’s recording of “Mercy, Mercy” have blurred over time. The accepted wisdom is that he entered A1 Recording Studio in New York City on May 13, 1964, and cut the track with a group that included Hendrix, guitarist Johnny Johnson, and drummer Bernard Purdie. The money for the session was provided by “Magnificent Montague,” a DJ at WWRL. Herb Abramson owned the studio. , Abramson had been a partner at Atlantic Records, and eventually his former company picked up distribution of the Rosemart release. The single reached #35 on the pop chart and stayed on the chart for ten weeks. It was a #1 single on the Cashbox R&B chart.

“Take This Hurt Off Me” was Covay’s follow up, and it was another, albeit lesser, hit for him. Next up was “The Boomerang” which wasn’t a hit at all, but did get Covay moved up to the Atlantic Records rosters, which gave him access to the great Memphis musicians who were recording at Stax by virtue of Atlantic’s distribution deal with the Memphis label. “Please Do Something” almost creeped into the Top 20, while “See Saw” turned out to be Covay’s biggest hit yet, reaching #5 on the R&B chart, and #44 on the pop chart.

On the positive side, Covay continued to shine as a songwriter, penning tracks for the likes of Etta James, and Otis Redding. The problem was that Covay couldn’t continue his momentum as a recording artist. In 1966 he recorded three great singles for Atlantic, “Sookie Sookie,” “You Put Something on Me,” and “Somebody’s Got to Love You.” All three failed to make the charts. More singles followed the same pattern. In 1968, Aretha Franklin had a huge hit with Covay’s “Chain of Fools.” Covay’s recording of the same song, in the same year, was met with silence. Covay was determined to get his career going again and put a group together called the Soul Clan. In addition to Covay, the group included Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Joe Tex, and Arthur Conley. Home run, right? No, although they had a minor hit with the “Soul Meeting” single in 1968.

Covay’s next move was a little bit more offbeat. He put together an underground blues-rock group called the Jefferson Lemon Blues Band. Hey, it was 1968. The group included folk/blues singer John Hammond, and Joe Richardson, who had played guitar for the Shirelles. The band’s first album, The House of Blue Lights, was released in 1969 and managed to make it into the Top 50 on the R&B chart. Covay left Atlantic and signed with Janus where he released a second Jefferson Lemon album, Different Strokes for Different Folks.

In 1972 Covay took a job as an A&R man at Mercury Records. While he was there, he began to work on an album called Super Dude. When the album was released the following year it spawned two hit singles, “I Was Checkin’ Out While She Was Checkin’ In,” and “Somebody’s Been Enjoying My Home.” In 1974 Covay was back on the charts with “It’s Better to Have (and Not Need),” and he followed that up with the novelty record “Rumble in the Jungle,” which was inspired by the Muhammed Ali – George Foreman fight in Zaire.

By 1976 Covay found himself in Philadelphia, collaborating with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. He released Travelin’ in Heavy Traffic that year, but two singles from the album failed to make a dent. Two subsequent indie singles also disappeared without a trace. Covay wasn’t heard from again until 1986 when the Stones repaid their debt to Covay by using him as a background vocalist on their Dirty Work album. There was a Covay tribute album in 1993 that included Ron Wood, Todd Rundgren, and Iggy Pop.

The Rhythm and Blues Foundation honored Covay with its Pioneer Award in 1993, but Covay had suffered a stroke the previous year and couldn’t attend. He regained his health and released his Adlib album in 2000, and his aptly named Super Bad in 2009.

Don Covay died on January 31 at the age of 76. The success of his recording career was sporadic at times, but when it’s all added up it puts Covay in the pantheon of great soul artists.