Checkin' in with Don Covay
Before I get too deep into this entry, I want it to be clear to music nerds checkin' in on Overlooked Gems that although the the title of this entry is "Checkin' in with Don Covay" and although this entry will refer to memories associated with that Mercury collection of early-70s Covay recordings, this collection itself is not the place to start for sampling the man's music. Rather, the first thing I hope you do after reading this entry is to seek out a copy of the seemingly out of print Razor & Tie collection, Mercy Mercy: The Definitive Don Covay. This covers his early singles as a Little Richard-style shouter through his fertile country-soul peak through his Mercury years. Used copies of this CD run high, but if you start at the right spot, you might end up spending just as much or more buying the few in-print releases just to get the same 23 keepers and who knows how many more essentials?
If you think you know nothing about Don Covay yet are a lover of '60s music, there's a chance you know something about him through the songs he's written. Although he didn't have a great success as a solo artist, his songs were covered successfully by a number of soul and rock artists. Aretha Franklin made his "Chain of Fools" her own, and this song, with its rock-ready, snakey guitar intro typifies a characteristic of Don Covay's songwriting that, I think, made him a natural for British Invasion bands of the mid-60s to cover. Although I'd grown up loving "Chain of Fools", the first time I noticed Covay's name was as songwriter on the Rolling Stones' version of "Mercy Mercy" from their excellent Out of Our Heads album. Then I realized that it was his persistent, chugging pen behind the Small Faces' "Take This Hurt Off Me" and, finally, one of the coolest songs of my (and someone else's) childhood, Steppenwolf's "Sookie Sookie". Next thing I knew, an old friend with close connections to the Razor & Tie crew handed me a copy of the aforementioned Definitive Don Covay.
Covay's mid-60s songs were guitar driven more than most of the soul hits of that era, and his vocal style tended toward a conversational drawl that Mick Jagger must have obsessed over in developing his strongest vocal approach. I have no way of accounting for his lack of greater success as a solo artist and I in no way mean to diminish him among his peers, but something tells me that had he and his peak-era band, The Goodtimers, been able to perform as pasty-faced white kids with messy moptops, they would have been gold. Their recordings straddle the ridiculous soul-rock divide as well as those of any African American artist before Jimi Hendrix, who incidentally did a stint in Covay's band and may or may not have played guitar on "Mercy Mercy". Check it out someday, and whether it's actually Jimi on that track or not, you will hear, along with the guitar playing of Curtis Mayfield on Impressions records and Pops Staples' playing with the Staples Singers, the roots of a distinctive sound that Hendrix would bring to rock audiences.
So, getting back to my copy of that Checkin' in... collection, I pulled it out recently while preparing to burn a friend some songs that weren't on the Razor & Tie collection that he already owned and loved. As I listened to it, I was reminded that the Definitive collection covered just about all the best songs from this early-70s period, most notably the smooth soul ballad "I Was Checkin' In While She Was Checkin' Out" - a must have for those who've worn out their 45 of Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones". One song, however, that slipped through the cracks of the collection was "Hot Blood", a weird, funky, hoedown of a number that Sucking in the Seventies-era Rolling Stones would have killed for (and I mean that in a complimentary way).
As I listened more, however, to the fine ballad "We Can't Make It No More" and even the horrible but well-intentioned "Mind Is a Horrible Thing to Waste", I was brought back to the year of our Bicentennial, when I was getting my hair "styled" at some "unisex" hair salon in Northeast Philadelphia. The sign for this place showed a nude, interlocking, sexually ambiguous couple with blonde pageboy haircuts. The salon was on the first floor of an old house that also housed other "progressive" businesses - a natural foods store and the like. The doorway to the salon was draped in beads, and inside there were all the requisite plastic and vinly "pod" furnishings that came straight out of A Clockwork Orange. The guy who cut my hair, Gary, and his partner, struck me as being as stereotypically gay as imaginable, yet from what I could make out of their veiled conversations over the sound of scissors and hair dryers, these guys were getting all kinds of girlie action while snorting all kinds of coke. Was it actually '70s-era Mick Jagger cutting my hair?
Needless to say, this shop was the kind of place that could get a 13-year-old boy stoked for the coming era of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll, or in the case of this shop's music selection, mid-70s progressive soul. A popular soul station of the time, WDAS, was always turned on. The station is still on the air and still serving the African American community, but I'm not sure if it's as cool as it once was. How would I know, no long getting my hair cut at this shop? Circa 1976, this was THE hip soul station of its time, playing album tracks and long versions of songs like Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes' "Wake Up Everybody". I remember ads for Millie Jackson concerts - I think that was her name - her whole thing was about being dirty. I can't remember if they were able to play her songs, but I felt I was getting insider knowledge.
And how does this relate to Don Covay, you may be asking? Well, it got me thinking about how the failed aspirations of a period in time can be as worthwhile as the codified Time/Life versions that have already been reserved for future generations. (I dread the thousand more times I will live to see the same clip of those hippies doing that Grateful Dead dance in Golden Gate Park over a backing track of "Get Together" or "For What It's Worth"). It got me thinking about the bridges between music and subcultures and people and all that jazz. Now crank up your computer speakers and get down with "Hot Blood"!