Don Covay & The Goodtimers - Temptation Was Too Strong (Atlantic 2357)
Temptation Was Too Strong
Don Covay was born in South Carolina, but moved north to Washington D.C. shortly after his Baptist Minister father passed away in the mid-forties. His family kept close to their religious roots, and soon formed a Gospel group called The Cherry Keys that performed locally.
While still in High School, he was invited to join The Rainbows, a hot DC doo-wop group that had recorded for Bobby Robinson. After cutting a few sides on Pilgrim that went nowhere, the group broke-up. Although the exact circumstances are up for grabs, this was right around the time he met Little Richard (in Sweet Soul Music, Peter Guralnick says that Covay was opening a show for Richard, while in The Quasar Of Rock, Richard himself says that he met him while in Washington to record Keep-A-Knockin').
Richard goes on to say that Covay "hung around me and my band, then he started to drive me places. I called him 'pretty boy'... he wrote a song based on that title and I said that he could use my band to record it..." The resulting single, Bip Bop Bip, was picked up by Atlantic in 1957, and is one of the greatest recorded examples of The Upsetters in their absolute prime, while Covay just rips it up, doing his best Little Richard. The artist credit on the record actually reads 'Pretty Boy'. I love it.
The next few years would see him recording for a dizzying number of labels. Blaze Records credited him as Don "Pretty Boy" Covay, while on his subsequent Sue effort, he's simply Don Covay.
To confuse matters further, Firefly listed him as 'Don Covay of the Rainbows', while on Big Records he was back to being known simply as 'Pretty Boy'. In any event, none of these records went anywhere.
He signed with Columbia in 1961, recording another trio of singles that died on the vine, before becoming one of Florence Greenberg's Soldier Boys on Scepter. A one-off single for Epic would follow, without much luck.
Meanwhile, a song he had written with former Rainbow John Berry, Pony Time, was released on Arnold Records, and would reach #60 on the pop charts. When Parkway Records released Chubby Checker's version of Pony Time in early 1961, it would blow by Covay's, going all the way to #1 both R&B and Pop on its way to becoming an even bigger hit than The Twist had been a couple of years earlier.
Cameo (Parkway's parent company) signed Covay to the label the following year, and would try to cash in on yet another dance craze, The Popeye. While Checker's Popeye (The Hitchiker) broke into the top ten, the single they released on Covay barely crawled to #75. It was called The Popeye Waddle and, despite a catchy Contours like number that promised 'you'll do fine if you get in line', it failed to catch on. The flip of that single, One Little Boy Had Money, hinted at the vocal style that was to come. Something called Do The Bug would follow, along with two Parkway singles that went nowhere.
The success of Pony Time, I'm sure, helped convince Don that his songwriting skills were in demand (as he would later explain to author Gerri Hirshey, "copyrights last longer than record labels"), and he moved to New York City. He began hanging around The Brill Building, and soon was writing songs for Roosevelt Music, the most respected name in R&B publishing in those days. It was during this period that he met Jesse Stone, who worked with him on composing 'happy blues' that were radio ready. Stone introduced him to Jerry Wexler, who had been hanging around the Brill Building ever since his Billboard days.
Wexler had just signed Solomon Burke to Atlantic, and was on the lookout for material for him. Covay knew the type of singer that Solomon was, and was able to tailor the follow-up record to his 1962 smash Cry To Me, specifically to him. I'm Hanging Up My Heart For You remains one of Burke's all-time classics, and marks the beginning of a life-long friendship and collaboration that would send songs like You're Good For Me and Tonight's The Night soaring into the top ten over the next few years.
I'm not sure why, but Atlantic was releasing Covay's own singles on a subsidiary label called Rosemart at that point (I've never seen records by any other artist on that imprint. have you?). Mercy, Mercy would crack the R&B top 40 in the fall of 1964, and essentially define Covay's own brand of funky guitar-driven R&B. There has been much speculation over the years about whether or not Jimi Hendrix played on that record (and Covay's next Rosemart release Take This Hurt Off Me), but there doesn't seem to be a definitive answer. One thing appears to be certain, that Covay (who wrote using the guitar instead of piano) is playing on those cuts. I like that.
