R&B singer and songwriter Don Covay, who wrote songs popularized by The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin and Little Richard has died. According to EurWeb.com, Covay died in his sleep on Saturday morning, Jan. 31, following two decades of battling with debilitating illness resulting from a massive stroke in 1992.
Covay’s earliest hit, 1961’s “Pony Time,” charted at No. 60 on the Billboard pop chart. It was credited to his band the Goodtimers and then later topped the charts a year later under Chubby Checker‘s performance in 1961. In 1964 he scored his most popular solo song “Mercy Mercy,” which included a young Jimi Hendrix on guitar and went on to find even wider acclaim the following year when the Rolling Stones covered it as the lead track on the U.S. version of their 1965 album Out of Our Heads.
He also experienced success with songs via Aretha Franklin through the 1960s, including “Chain of Fools,” which hit No. 2 for the singer in 1967 and won her a Grammy for her performance, after Covay had originally written it with Otis Redding in mind about 15 years earlier. The next year, Franklin released a version of his song “See-Saw” that charted at No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, following his original release in 1965 that went to No. 44 in its own right.
Covay was born in Orangeburg, S.C., the son of a Baptist preacher. Following his father’s death, he moved with his family to Washington, D.C., and sang gospel music in their group the Cherry Keys. He later crossed over to secular music with the doowop group the Rainbows, which occasionally also included Billy Stewart. In 1957, he joined the Little Richard Revue and launched his solo career as an opening act and the star’s chauffeur.
Through the 1960s, Covay worked as a musician and songwriter, including a job with the famed Brill Building in New York that included credits on hits such as Solomon Burke‘s “I’m Hanging Up My Heart for You,” Gladys Knight & the Pips‘ “Letter Full of Tears” and Wilson Pickett‘s first single on Atlantic “I’m Gonna Cry.” Though he saw hits for his own recording career with “Mercy Mercy” and “See-Saw” over this time, his success was mostly in writing for others. Etta James, Redding and Little Richard all sang Covay’s songs over the years, as well as covers by Gene Vincent, Wanda Jackson, Connie Francis, Steppenwolf, Bobby Womack, Wilson Pickett and many more.
In 1968, Covay helped coordinate soul supergroup the Soul Clan, with Solomon Burke, Joe Tex, Ben E. King and Arthur Conley, which saw modest success with the single “Soul Meeting.” From there, he played with the Jefferson Lemon Blues Band, which included Shirelles guitarist Joe Richardson and folk musician John Hammond, hitting No. 43 on the R&B chart with the single “Black Woman.”
Through the 1970s, Covay worked as an A&R executive for Mercury Records but also released his album Superdude, which yielded two of his biggest hits — “I Was Checkin’ Out, She Was Checkin’ In” and “Somebody’s Been Enjoying My Home.” He followed up with two more notable singles: “It’s Better to Have (And Don’t Need)” in 1974 and then the Muhammad Ali and George Foreman heavyweight boxing match-inspired “Rumble in the Jungle” the following year.
In the years following, Covay’s popularity waned and he largely withdrew from popular music, reappearing as a guest vocalist on the Rolling Stones’ 1986 album Dirty Work, alongside Tom Waits, Jimmy Cliff and Patti Scialfa.
Covay suffered from a serious stroke in 1992 that led to continued health problems leading up to his death. The next year, the tribute compilation Back to the Streets: Celebrating the Music of Don Covay was released including works by Rolling Stones guitarists Mick Taylor and Ron Wood, Bobby Womack, Iggy Pop, Ben E. King and others.
In 2000, Covay released his final album, Adlib, which featured contributions by Paul Rodgers, Wilson Pickett, Paul Shaffer and Huey Lewis, among others, as well as artwork by Ron Wood. A collection of rare Covay recordings called Super Bad was released in 2009.
Covay’s age has been widely reported as 76 at his death, however, Eurweb.com cites Covay’s publicist saying he was 78.