Up Down All Around Like A See Saw (Don Covay)

Well 3 clips may be the magic number & you are all busy people but Don Covay was responsible for a whole lot of great Soul music. There’s no way in Hull that I can do the right thing by him as an artist by only featuring his own recordings because he was an equally talented songwriter. Whatever the changing styles & tastes in 1960’s African-American music when other singers came around calling then Don Covay usually had a song that was just the thing for them. Here’s one he kept for himself.

 

 

“Mercy Mercy” was a Top 40 US hit for Don & the Goodtimers in 1964. It’s a Gospel-inflected Soul gem, simple with a raw edge to the vocal underpinned by a variation on the sort of guitar work Curtis Mayfield brought to the Impressions. If, as it seems, Jimi Hendrix played on this, he performed the song on early Experience gigs, then he did a fine job. At the time  Rolling Stones were the world’s foremost R&B covers band. With Jagger doing his best Covay impression, they recorded a fine version for their third LP “Out of Our Heads” (1965). This wasn’t his only song to be picked up by the British Beat Boomers. “Long Tall Shorty”, Tommy Tucker’s follow up to his big hit “Hi-Heel Sneakers” was covered by both the Kinks & the Graham Bond Organisation.

 

Image result for don covayCovay progressed from his family gospel group to the more secular Rainbows before touring with Little Richard as his chauffeur & as “Pretty Boy” his opening act. In 1960 “Pony Time”, a song he recorded with the Goodtimers was picked up by Chubby Checker, riding high on the Twist craze, & became a #1 record. Such a big hit brings people calling. As he said later “copyrights last longer than record labels”. For a while Don provided songs about new, real or imaginary, dances. One he kept for himself, “The Popeye Waddle” unfortunately didn’t catch on because I think I would be a natural. There was though a whole lot more to Don Covay than dance instructions.

 

 

Oh yeah, the lovely Gladys & her equally lovely Pips hit big with “Every Beat of my Heart” in 1961 when Ms Knight was just 17. Don Covay provided this follow-up, another US Top 20 hit. A direct, impassioned ballad, covered in the UK by Billy Fury, the best of our early rockers, showed another side to his talents. Solomon Burke, Atlantic’s biggest star, took “I’m Hanging Up My Heart For You” & in 1965 his old boss Little Richard came to New York for “I Don’t Know What You Got But It’s Got Me”, a slow-burning two part overlooked Deep Soul classic. (There’s no room here for these songs but they are in your Youtube & you should find them. Do you like good music ? Then you will love the Little Richard track). Atlantic signed Don as a performer at a time when they were striking a partnership with a new Hit Factory at Stax studios in Memphis.

 

 

Image result for don covay bobby womack“See Saw” is co-written with Steve Cropper, guitarist with Booker T & the M.G.s. This group & the Memphis Horns were bringing a raw power to Soul. Don only recorded 4 tracks at Stax, this R&B hit, 2 co-writes with Cropper & “Iron Out the Rough Spots”, a Jones/Cropper/Porter joint. They can be found on the 1966 LP “See Saw”, his most consistent collection to date. In the UK “See Saw” found an audience in the Mod clubs & its place in the repertoire of Soul covers bands. In 1968 Aretha Franklin took “See Saw” into the US Top 10. She already knew that she could get a hit record on a Don Covay song.

 

 

In 1967 Atlantic took their new signing Aretha Franklin to Muscle Shoals Alabama where FAME studios were making hits. The turbulence of that first visit is well documented but the label knew they were on to a good thing & by the end of the year there were 5 Top 10 singles & the new star was the Queen of Soul. Don Covay’s “Chain of Fools” was the 5th of those records, the opening track of her almost perfect LP “Lady Soul”.  Aretha’s vocals, FAME house band the Swampers (Joe South on guitar) & back-up Sweet Inspirations combined to produce a perfect song & a Grammy for Ms Franklin. This is where Soul was at 50 years ago.