Atlantic collected those singles, along with other material cut at their New York studios in 1964, and released Covay's first LP, Mercy!. In an interesting aside, Don had been using the name 'The Goodtimers' off and on since the first release of Pony Time in 1961. The name appears on the Rosemart singles, as well as on his Atlantic releases (like today's selection) until 1967. It apparently refers to the vocal group that backs him up on those records (sometimes, however, it sounds like only one other voice), but I can't for the life of me find out any information on who they might be. It seems possible that it was just Covay overdubbing a second harmony vocal (as was all the rage back then) but I don't know... In any event, his next single, Please Do Something, (featuring The Goodtimers, of course) went to #21 R&B in early 1965, becoming his biggest hit yet.
That was the summer that Wexler brought Wilson Pickett down to Stax to record his blockbuster hits In The Midnight Hour and 634-5789, and he figured it made sense to do the same with Don Covay. Just as Pickett had done, Covay collaborated with Steve Cropper to write the biggest-selling record of his career, the incredible See-Saw. It would spend almost four months on the charts, reaching #5 R&B and almost cracking the top 40 Pop (As good as this record was, I'm here to tell ya that the incendiary version that Aretha would take to the top ten in late 1968 is better... just ask Larry Grogan).
All in all, Covay recorded four sides at Stax (one of which was the amazing Sookie Sookie) before things got a little rough. According to Cropper; "Jim Stewart called Jerry Wexler and said 'Get Don Covay out of here. He's driving us nuts!'... I loved Don to death. We got along great, but I don't think Jim and them understood Don. He thinks in different areas... He jumps from this place to that. You never know what he's going to do next." Stewart used that, along with the house band's supposed dislike of Wilson Pickett, to bar Atlantic from sending any more of their artists down there in December of 1965.
As we talked about last week, this was the same period in which Covay wrote (and sang on) I Don't Know What You've Got (But It's Got Me) for his old friend Little Richard. As B side regular Lyle pointed out in the 'comments' on that post, Guralnick called that song "arguably equal to James Carr's The Dark End of the Street as the greatest soul ballad of all time... the Mt. Rushmore of soul." I will second Lyle's "Amen" to that.
After both Sookie Sookie and Iron Out The Rough Spots (the last of the Stax-recorded material) failed to chart in 1966, Atlantic brought Covay back into its New York studios to record today's cool B side. The flip of Somebody's Got To Love You (which didn't chart either), I think it has the same kind of vibe going on as the Little Richard record. With Atlantic's 'A team' (including King Curtis and Bernard Purdie) backing him up, I just love the way Covay name checks the whole Soul Clan on here, almost two years before the release of their lone single. You know, it's been commonly thought that Ben E. King was a last minute replacement for Wilson Pickett after he balked at the idea of being a member, but this way cool record would seem to prove otherwise... Don had him on the list all along!
He would return to the R&B top 50 with Shingaling '67, and In August of that year, Atlantic sent Covay down to American Studios in Memphis to record another unacknowledged soul masterpiece, It's In The Wind, one of my favorite records ever.
Covay was every record company executive's dream, a staff songwriter who could deliver the hits. Leonard Chess had begun using some of his material (think Etta James), but in late 1967, Atlantic would record what remains his best known work, Aretha Franklin's Chain Of Fools. With Joe South's tremelo-laden guitar tuned way down low to start things off, this immaculate Wexler production 'arranged and directed by Tom Dowd & Arif Mardin' cruised to #1 R&B (#2 Pop) in early 1968, and is simply one of those timeless songs that will never die.
