Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Allen Toussaint 1938-2015

The quiet genius of Allen Toussaint flowed like a river through the city he loved. Enormously talented, he knew few equals as a songwriter, producer and arranger, yet he carried himself with humility and grace. "My music is homegrown from the garden of New Orleans," he said, preferring always to deflect the attention away from himself. Genteel, immaculate, Allen Toussaint was, without a doubt, one of the most wonderful people I've ever known.

I first met him in 1988 when I took the bus up to Clematis Avenue and knocked on the door of his Sea-Saint Studio. I was nothing short of amazed when he welcomed me in, and showed me around himself, even taking a seat at the piano and playing a little something. From that moment on, I became his disciple, and went to see him perform whenever I got the chance. Without fail, he took the time after each show to listen to me and answer my questions... he didn't have to do that, but he did.

As I continued in my quest to find the records he had a hand in creating, the doors kept opening in front of me, as one obscure discovery seemed to lead to the next. When Katrina hit ten years ago, Toussaint was the reason I started writing this stuff on the internet, as it felt like the wind might just blow it all away... Go Back Home (Alon 9021) would become my first B Side post in September of 2005.

Since then, Allen and his music have seemed to run like a thread through everything I've ever written. If you type his name into one of those red kelly search boxes, you get over ten pages of results. In 2006, I went so far as to dub him 'The Patron Saint' of the site, as he cut so many great B sides. The more I discovered about him, the more impressed I became with the impeccable quality of his work. In 2008, I posted a podcast called An Instant of Toussaint that pulled together some of the under-appreciated records he produced for the New Orleans label, and the hits just kept on comin'.

I didn't know what they meant at the time, but most of the 45s I was putting up bore that 'cryptic hyphenated set of two numbers' that would come to be known as The Cosimo Code. As we moved forward in researching and building the site in 2012, Toussaint and his work became more prominent than ever before, and the more we learned, the more it confirmed his importance in the development of the music.

This past April, when John Broven was invited by the French Quarter Fest to moderate a discussion about Cosimo Matassa that would feature Allen and Deacon John Moore, he asked me along to do a short presentation on The Cosimo Code, and what it represents. I was truly honored, and not a little nervous, to say the least... after all, this meant I would be sharing a stage with Toussaint!

Before the panel, I told Allen that he was now 'the patriarch' of New Orleans music, and that I thought he was every bit as important a figure as Louis Armstrong or Professor Longhair - but he'd have none of it, and dismissed that kind of talk with a wave of his hand. I kept at it, though, "You're the guy who called Professor Longhair 'The Bach of Rock'," I said, what should we call you?" He looked at me with that sardonic grin of his and said, "You can call me the guy who called Professor Longhair The Bach of Rock," and that was that.

You can check out a video of the entire panel discussion on The Cosimo Code, but I wanted to include this short clip from that day here:

Always at his best when someone else was in the spotlight, Allen's piano here is positively brilliant. I didn't know it would be the last time I'd ever see him....

"Music is everything to me short of breathing," he said, and now that music is all we have left. Rest In Peace, Southern Knight... this world is a smaller place without you in it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Mighty Sam - Silent Tears (Amy 990)

I just got the sad news that the great Mighty Sam McClain has passed on due to complications from a severe stroke he suffered back in April. Sam had a voice as big as the whole world, and a heart to match. Since I wrote this piece on him almost eight years ago his career had taken off, releasing over a dozen albums and touring all over the planet. Although he was nominated 22 times for a Blues Foundation award (including 12 for 'Soul-Blues Male Artist of the Year'), somehow he never won. That, my friends, is a crying shame.

Rest In Peace Mighty Sam!!

Silent Tears

Mighty Sam McClain is the genuine article.

As one of a family of thirteen children growing up in Winnsboro, Louisiana, he learned early on that life wasn't gonna be easy. Singing with his mother at Church on Sundays taught him the power of song, and helped him realize that he had a special talent. By the time he was in seventh grade, Sam (with the help of his gym teacher) had put together a group of his own, and was earning some money playing parties on the weekends. Maybe his stepfather resented that, I don't know, but he made it a point to try and bring this gifted boy down, telling him that he'd 'never amount to nothing'. Within a year young Sam was gone, setting out on his own to prove him wrong.