 

Don had been around the block & Peter Wolf off of J Geils Band relates a story from that time. On the promise to Jerry Wexler (Atlantic’s head honcho) of a better song than “Chain…” the label delivered an array of top of the range musical equipment which Don then sold on. There are 854 recordings around where Covay is credited as songwriter. He knew that his royalty cheques didn’t always match what he thought he was due.

 

 

Image result for don covay bobby womackDon was an ebullient, energetic character, his confidence surely reinforced by his success. His recorded rarely but in 1968 he instigated the Soul Clan, an ambitious amalgamation of 5 Soul Stars, himself,  Solomon Burke, Joe Tex, Arthur Conley & Ben E King. Things did not run smoothly, Otis Redding died, Wilson Pickett pulled out, Burke’s plan to set up extensive black-owned businesses needed a million dollars from Atlantic that the label was unlikely to hand over. An LP, “Soul Meeting” (1968), was produced by Covay who provided a majority of the material. “That’s How It Feels”, the outstanding ensemble track of the album is co-written with Bobby Womack who was then having more success as a writer than with his own records & who often expressed his admiration for his collaborator.

 

Times were changing, Soul was getting Funky, with no label support & egos to juggle the Clan fizzled out. Don looked back & recorded with the Jefferson Lemon Blues Band, a pretty good LP with a touch of Taj Mahal about it. In 1972 he left Atlantic, his last 45 a cover of “Everything I Do Goin’ Be Funky”. The new head of A&R at Mercury was ready for the new thing.

 

 

Image result for don covay bobby womack“Super Dude” (1973) is such a good record. Don’s emotional story-songs are still straight to the heart but, now in his mid-thirties, things are getting a little more complicated.”I Was Checking Out, She Was Checking In”,his biggest Pop hit, is not the only fine “love gone wrong” ballad on the LP. Recorded in Alabama with Womack & the Muscle Shoals band, as good as it got back then, it really is a top class mature example of Southern Soul. Mick Jagger was still listening to Don Covay, you’ve heard “Fool To Cry” haven’t you ? A track from the sessions, the funktastic “It’s Better To Have (& Don’t Need)” made it on to UK radio & gave him a UK hit.

 

Don spent the Disco years at Philadelphia International, another right place at the right time. There was little more new music & in 1992 he suffered a stroke. Jagger & Richard are said to have helped with the rehabilitation expenses, friends & admirers recorded a tribute LP in 1993. There’s so much good music made by Don Covay. I must, at least, mention the songs he wrote with Wilson Pickett & the Reggae versions of his tunes. If you know his music then you know how big his contribution to Soul music was. If you don’t then he really is worthy of your attention.

 

 

 

 

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The Grass Is All Synthetic And We Don’t Know For Sure About The Food (John Hartford)

As a young musician growing up in St Louis, Missouri John Hartford was inspired by the Grand Ole Opry radio show & particularly the finger-picking stylings of banjo master Earl Scruggs. While other white teenagers were trying to play Rhythm & Blues but starting to rock & roll John’s high school band played Bluegrass. He was in his mid-20s when he moved to Nashville in 1965 & signed with RCA records the following year. The 6 LPs he made with Felton Jarvis, Elvis’ man in Nashville, are a mix of poetic romanticism & wry humour. Hartford had more going on than the folkie Dylan imitators, was never, despite some incongruous orchestration, country enough for diehards but too rootsy & individual for a pop audience. It was a song from his 2nd LP “Earthwords & Music” which found an audience & changed his life.

 

“Gentle On My Mind” was the title track of Glen Campbell’s breakthrough LP (“The Big, Bad Rock Guitar of…” had missed out in 1965). There were 4 Grammy awards waiting for the song in 1968, 2 of them for Hartford himself. Later that year Dean Martin recorded his version which was a Top 3 UK hit. It became an upbeat Aretha Franklin B-side, she shows crooner Andy Williams how it’s done in this clip. When Elvis went to American Sound Studio for his “…In Memphis” record he included his take on the song. Well Alright ! The royalty cheques must have been so big that 4 guys had to carry them to John’s door. After writing such a major hit John Hartford was pretty much allowed to follow whatever musical path he wanted. To his credit he didn’t choose to tailor his songs in search of another middle-of-the-road crossover hit.

