DON COVAY (Pretty Boy)
Born Donald Randolph Covay, 24 March 1938, Orangeburg, South Carolina
R&B singer, songwriter, producer.
Don Covay enjoyed success as a soul singer in the 1960s and 1970s, but he started out as a Little Richard imitator in 1957. This article will concentrate on the early phase of his career.
Born in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Covay was steeped in the gospel tradition of the Baptist church. Soon after the death of his father (a preacher) in 1947, the family moved to Washington, D.C. With two brothers and a sister Don formed a gospel quartet named the Cherry Keys. By the mid-fifties he switched to secular music, joining the doowop group the Rainbows around March 1956. Contrary to legend, this group did not include Marvin Gaye and Billy Stewart, although both fledgling singers did occasionally fill in for absent personnel during live performances. The two Rainbows singles with Covay’s participation are well worth checking out. “Shirley” appeared on three labels : first on Pilgim (June 1956), then on Argyle (1961) and it was reissued once again in 1973, on the Red Robin label. The rocker “Minnie” (Rama 209, issued in September 1956) was coupled with the ballad “They Say”, which is considered to be their best-sung group effort. The Rainbows broke up in December 1956.
When Little Richard performed at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. in January 1957, Don Covay acted as his chauffeur and warm-up act. On January 16, Richard did a recording session at a radio station in Washington, backed by his own road band, the Upsetters. This resulted in the classics “Keep-A Knockin’” and “Ooh! My Soul”. On the same day, the Upsetters accompanied Covay on two numbers, “Bip Bop Bip” and “Paper Dollar”, with Little Richard producing. The masters of the two songs were picked up by Atlantic. “Bip Bop Bip” is a maniacal rocker (complete with screams a la Little Richard), released on Atlantic 1147 in July 1957, and credited to “Pretty Boy”. This was the name Richard gave to Covay, after noticing how Don had copied his high processed pompadour. A second Pretty Boy session for Atlantic on October 30, 1957 yielded four tracks, none of which was originally released. Among them was Covay’s version of his own composition “Long Tall Shorty”, which was later recorded by Tommy Tucker and the Kinks (among others), both in 1964.
Sticking with the Pretty Boy moniker, Covay next recorded the great double-sider “Switchin’ in the Kitchen”/“Rockin’ the Mule (Back in Kansas)” for the Big label in early 1958, two wild rockers. Good as Covay’s rendition is, I rate Barrence Whitfield’s version of “Rockin’ the Mule” (1987) even higher. “Believe It Or Not” (Sue 709, late 1958) mentioned at least 17 recent hits in its lyrics. It was the first record released under his own name, Don Covay. A 1959 single for Herb Abramson’s Blaze label (“Standing in the Doorway”) presented him again as Don “Pretty Boy” Covay.
After two singles for Bigtop in 1960, Covay formed his own group, the Goodtimers. With John Berry, also an ex-member of the Rainbows, he wrote “Pony Time” for the group’s first record, which came out on the Arnold label. It was quickly covered by Chubby Checker. Both versions entered the Billboard charts on January 23, 1961, but while Checker’s record went all the way to # 1, the original stalled at # 60.
Don Covay settled into the Brill Building in NYC as a songwriter for Roosevelt Music. Many artists have recorded his songs, including Solomon Burke, Gene Vincent (“Big Fat Saturday Night”), Wanda Jackson (“There’s A Party Goin’ On”), Connie Francis (“Mr. Twister”) and Wilson Pickett. His biggest songwriting success of the early 1960s was “Letter Full of Tears”, a # 19 hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips in late 1961, and also a # 32 hit in the UK for Billy Fury in 1962.
During 1961-63, Covay recorded both as a solo act (for Cameo-Parkway) and with the Goodtimers (for Columbia and Epic), mostly dance craze records. His career as a soul singer took off with “Mercy Mercy” (# 35, 1964) and “Seesaw” (# 44, # 5 R&B, 1965), followed by several other R&B and pop hits on Atlantic and Mercury until 1974. Apart from “Pony Time”, “Letter Full of Tears” and “Seesaw”, his best known composition is “Chain of Fools”, a # 2 pop hit for Aretha Franklin in early 1968. Other hits include “Tonight’s the Night” by Solomon Burke (# 2 R&B, # 28 pop, 1965) and Little Richard’s “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me” (# 12 R&B, # 92 pop, 1965).
Don Covay recorded only sporadically after 1980. He died in January 2015, following two decades of battling debilitating illness resulting from a massive stroke in 1992. His influence on other singers, notably Mick Jagger and Van Morrison, has been enormous.
Alphabetical list of all songs recorded by Don Covay :
Discography : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/dcovay.htm
- Various artists, Have Mercy! The Songs of Don Covay (Ace CDTOP 1341, 2012). 26 tracks. Liner notes by Malcolm Baumgart and Mick Patrick.
Acknowledgements : Malcolm Baumgart, Jason Ankeny, Marv Goldberg, Wikipedia.
Dik, March 2016
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