Heading up the road to Monroe, he got a job as the 'valet' for local bluesman Little Melvin. Travelling all over the South with him, he cut his teeth out there on the 'Chitlin' Circuit' in the late fifties and early sixties. When Melvin's featured vocalist Sonny Green left to pursue his solo career, young Sam stepped up and took his place. As he began to make a name for himself with his full throated vocals, he became known as 'Good Rockin' Sam'. On a swing through Pensacola, Florida in 1963, McClain liked it so much that he decided to stay, holding down a regular gig at the fabled 506 club. Tom's Tavern, another juke joint across town, hired him one night and, apparently unable to remember the 'Good Rockin' part, billed him as 'Mighty' Sam. The name stuck...

In 1956, an aspiring Nashville songwriter named Don Gibson recorded a song he wrote called Sweet Dreams (Of You), which made it to #9 on Billboard's Country and Western chart. It was picked up later that same year by Shreveport honky tonk hero Faron Young, who would take it all the way to #2, second only to an upstart kid named Elvis Presley. In 1960, Gibson, who was by then a superstar in his own right, cracked the top ten once more with his own newly recorded version.

In early 1963, Patsy Cline was finishing up work on an album with producer Owen Bradley. The primary architect of 'music row', his sweeping vision and trademark lush orchestrations had revolutionized the 'Nashville Sound'. Although Cline was afraid she might lose her 'down home' audience, she couldn't help but be impressed with the quality of the sessions. Before the record was released, she would meet her end in that fateful plane crash in March of 1963. The version of Sweet Dreams (Of You) she had recorded with Bradley was released as a single within a few weeks, and rocketed to #5 Country, while barely missing the Pop Top 40. This timeless song indeed 'had legs', and had earned its reputation as a Country 'standard'...

As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, local Pensacola dee-jay Papa Don Schroeder caught Mighty Sam's act at the 506 club in the summer of 1966. Itching to fulfill his destiny as a record producer, he approached Sam about travelling to Fame Studios with him up in Alabama (where he had cut demos with Rick Hall back in his Nashville days) with him to do a session. Schroeder had set it up for a weekend, when Hall could spare the studio time, but Sam was reluctant to lose a lucrative Saturday night at the club. Finally, he relented, and made the trip to Muscle Shoals with Papa Don and his father-in-law.

As Papa Don recalls it, Rick Hall didn't even come in for the session, and it was engineered by Dan Penn. Nobody really had any material ready, and so they worked on a few 'old saws' like Georgia Pines and, yes, Sweet Dreams (Of You). They were feeling pretty good about the results, until, as Sam tells it, somebody walked in with a copy of Billboard, and they couldn't believe their eyes. Not only was a version of Sweet Dreams already climbing the charts, it had been recorded by some kid named Tommy McLain who grew up in Jonesville, not fifty miles from Sam's hometown! Pretty spooky stuff, and McClain was convinced his 'career was over', even before it got started.

Undaunted, Papa Don loaded everybody into his International Harvester and set out for Nashville, where he still had a few connections. Their first stop was old friend Buzz Cason's office, and he loved the tapes. Cason then called Bell Records owner Larry Uttal, who was hanging around Nashville looking for the next big thing. Convinced he had found it, he offered Papa Don and Mighty Sam a contract. Hastily recording Cason composition Good Humor Man as the B side (as a way of thanking him with the 'mechanicals'), it was released as Amy 957 in the summer of 1966 (in spite of lucrative counter-offers from Jerry Wexler, who was not Uttal's biggest fan).

Although not reflected in the Billboard charts, Mighty Sam's version of Sweet Dreams was a big record in spite of (or maybe even because of) Tommy McLain's top twenty hit. Cason's infuence in Nashville (which I'm sure included WLAC), along with Uttal's in New York got it plenty of airplay in those markets. Before long, Sam was playing the Apollo, and things were looking good. His follow-up record, a high energy cover of Buster Brown's 1959 #1 R&B smash Fannie Mae, kept him popular out there on the circuit, although it once again failed to dent the charts.

On a return trip to Pensacola, Sam made what he feels may have been his biggest mistake when he took Papa Don to see The Dothan Sextet at his old haunt, Tom's Tavern. Schroeder, just as he had done with McClain, lured James Purify and Robert Dickey to Muscle Shoals, and the rest is history. After they hit the big time with I'm Your Puppet, Sam says he 'couldn't even get Don on the telephone'. When I told Schroeder (who was kind enough to leave a comment a couple of weeks ago) I was going to write this piece, he emailed me & said, "Mighty Sam was a very important part of my life. Unfortunately, he never did forgive me for not doing the same for him that I was able to do for the Purifys, Toney... etc. but God knows I tried. Sweet Dreams and Fannie Mae were the closest..."