I know we've talked about The Soul Clan before (in our Solomon Burke, Joe Tex, and Arthur Conley posts), but it's important to remember that the whole thing was Don Covay's idea. He was the one spinning the elaborate aspirations, daring to imagine a world in which Black Americans could control their own destinies. According to Solomon Burke, they had initially asked Atlantic for a million dollar guarantee up front, and the project was to include a complete album of material. The Clan was reportedly waiting for Otis Redding to fully recover from minor throat surgery when he died in that infamous plane crash in December of 1967. Covay, more than ever now, was committed to making his dream come true. He wrote and recorded the basic tracks of the single out in Hollywood with (an uncredited) Bobby Womack, and the rest of the Clan overdubbed their vocals as their schedule permitted. Arthur Conley, of course, would replace Otis, and Soul Meeting broke into the R&B top 40 in the summer of 1968. Although a great record, the Soul Clan's moment seemed to somehow already have passed. Whether it was due to a conscious decision on the part of the Atlantic brass (as Covay and Solomon Burke believe to this day) or not, that would be the end of that.
As the decade came to a close, Covay would start up another project, The Jefferson Lemon Blues Band. Along with John Hammond and Joe Richardson (whom Covay had worked with in The Soldier Boys), he created a very cool concept album called The House Of Blue Lights. The All Music Guide lauds it as "the sonic and spiritual blueprint for Let It Bleed and Exile on Main Street and parts of Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs". There ya go! Black Woman, a single by the band would chart in early 1970, and would be Covay's last recording for Atlantic.
Stops at Polydor and Janus would follow, before Covay signed with Mercury Records, reportedly working A&R for them as well. Superdude, his way cool 1973 album, would produce awesome cheatin' classics I Was Checkin' Out She Was Checkin' In and Somebody's Been Enjoying My Home. It's Better To Have (And Don't Need) clocked in at #21 R&B in 1974, followed by Rumble In The Jungle and one last Mercury album, Hot Blood, the following year.
He joined with Gamble & Huff at Philadelphia International for the disco-flavored No Tell Motel and Travelin' In Heavy Traffic in 1976, but the records didn't do much at the time. I'll tell ya though, the funky B side Once You Had It almost made it as today's selection... it's bad, yo! A single called Badd Boy on the Newman label would hit #75 in 1980, and that would be the end of Don's charting career.
In 1981, he was the man behind the long awaited Soul Clan reunion, which ended up being not much more than a press conference and a poorly planned concert. In any event, Covay still believed. As he told Guralnick; "The Soul Clan was to me the greatest thing that ever happened. I think the kind of love we had was an everlasting situation. If any of us ever need each other, you know we gonna be there."
In 1990, I went to the Lone Star Roadhouse in Manhattan to see a Booker T & the MGs reunion show at which Eddie Floyd was a special guest. I was seated at a table with a big guy in a pink suit and beaded corn-rows ala Stevie Wonder. I knew he had to be 'somebody', but I wasn't sure who. When Steve Cropper introduced him to the audience, I found out I was sitting with Don Covay. Unreal. As Covay got up to make his way backstage after the show, I followed along after him, and they let me pass, figuring I was with my man Don. Ol' Red was in soul heaven that night, hanging out with Cropper, Duck Dunn, Floyd and Covay talking about those glory days down on McLemore Avenue...
In 1992, Don Covay had a serious stroke that severely limited his abilities. He was unable to attend the ceremonies when the Rhythm & Blues Foundation presented him their pioneer award the following year. Through the love and support of his family and friends (the Rolling Stones apparently bought him his own rolling rehab facility), Covay has gotten better. He actually released an album called AdLib in 2000, on which he was joined by Wilson Pickett, Otis Clay, Dan Penn and Ronnie Wood.
Just last year, an album called Back To The Streets - Celebrating The Music Of Don Covay pulled together people like Wood, Mick Taylor, Gary U.S. Bonds and Robert Cray in a joyous tribute to Covay's incredible career. The BMI Repertoire database lists him as the writer or co-writer of some 340 songs. Songs that run the gamut from Doo-Wop to Rock & Roll, R&B, Soul, Blues and Funk. Don Covay's unique genius encompassed it all.