Don Covay

TrackAlbum / Single
See About MeThe Definitive Don Covay CD
Mercy MercyMercy!
Take This Hurt Off MeMercy!
See SawSee Saw
Sookie SookieSee Saw
Watching The Late Late ShowAtlantic AT4078
Temptation Was Too StrongThe Definitive Don Covay CD
Homemade LoveThe House Of Blue Lights
I Was Checkin' Out She Was Checkin' InSuper Dude
It's Better To Have (And Don't Need)Hot Blood


Don Covay playlist



Contributor: Peter Viney

The Soul Clan was a co-operative of Atlantic soul stars, featuring Don Covay, Solomon Burke, Joe Tex, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. They had big plans for subverting the entire industry and running things themselves. Later Arthur Conley and Ben E. King joined. Don Covay was acknowledged as the instigator. They had a hit with Soul Meeting, which Covay had arranged with Bobby Womack, a sinuous loud bass line being his trademark. As everyone is having a go at vocals, the Don Covay content is too diluted for a Toppermost. But that’s the company he kept.

It all started with The Rainbows … Don Covay, Marvin Gaye and Billy “Summertime” Stewart. Their first record was Shirley in 1956. Don Covay went on and opened for Little Richard and served as his chauffeur in 1957. He was then called Pretty Boy and released a frantic single Bip Bop Bip, produced by Little Richard and featuring his band, The Upsetters. This is classic raucous rock ‘n’ roll, not soul. Years later in 1965, Don Covay wrote I Don’t Know What You Got (But It’s Got Me), for Little Richard, and sang backing vocals. Peter Guralnik rates it equal with James Carr’s version of Dark End Of The Street as “the best soul ballad ever”.

Covay’s first hit record was Betty Jean/Believe It Or Not in 1958 on the Sue label. Right away we have his habit of namechecking other singers and songs in lyrics, which over the years he flogged with all his might. Then there was Pony Time, labelled as by The Goodtimers in 1961. His songwriting career took off when Chubby Checker covered it faithfully and had a #1 hit with it. Covay put out Shake Wid The Shake, then Hand Jive Workout, then The Popeye Waddle under his own name, with a novelty girl chorus. As Twist-era dance craze attempts go, it’s very catchy, and its resemblance in parts to Do You Love Me? assists that. He did a twist covers LP with King Curtis. Add Mr Twister for Connie Francis. Don Covay established a solid rock ‘n’ roll pedigree. Check out his composition for Wanda Jackson, There’s A Party Goin’ On, a full force rock ‘n’ roll belter, if ever there was one.

Songwriting was becoming more important than singing, with songs for Jerry Butler (You Can Run But You Can’t Hide), Gladys Knight & The Pips (Letter Full Of Tears), Hank Ballard (Lucky Punch) as well as Little Richard, Wanda Jackson and Gene Vincent.

Don Covay had a great career as a rock writer, then a soul vocalist and writer. He had a venture into the blues, and wrote 70s “cheatin’ soul”. He did a couple of highly regarded funkier albums. But it’s the classic soul era that pulls me in. Don Covay wrote more than he sang, and apparently live performance was not his strong point, which separated him from his peer group at Atlantic. Wilson Pickett said “He’s the worst entertainer. Everyone would pay Don to get off the stage.” (Pickett was the only naysayer about the Soul Clan, suggesting that Covay, as songwriter, got all the money).

See About Me marks the shift towards soul, and is the best Leiber & Stoller song that Leiber & Stoller didn’t write. It’s a homage? Or is it a pastiche? Anyway, the backing is pure Stand By Me, the melody feels made for Ben E. King. Several years later he wrote Don’t Drive Me Away for Ben E. King. The lyrics are actually Come See About Me and include Come See About Me … See about your baby, which appears in the later Supremes hit . Only that bit – the rest of the song is quite different and recorded in June 1961, two years before The Supremes song. Later versions of See About Me are labelled Come See About Me, which is as it appears on Mercy!