In the Sundazed interview he goes on to say, "I guess he was just a little too black for the white market…not for me though. He was over the line even from Bobby Bland. But he was a great artist…a great artist. And I really tried, man. You see all those sides I cut on him? We just couldn’t make it happen." I do believe that Papa Don was trying, as Sam's Amy sides, when you listen to them today, are uniformly excellent. Today's selection is the flip of his fifth non-charting single for the company, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham's In The Same Old Way. With the possible exception of Arthur Conley's deeply emotional rendition, Mighty Sam's version remains the definitive one. The cool B side you're listening to was co-written by Papa Don and Oscar Toney Jr, and released in 1967. I'm not sure where it was recorded, although the fact that Toney is the co-writer would seem to place it after Schroeder made the move to American in Memphis... the guitar work here is positively amazing! What do you think... Reggie Young? Eddie Hinton? Moses Dillard...? {ed. note 11/15: OK, I just confirmed it with ol' Papa Don himself - the single was indeed cut at American, and features our guitar hero Reggie Young along with the rest of the 'Memphis Boys'. Thanks, Papa!}

Nothing if not persistent, Papa Don would continue to release 'product' on Mighty Sam right up until the day he walked away from Uttal and Bell/Mala/Amy in 1969. Listening to these records today, as I said, it's hard to imagine why they didn't meet with greater success. You can check them all out on the excellent Sundazed CD Papa True Love - The Amy Sessions. Once Papa Don had left the business (temporarily), Mighty Sam began working with his 'right hand man', Charlie Capri.

Wexler finally got his wish, as Capri got Mighty Sam a deal with Atlantic Records in 1970. After only two singles that didn't make the charts (one of which was included on Atlantic Unearthed: Soul Brothers last year), the big company lost interest, and dropped him (maybe going with Uttal wasn't such a bad idea after all). Capri's next stop was Malaco Records in Jackson, Mississippi, where they recorded the great cheatin' song Mr And Mrs Untrue.

Atlantic was the Malaco distributor at that point, and refused to pick up the single on an artist they had just cut loose. Malaco decided to release it anyway and, in what must have seemed like 'deja vu all over again' to Sam, they watched in disbelief as Candi Staton's version of the same song appeared on Fame around the same time. Candi's record climbed all the way to #20 R&B, while Sam's died on the vine. Unreal. As the market for his kind of music began to disappear in the mid-seventies, the once mighty McClain sank into a dark and desolate period that found him living on the streets, and eating out of garbage cans.

Drifting to New Orleans, he came to the attention of The Neville Brothers, who were instrumental in getting him recorded by the small Orleans label in 1984. An album would follow a few years later, after which Sam was invited to perform in Japan. A live LP (which featured Wayne Bennett on the guitar) was released by Japanese label DeadBall in the mid-eighties.

All of this brought him to the attention of Hammond Scott, and he became the featured vocalist on the 1987 Black Top release Hubert Sumlin's Blues Party. Although this is probably what caused Sam to be categorized from that moment on as a 'Blues' artist, at least he was working again. Relocating to Houston, he tried his hand at real estate, but the music was in his blood.

A move to Boston in the early nineties was followed by the critically acclaimed Audioquest album Give It Up To Love in 1993. Now able to support his own band, Sam found regular work in and around New England, as well as touring the European 'festival circuit' every year. Moving to southern New Hampshire, he put down roots, and has continued to release great records right up to the present day, forming his own record label and production company in 2003.

An unashamed Christian, Mighty Sam's music refuses to be categorized, and contains elements of Gospel, Blues and Soul, in a true reflection of what lives in his heart. As a way of giving something back, his latest project has been to join in the Give Us Your Poor campaign to end homelessness. In addition to appearing on the album (released this past September), he'll be performing at the benefit concert this Friday, November 16th at the grand re-opening of the Strand Theater in Boston.

Just Like Old Times.

Friday, May 15, 2015

B.B. King - I Can't Lose (Kent 393)

I Can't Lose

It is hard to imagine a more pivotal and important figure in the history of American Music than B.B. King. After putting Beale Street on the map in the early fifties, he went on to dominate the R&B charts for decades to come. In the 1970s, through groundbreaking albums like Indianola Mississippi Seeds (which actually climbed to #26 on Billboard's Pop album chart!), he popularized The Blues, and brought it to a whole new audience of white kids like me. During his long lifetime, B.B. changed the world with his music, and became one of the most universally loved and respected musicians of all time along the way.

Rest in Peace, Blues Boy...
There Must Be A Better World Somewhere!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Percy Sledge - True Love Travels On A Gravel Road (Atlantic 2679)

I just heard that yet another Southern Soul legend has gone on. A much-loved figure throughout his long career, his warmth and love of the music shone through every note that Percy Sledge sang...

