4 Février 2015
Don Covay, the US singer and songwriter, who has died aged 76, was an important figure in the soul music explosion of the 1960s. His composition Mercy, Mercy was recorded by the Rolling Stones for their third album in 1965, and Chain of Fools became one of Aretha Franklin’s biggest hits in 1967.
As a performer, Covay enjoyed his own moments in the spotlight. When Atlantic Records assembled their top male soul singers in a studio in the summer of 1968 to make a single under the name the Soul Clan, Covay took his place alongside Solomon Burke, Joe Tex, Ben E King and Arthur Conley. The A-side, Soul Meeting, failed to make an impact commensurate with its all-star lineup, but the B-side, That’s How I Feel, remains a prime example of the southern deep-soul ballad, written by Covay (who also produced the session) with Bobby Womack and showcasing the church-trained strengths of each of the five singers.
Born in Orangeburg, South Carolina, the son of a Baptist preacher, Covay sang gospel music with his family’s group, the Cherry-Keys. A move to Washington DC in his early teens brought him into contact with secular sounds in a more urban environment, and he joined a vocal group called the Rainbows, which at various times also included two other local boys, the future stars Marvin Gaye and Billy Stewart.
In 1957 he joined Little Richard’s touring show as a singer, warming the crowd up for the main attraction, and made his recording debut, under the name of Pretty Boy, with a song called Bip Bop Bip, produced by Little Richard and released by Atlantic. His first success as a songwriter came in 1961 with Pony Time, a No 1 hit for Chubby Checker, preceding the Twist craze. Within a year, Covay’s ability to write an emotional ballad was evident when Gladys Knight and the Pips took his Letter Full of Tears into the top 20.
After recording for numerous companies, including Sue, Columbia, Epic, RCA, Big Top and Parkway, it was under the billing of Don Covay and the Goodtimers (with the young Jimi Hendrix on guitar), and on a small label called Rosemart, that he made his first real impact as a solo artist, when his original recording of Mercy, Mercy reached No 35 in the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964. Impressed by its success, Atlantic bought his contract and sent him to Memphis, where he recorded two further dance-floor favourites, See Saw and Sookie Sookie, with the Stax house band the following year.
As a member of the Atlantic family, it was natural that Franklin should record one of his songs when she joined the label with spectacular success in 1967. The driving Chain of Fools was her fifth hit single that year, reaching No 2 in the pop chart, topping the R&B chart, and earning its composer a Grammy nomination. Franklin also had a hit the following year with See Saw, on which Covay shared the writing credit with Steve Cropper. Wilson Pickett, another Atlantic artist, recorded Covay’s Three-Time Loser as the B-side of Mustang Sally.
It was while employed as an A&R man by Mercury Records in 1973 that Covay enjoyed a pop and R&B hit with I Was Checkin’ Out (She Was Checkin’ In), a song exploiting the then-popular theme of adultery. The following year he released what many of his fans consider to be his greatest record: the rousing It’s Better to Have and Don’t Need (Than Need and Don’t Have), an uninhibited meditation on the realities of sexual desire precisely pitched in musical terms between the church and the street.
He received a Pioneer award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in 1994. After suffering a stroke in the 1990s, he recovered to make further recordings, including the albums Adlib (2000) and Super Bad (2009).
Covay’s wife, Yvonne, died in 1981 and a son, Donald, died in 2009. He is survived by three daughters, Wendy, Wanda and Ursula, and a son, Antonio.