Mercy Mercy by Don Covay & The Goodtimers was written by Covay and Ron Miller, and was a US #1 R&B hit in 1964. It’s easily his best-known song, because The Rolling Stones covered it on Out Of Our Heads. The opening guitar lick is one of the great soul intros, and is a notable shift to guitar led soul. The drum accents are superb. Then there’s the shift to falsetto for “Please we don’t say we’re through!” According to Covay, Ron Miller found the basic groove on a live show and Covay improvised lyrics. The Definitive Don Covay CD says Ron Miller-bass, other musicians ‘unknown’. The story is that Jimi Hendrix played the guitar part. Hendrix told Steve Cropper he’d played on “Have Mercy Baby” (the title he always gave to it) and he played it frequently live. Covay’s said the same. There’s an argument that it’s Covay’s regular guitar player, Jimmy Johnson, who played it … but Hendrix claimed it repeatedly and that’s the story. What is certain is that Don Covay is playing guitar too. It is one of only two Don Covay songs that get onto all those Atlantic Gold compilations, the other being See Saw.

The subsequent single Take This Hurt Off Me is very close to being the same song, but what a song! It’s also rumoured to have Hendrix aboard. And they took the classic Mercy Mercy style and re-versioned it, just three months later. It’s known that Bernard Purdie played drums on this, and it sounds like the same band. It adds a second voice and a call and response section. The second voice is calling “Fool! Fool! Fool!” under Don’s laments, then “She left me! She Left Me! Yes, she did.” It was a minor hit but never gets the Golden Oldies attention of Mercy Mercy. They had a third go at the same groove with Daddy Loves Baby, and that’s on my Don Covay playlist but three such very similar songs here would be too much.

All of them are on the Mercy! album. The album is consistent, even if some stuff is recycled from earlier, and the last three tracks are covers including an excellent version of The Impressions’ You Must Believe Me (see also Spencer Davis Toppermost #426). You’re Good For Me is an outstanding track to join the three singles, but Don Covay’s habit of recycling other songs here lands on Bring It On Home To Me. The reissue of this is stereo. They all sound better in mono. The sleeve notes suggest he had written 600 songs … by then!

See Saw was co-written with Steve Cropper. Mercy Mercy and See Saw were released in Britain in 1964 and 1965 respectively, but then again later in 1965 (dropping “and The Goodtimers”), and then put out a third time as a Double A-side. It was his biggest hit (US R&B #5), and added the MGs: Steve Cropper on guitar, Duck Dunn on bass, Al Jackson on drums and Booker T. Jones on keyboards, plus The Memphis Horns. There was a flurry of Atlantic artists, like Covay, being sent down to Memphis to record at Stax, which Atlantic had just bought. Aretha Franklin had a major hit with her magnificent cover in 1968. Aretha’s backing is beefed up, and her vocal impassioned, but if I could only have one, I prefer Don Covay’s more languid approach.

Sookie Sookie was recorded with the same line up, also in June 1965, and Don was going for a strong Sam & Dave vibe at the start on this one. The horns interplay with Booker T’s organ. The bass is turned up even more, the horns recede so that it has a 70s funk feel. The more I listen to it, the more it sounds “New Orleans” rather “Atlantic” in style. By the end the vocal is submerged and we’re deep in the groove. Steppenwolf’s cover brought out the garage band in the song, and in spite of a much lesser bass player, is equally infectious.

Iron Out The Rough Spots was a contender from the same session. The sleeve notes to The Definitive Don Covay are written by Billy Vera, who said of these Stax sessions:

“(Don Covay) had something extra which set him apart from other soul artists of the day, something which qualified him as rock ‘n’ roll, as much as an R&B performer. I have always felt, that until The Band came along, these (Stax sessions) were the last “rock ‘n’ roll” as opposed to “rock” recordings.”

An issue with the See Saw album was that Don still hankered after dance craze songs. Sookie Sookie was supposed to be a dance. The Fat Man (a dance) was pretty good. The Boomerang was a definite mistake.

