Don Covay: Soul singer and songwriter whose compositions became hits for Fury, Franklin, Checker and the Rolling Stones

Never quite made the big league himself, but his music was widely covered

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The Southern soul singer and songwriter Don Covay never quite made the big league but released singles in a variety of genres that were covered by US performers such as Chubby Checker, Steppenwolf and Aretha Franklin and provided a rich source of repertoire for British acts like Billy Fury, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones.

His songs included the infectious “Pony Time”, the track that introduced the Pony dance craze and provided Checker with a chart-topping follow-up to “The Twist” in 1961; the sinuous “Sookie, Sookie”, popularised by Steppenwolf in 1968, the year Franklin made the charts with the irresistible “Chain Of Fools”, a demo Covay had intended for Otis Redding; and a revival of the stirring “See Saw”, first issued by Covay in 1966.

Covay also penned “Letter Full Of Tears”, a UK hit for Billy Fury in 1962, “Long Tall Shorty”, covered by the Kinks on their debut album in 1964, and “Mercy, Mercy”, covered by the Rolling Stones on their third album Out Of Our Heads in 1965. Jimi Hendrix played on Covay’s original 1964 version and included “Mercy, Mercy” in his live sets with both Jimmy James and the Blue Flames in the US, and the Experience after he moved to Europe in 1966.

Indeed, while Covay was mentored by Little Richard, whom he idolised and later chauffeured and collaborated with, his pleading delivery influenced not only Mick Jagger but others including Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Wolf of the J Geils Band, Todd Rundgren, Iggy Pop and Robert Cray. In 1993, the last four, as well as Ben E King, Bobby Womack, Ronnie Wood and the Living Colour frontman Corey Glover, participated in the tribute album Back To The Streets: Celebrating The Music Of Don Covay.

Born Donald Randolph in Orangeburg, South Carolina, in 1938, he was steeped in the gospel tradition of the Baptist church. Following the death of his father, a preacher, the family moved to Washington and he continued singing gospel with two of his six brothers and his only sister under the name the Cherry Keys.

By his late teens, like many of his contemporaries, he felt the pull towards secular music and joined the Rainbows, a doo-wop group with whom he recorded two singles. Drawn into the orbit of Little Richard, who in 1957 produced “Bip Bop Bip”, a soundalike Atlantic 45 on which Covay was billed as “Pretty Boy”, he struggled to make an impact in his own right until “Pony Time”, recorded with his band the Goodtimers and taken into the US Top 60.

Covay signed with Roosevelt Music in the Brill Building and came up with several more novelty, dance-craze related singles with titles like “The Popeye Waddle”, “Wiggle Wobble”, “Ain’t That Silly” and “The Froog” before he developed the strand of soulful story songs that made his reputation as a sensitive writer. It was a style favoured by Jerry Butler, who cut “You Can Run (But You Can’t Hide)”, Gladys Knight & The Pips, who scored a hit with “Letter Full Of Tears”, and Wilson Pickett – the artist who recorded the most Covay material – including “I’m Gonna Cry” and “Three Time Loser” after both signed to Atlantic in the mid-’60s.

Headhunted for his songwriting, he forged fruitful relationships with producer Jerry Wexler and Atlantic co-founder Herb Abramson and teamed up with organist Booker T Jones and guitarist Steve Cropper, co-writer of “See Saw” and “Sookie, Sookie”. The crème de la crème of R&B vocalists recorded Covay songs, including Etta James, Otis Redding and Solomon Burke.

Covay had written “Chain Of Fools” in his teens and remembered the gospel-inspired song when Wexler asked him to submit material for a Redding session in 1967. His demo convinced the producer of the song’s potential as a vehicle for Aretha Franklin. It was recorded at Atlantic’s New York studio with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section. The guitarist Joe South provided a new and distinctive introduction and Franklin’s sisters Carolyn and Erma joined the Sweet Inspirations on backing vocals, and it became a million-seller and won the Grammy for Best R&B Vocal in 1969, the year after it peaked at No 2 in the US.

In 1968 Burke, Arthur Conley, Ben E King and Joe Tex teamed up with Covay as the Soul Clan, an R&B supergroup who, despite a picture sleeve proclaiming “Together For The First Time!”, cut their sole release, “Soul Meeting”, and its equally exciting B-side “That’s How It Feels” – both by Covay – in different studios. Atlantic included the Covay solo tracks “You’ve Got Me On The Critical List” and “Never Had No Love” on the subsequent Soul Clan album – also entitled Soul Meeting – but the project fizzled out, prompting Covay to comment, “some funny stuff went down at Atlantic.”

He formed the Jefferson Lemon Blues Band with John P Hammond, son of the producer John Hammond, and the Shirelles guitarist Joe Richardson, for a pair of critically acclaimed blues-rock albums before leaving Atlantic. He moved to Mercury, where he served as an A&R executive and enjoyed a purple patch with the Super Dude 1 and Hot Blood albums and the telling-it-like-it-is singles “I Was Checkin’ Out, She Was Checkin’ In”, “Somebody’s Been Enjoying My Home” and “It’s Better To Have (And Don’t Need)”, his only UK chart entry, in 1974. That year he penned “Rumble In The Jungle” about the world heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa. He fared less well at Philadelphia International with the Travelin’ In Heavy Traffic album in 1976.

Ten years later he resurfaced on backing vocals alongside his friend Bobby Womack on the Stones album Dirty Work. He suffered a stroke in 1992, then in 2000 returned to the studio for the Adlib album, featuring duets with Paul Rodgers, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay and Pickett, and tributes by the Stones on a cover illustrated by Ronnie Wood. When he tentatively resumed touring, the Stones bought him a specially adapted vehicle.

Donald Randolph (Don Covay), singer, songwriter and producer: born Orangeburg, South Carolina 24 March 1938; married Yvonne (died 1981; three daughters, one son, and one son deceased); died Maryland 30 January 2015.