Don Covay Biography

Donald Randolph, 24 March 1938, Orangeburg, South Carolina, USA. Covay resettled in Washington during the early 50s and initially sang in the Cherry Keys, his family’s gospel quartet. He crossed over to secular music with the Rainbows, a formative vocal group that also included Marvin Gaye and Billy Stewart. Covay’s solo career began in 1957 as part of the Little Richard revue. The most tangible result of this liaison was a single, ‘Bip Bop Bip’, on which Covay was billed as ‘Pretty Boy’. Released on Atlantic Records, it was produced by Richard and featured the weight of his backing band, the Upsetters. Over the next few years Covay drifted from label to label. His original version of ‘Pony Time’ (credited to the Goodtimers) lost out to Chubby Checker’s cover version, but a further dance-orientated offering, ‘The Popeye Waddle’, was a hit in 1962. Covay, meanwhile, honed his songwriting skills and formed partnerships with several associates including Horace Ott and Ronnie Miller. Such work provided Solomon Burke with ‘I’m Hanging Up My Heart For You’ while Gladys Knight And The Pips reached the US Top 20 with ‘Letter Full Of Tears’.

Covay’s singing career continued to falter until 1964 when he signed with New York’s Rosemart label. Still accompanied by the Goodtimers (Ace Hall, Harry Tiffen and George Clane), his debut single there, the vibrant ‘Mercy Mercy’, established his effortless, bluesy style. Atlantic subsequently bought his contract but while several R&B hits followed, it was a year before Covay returned to the pop chart. ‘See Saw’, co-written with Steve Cropper and recorded at Stax Records, paved the way for other exceptional singles, including ‘Sookie Sookie’ and ‘Iron Out The Rough Spots’ (both 1966). Covay’s late 60s output proved less fertile, while the ill-founded Soul Clan (with Solomon Burke, Arthur Conley, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex and Ben E. King) ended after one single (‘Soul Meeting’). Covay’s songs still remained successful, Aretha Franklin won a Grammy for her performance of his composition ‘Chain Of Fools’. Covay switched to Janus in 1971, and from there moved to Mercury Records where he combined recording with A&R duties. Superdude 1, a critics’ favourite, reunited the singer with Horace Ott. Further releases appeared on Philadelphia International Records (1976), U-Von Records (1977) and Newman Records (1980), but while Randy Crawford and Bonnie Raitt resurrected his songs, Covay’s own career continued to slide downhill. In 1993, the Rhythm & Blues Foundation honoured the singer-songwriter with one of its prestigious Pioneer Awards. Covay, unfortunately, was by then suffering the after-effects of a stroke. A tribute album, Back To The Streets: Celebrating The Music Of Don Covay, recorded by many first-rate artists including Chuck Jackson, Ben E. King, Bobby Womack, Robert Cray and Todd Rundgren, was released by Shanachie in 1994. The same year the Razor & Tie label released a fine 23-track retrospective of his best work, compiled and annotated by soul archivist and producer Billy Vera. Covay returned to the studio at the end of the decade to record his first new album in over 25 years.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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