Watching The Late Late Show was February 1966, and back in New York City. The American release had the earlier Sookie Sookie on the B-side, though they reversed that in Britain. It’s not on the See Saw album.

The next single, 40 Days And 40 Nights, is another dancing number, and became a Northern Soul classic. It was coupled with The Usual Place, which is an example of Don Covay in “Southern deep soul” mode. If you want to investigate that line further try Precious Love (on See Saw), Temptation Was Too Strong (1966) or In The Wind. There are always a couple or three on every album. Temptation Was Too Strong was the American B-side to Somebody’s Got To Love You, and It’s In The Wind was B-side to Don’t Let Go. Deep soul was B-side material! I couldn’t decide between them. In the end it’s Temptation Was Too Strong.

I Stole Some Love (1967) was recorded at Muscle Shoals and combines talking intro, great soul song and a novelty “judge” coming in to sentence him. Namechecking other artists is a Don Covay habit, and it’s B.B. King and Bobby Bland on I Stole Some Love.

Don Covay wrote two songs on Etta James’s Tell Mama album in 1968, and I’m Gonna Take What He’s Got is one of his best compositions and it would have been in the list if he’d recorded it himself. It sits on the line between blues and soul, a forerunner of the “cheatin’ soul” genre of the early 70s.

There was a blues album in 1969, The House Of Blue Lights billed as Don Covay & The Jefferson Lemon Blues Band, a jokey name, as they decided to cash in on the underground blues scene. John Hammond Jnr. was on harmonica and nylon string guitar. The most prominent instrument on the title track is Hammond organ, but the player is not credited. Nor is the pianist or the horns on Homemade Love, which is the standout track for me, basically because after a long bluesy piano led intro, it turns into a great big soul duet with Margaret Williams, and is a break from the well-played but generic blues elsewhere. The House Of Blue Lights song appears in two parts, ending each side of the original LP. “Part 2” is an incredible impassioned blues shouter, and just missed the Toppermost.

I Was Checkin’ Out She Was Checkin’ In is 1973, recorded in Muscle Shoals with the classic line up: Barry Beckett on keys, Eddie Hinton on lead guitar, Jimmy Johnson on rhythm guitar, David Hood on bass, Roger Hawkins on drums. The style with long narrative intro, and the joint infidelity theme is like Millie Jackson cheatin’ soul in the same era, and he wrote for Millie Jackson too. It was the single from Super Dude an album which was highly-acclaimed. At this point, Don Covay was running A&R at Mercury Records, hence the great production.

The Mercury follow up album was Hot Blood with the hit, It’s Better To Have (And Don’t Need). To my amazement, it’s his most popular song on iTunes. It has some clever references, starting ‘You know I can’t get no more … satisfaction’ a nod to the Rolling Stones popularizing Mercy, Mercy (leading to a second release of his original), then ‘Listen to me! Lord, have mercy!’ The guitar is as ever significant, and the call and response chorus finishes his sentences. Have you noticed dentists do that? Years of it enable them to guess the final word for you. Another Rolling Stones reference is 1967’s You Got Me On The Critical List, which begins “I just got out of the hospital, this is my 19th Nervous Breakdown …’ (a line he uses elsewhere). The gratitude to The Rolling Stones resurfaces on Dirty Work where he added backing vocals.

There’s a lot of the post-Atlantic Don Covay that’s plain near impossible to find, so not heard nor considered, though I’m pretty sure that I would still gravitate to the classic Mercy! and See Saw era.