Here's an appreciation of Percy I wrote back in 2006:

True Love Travels On A Gravel Road

Today's selection presented me with a bit of a problem. I had found it listed as both an A side and a B side, and was counting on the Atlantic discography at Global Dog to be the tiebreaker... only they seem to now be toast [Ed. Note: as of 1/7 Global Dog appears to be back in business. The verdict? - B side!]. In any event, this song you're listening to now is, in my opinion, the best (OK-second best) thing Percy Sledge ever recorded, and one of my favorite soul songs by anybody ever.

I first heard it when Peter Guralnick included it as the opening track on the companion CD to Sweet Soul Music - Voices From The Shadows, in 1992. As many of you know, this was right around the time my wife and I got engaged. The song was high in the rotation in those days, and still does either one of us in... I have yet to listen to it all the way through without jumping out of the ol' chair and singing along with a lump in my throat. I know, I'm a sap.

For whatever reason, this song doesn't seem to get any press whatsoever. The silly album reviews of Percy's various greatest hits CDs in places like the 'all' music guide fail to even mention it. Who knows why. B side or not, I wanted to kinda wind down this year's posts with one of my true desert island 45s...

Quin Ivy is yet another of those southern white boys who grew up listening to John R and Hoss Allen over WLAC. He fell in love with the music, and before long was emulating his heroes spinning R&B records as a dee-jay on his hometown radio station in Oxford, Mississippi. He moved on to WMPS in Memphis before landing a job on WLAY in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the early sixties. Like everyone else in town back then, he got caught up in the 'songwriting fever' that was going around, and began writing lyrics for a young Rick Hall. Ivy was Hall's co-writer on two early Jimmy Hughes recordings, I'm Qualified and Lolly Pops, Lace And Lipstick, the B side of Fame's first release, top 20 R&B hit Steal Away.

Quin opened a record store in Sheffield called Tune Town, and watched as Rick's new Fame studio grew. Fame soon had more business than it could handle, and Ivy approached Hall with an idea; what if he were to open his own small studio to record the people Hall was turning away? Rick was all for it, and Ivy opened his Norala (presumably Northern Alabama) studio across the street from Tune Town in late 1965. He had initially asked Rick to let him hire Dan Penn as his engineer, but he turned him down and introduced him to local guitarist Marlin Greene instead. The two became fast friends, and Ivy soon gave him a percentage of the business.

Although there appears to be several versions of the story, this is basically what happened next; Jimmy Hughes' cousin was an orderly at Colbert County Hospital, and had begun singing with a local combo called the Esquires nights and weekends. The band was working the same fraternity circuit that the Fairlanes and the Mark Vs had done a few short years before. Percy Sledge and fellow Esquires Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright had come up with a song that they thought could be a hit. They loaded Wright's Hammond B3 into the back of a pickup and hauled it down to Fame. Dan Penn recorded the tune, and pleaded with Hall for a chance to produce them. Rick flatly refused, and Dan sent them over to see Ivy at Norala.

Jimmy Johnson was working part time at Tune Town, and had agreed to 'work the board' and engineer Norala's sessions on the primitive equipment Ivy had assembled. They worked and re-worked the song the Esquires had brought them in the fall of 1965, using studio musicians who were 'moonlighting' from Fame. The version they eventually brought to Rick Hall would feature Spooner Oldham on the Farfisa, Roger Hawkins on drums and Junior Lowe on the bass along with Marlin Greene on guitar. As soon as Hall heard it, he knew it was a hit, and called Jerry Wexler at Atlantic. Although Wexler was skeptical at first, Rick assured him that he felt "strong as death" that the song would be a #1 record.

He was right, of course. Wexler had worked out a deal with Ivy to lease the single (a deal that would include a 2% 'finders fee' for Rick Hall), but he wanted him to re-cut it, and clean it up a little. Happy to have landed a deal with a major label, Quin set to work polishing the track, making sure to fix the off-key horn section, and Percy's painfully out of tune vocals. He sent the new master off to New York, and Atlantic released When A Man Loves a Woman in April of 1966. It would quickly soar to #1 on both the R&B and pop charts, and was just an absolute monster. Much to Ivy's amazement, the big company had used the original version by mistake!

It's hard to overstate the incredible power of this song that came up out of the woods of Alabama and somehow slowed everything down, defining the meaning of romance for an entire generation in the process. It still gives me chills.