Ad Lib in 2000 had fellow artists recording with him, mainly backed by the Letterman house band, with Wilson Pickett, Ann Peebles, Huey Lewis, Ronnie Wood and Paul Rodgers joining in. Chain Of Fools is Ann Peebles singing with Don Covay. The album was produced by Jon Tiven. Trouble is, Don, who had a stroke in 1992, hardly sings. Mercy Mercy demonstrates how much better the drumming was on the 1964 version. Solo tracks are spoken voice (rap, if you like) with three John Lee Hooker style extended boogies, The best stuff here relies on guests taking lead vocal … Anne Peebles on Chain Of Fools, Syl Johnson on Victims, Dan Penn on Hall Of Fame, Huey Lewis and Frederick Knight on The Red Comb Song. Great new material, excellent album, but Don is either rapping, or backing. They’re halfway between originals and covers.

In doing this Toppermost, I realized how many of Don Covay’s 60s singles are simply not available on CD. 40 Days And 40 Nights. Shingaling 67. Don’t Let Go. Gonna Send You Back To Your Mama. Snake In The Grass. House On The Corner. Many are on YouTube. There is a real need for a Don Covay box set or simply “Atlantic As and Bs” and no doubt that would offer other selections.


Twenty songs that Don Covay wrote which were done by others

Don Covay did not record many of his best compostions. Back To The Streets: Celebrating The Music Of Don Covay is a 2006 tribute album with new covers by Ron Wood (Chain Of Fools), Iggy Pop (Sookie Sookie), Peter Wolf (I Stole Some Love), Robert Cray (He Don’t Know), Ben E. King (Victims) and other luminaries. Letter Full of Tears by Arlene Smith is my favourite track.

Highly recommended is the Ace CD from 2012, Have Mercy! The Songs Of Don Covay which is in their Songwriter series. Eleven of the tracks listed here appear on it. (*)

A Big Fat Saturday Night – Gene Vincent *
Chain Of Fools – Aretha Franklin *
Come Back And Take This Hurt Of Me – The Small Faces
Come See About Me – Gladys Knight & The Pips *
He Don’t Know – Huey Lewis & The News
I Don’t Know What You Got (But It’s Got Me) – Little Richard *
I’m Going To Take What He’s Got – Etta James *
Letter Full Of Tears – Gladys Knight & The Pips *
Lights Out – Peter Wolf
Long Tall Shorty – Tommy Tucker
Mercy, Mercy – The Rolling Stones
Please Do Something – The Spencer Davis Group
Pony Time – Chubby Checker *
See Saw – Cliff Bennett & The Rebel Rousers *
Shoes – Brook Benton with The Dixie Flyers *
Sookie Sookie – Steppenwolf
There’s A Party Goin’ On – Wanda Jackson *
Three Time Loser – Wilson Pickett *
Victims – Ben E. King
Watch The One Who Brings You The News – Millie Jackson •


Don Covay (1936-2015)

Don Covay biography (Apple Music)

Peter Viney writes on popular music and the arts at his website.

TopperPost #436


  1. Colin Duncan
    Apr 20, 2015

    Enjoyed reading the article, but this is all new to me. A learning experience, but I can link to Don Covay. I have the Stones doing ‘Mercy, Mercy’ and Aretha Franklin doing ‘Chain of Fools’, but never linked the writer. I have been lucky to see Dan Penn in concert, and have and value Frankie Miller’s ‘Standing on the Edge’, which features Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins and David Hood. I play James Carr’s brilliant ‘Dark End of the Street’ often so will have to seek out ‘I Don’t Know What You’ve Got (But It’s Got Me)’. Really interesting link to The Band. How big was he in the U.K.? Great article – but I really know nothing about him.

  2. Peter Viney
    Apr 20, 2015

    Don Covay’s only chart entry in the UK was 1974’s It’s Better To Have (And Don’t Need) at #29. BUT, in the disco days of 1965 to 1966 Mercy Mercy and See Saw got reissued and were major songs in the clubs (and live soul band covers). Neither are rare as 45s which suggest they sold well over a long period without charting. They also got selected for Atlantic compilation albums. He was one of the soul greats.

  3. Keith Shackleton
    Apr 22, 2015

    Bip Bop Bip is a hoot, I first came across it covered most excellently by Barrence Whitfield. So glad you mentioned It’s In The Wind, it’s superb.

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