Percy Sledge had put Muscle Shoals on the map, and his brand of deep southern soul along with it. Sledge's follow up record, Warm And Tender Love (the Joe Haywood song reportedly pitched to Wexler by Bobby Robinson backstage at the Apollo), would hit #5 R&B (#17 pop) despite Ivy's 'Mr. Whitebread' production. Incredibly, it was recorded at the same Norala session as all time Penn-Oldham classic It Tears Me Up in May of 1966, while When A Man Loves a Woman was still topping the charts.

Needless to say, Sledge had gone from hospital orderly and weekend warrior to the big time in about six months. Second only to Otis Redding in this poster at left, it must have been quite an adjustment. Suffering from 'nervous exhaustion,' Sledge reportedly checked himself in to the hospital where he used to work for a week in late 1966. Singles like Baby Help Me and Penn-Oldham's Out Of Left Field barely made the R&B top 40 in early 1967 and, as is often the case, Percy was having trouble duplicating his initial big smash.

Ivy was able to build a new facility by then, however, and opened Quinvy Studios across town on Broadway in Sheffield. He would soon create his own labels as well, and great records by local talent like Tony Borders and Bill Brandon were released on his Quinvy and South Camp imprints. They remain some of the rarest, and best, of the Muscle Shoals 45s of the late sixties (if you can find them!).

Percy was back in the top ten with the fantastic Take Time To Know Her in the spring of 1968, and continued to tour constantly. Sudden Stop and My Special Prayer would hover around the top 40 later that year.

In early 1969, RCA booked Elvis into Chips Moman's (and Dan Penn's) American Studios in Memphis. American was in the middle of an incredible run of hits (like Cry Like A Baby) at that point, and RCA was trying to 'capture lightning in a bottle' and revitalize the King's sagging career. The album they came up with is an absolute classic, with 'country soul' songs like Suspicious Minds, In The Ghetto, and Kentucky Rain becoming huge chart hits. The industry, of course, took notice, and Presley's 'comeback' had begun.

Quin Ivy apparently took notice as well. He had made the top 40 with Sledge's syrupy version of Love Me Tender in 1967, and figured if it was 'country soul' the people wanted, who better to give it to them than the man who helped invent it! Sledge covered Any Day Now (as Presley had done on the album), and broke the top 40 for Atlantic again in April of 1969. True Love Travels On A Gravel Road was written by 'Music Row' giants Dallas Frazier and 'Doodle' Owens and included on the Presley album. Ivy apparently recorded Percy's remarkable version we have here today in September of that year. It was released as the flip of Faithful And True, a Dan Penn-Marlin Greene slow dance, and may well have been the B side, as the romantic ballad was viewed as Percy's 'bread and butter'.

I've long suspected that the positively awesome lead guitar on here is furnished by the great Eddie Hinton, and Bruce Schurman has confirmed for us over on the Mighty Field Of Vision Group that Hinton did play on the session along with Marlin Greene. He's not sure who takes the lead, however. In any event, neither side of the record even dented the charts. Changing times, along with Atlantic's declining interest in their R&B artists, may have contributed to that. I don't know. All I can say, once again, is how much this record continues to floor me. Boy, is it good.

Quin Ivy walked away from the whole thing in 1970, and went on to become a professor of Business Administration back in Mississippi.

Although nothing much was happening, Sledge hung in there with Atlantic until 1973 when a song called Sunshine barely made the charts. He signed with manager Phil Walden's Capricorn label the following year. Through a 'special arrangement' with Walden, the Ivy produced I'll Be Your Everything put Percy back in the R&B top 20 in late 1974. Disco was rearing its ugly head by then, and Sledge's charting days were soon over.

Percy Sledge has continued working, however, and still performs over 100 shows a year all over the world. He remains one of the most loved performers of all time, and never fails to emotionally connect with his audience.

There was a lot of grumbling last year when he was inducted into the silly Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. People were actually saying that he was nothing more than a 'one hit wonder' who didn't deserve to be in there. Can you imagine?

As far as I'm concerned, Percy Sledge is a national treasure... Bless his Sweet Little Soul!

...May He Rest In Peace!

Monday, February 02, 2015

Don Covay & The Goodtimers - It's In The Wind (Atlantic 2494)

It's In The Wind

I just got the news that Soul Visionary Don Covay has left us. His contributions both as a songwriter and performer (and founding member of The Soul Clan) will live on forever. This hauntingly beautiful record, cut at American Studio in Memphis in 1967, still just lays me out every time I hear it.

"There's a sad, sad day for me up ahead..." May He Rest In Peace.

Below is an appreciation of Covay that first appeared on the site back in 2007.
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 1, 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.

Have Mercy!