 

 

John was around US TV in the late-60s. He regularly appeared  on the Smothers Brothers show & again when Glen Campbell got his own series. He joined Johnny Cash for a Bill Monroe medley & a solo spot of “I’ve Heard That Tear-Stained Monologue You Do There By The Door Before You Go” (phew !) which is pretty, pretty good. Better still he added his banjo & fiddle to the the Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”, check “I Am A Pilgrim” & “Pretty Boy Floyd”. Young rock musicians were starting to mine a vein of American roots music which had been neglected in the rock & roll years.

 

Hartford’s contract with RCA ended & he moved to Warner Bros in 1971. His first LP for them was quite a surprise. The clean cut young man, the welcome guest in America’s living rooms, had been replaced by a Fabulous Furry Freak Brother ! I admit that the striking cover of “Aereo-Plain” made me take a closer look. The quality of his accompanists impressed too & when I got the record home & took a listen I knew that I had made a spur of the moment purchase I would not regret (mentioning no names !).

 

 

“Aereo-Plain” is a joyous mix of John Hartford’s love for Bluegrass & letting his freak flag fly. He sounded more comfortable with his music & with his attitude than on any of his previous records. He assembled an all-star band of Nashville Cats & they sound clean as country water, wild as mountain dew. Guitarist Norman Blake had joined Bob Dylan for his Nashville visit, Randy Scruggs, bass, was the son of Hartford’s hero Earl. Tut Taylor was Music City’s Dobro player of choice while Vassar Clements, a veteran of Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys later added his fiddle to records by members of the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers & the Beatles. John’s fluid, subtle banjo playing fits right in with these guys. Together they make a beautiful noise, producer David Bromberg was told to let the tape roll & leave it on.

 

 

The LP is lyrically retrospective, “Tear Down The Grand Ole Opry”, “Back in the Goodle Days”, “Steamboat Whistle Blues” & the lovely “First Girl I Loved” (a cousin ?) are all wistful & whistleable. The stoner “Holding” & the out there “Boogie” bring High Times humour to the piece. “Aereo-Plain” has the same blend of hippie spirit & respect for musical roots as its contemporaries “Workingman’s Dead”, “Burrito Deluxe”, “Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers’ Favorites”, modern country rock classics that avoided worthy revivalism. It’s somewhere in your e-appliance (try Y-tube).

 

Of course the record barely made the Top 200 of the LP charts & the following year’s “Morning  Bugle”, recorded with Blake & former Miles Davis bassist Dave Holland was barely promoted. Hartford walked away from Warners & didn’t record again for 4 years. When he returned “Aereo-Plain” had become more recognised as a modern Bluegrass classic (I’m not gonna say “newgrass”…oh sh…!). John became a fixture on the folk & country circuit, a virtuoso welcomed by many talented musicians, a solo performer on banjo & fiddle, playing while dancing on a a piece of amplified plywood. He loved the steamboat culture of the Mississippi River & held a pilot’s licence as well as being an authority on its music & stories. Though suffering from Non-Hodgkin lymphoma he was still around to contribute to the soundtrack of “Oh Brother Where Art Thou ?”, another revival of a music that had never gone away.

 

 

Since his passing in 2001 the 6 LPs he recorded for RCA have been reissued. “Aereo-Plain” & “Modern Bugle” are the starting points for John Hartford. His intelligent, romantic, witty  country-pop songs make his work before those 2 worth checking too.

 

 

They Say That It’s A Man’s World But You Can’t Prove That By Me (Dan Penn)

A recent article in the New York Times, “Why Music Makes Our Brain Sing”, was an attempt to explain our reaction to music in terms of neuroscience. There was a load of dopamine flooding the striatum blah blah. Yeah, “Mr Zoot Horn Rollo, hit that long, leaning note & make it float”. I am a music obsessive, I know what I like & I like what I bloody well know. You can take an auditory cortex, any expectations based on our stored musical representations & shove ’em.

All I know is that this is aural perfection. Don’t know why, don’t care, it just is. Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom !

This is the newest & the best Y-tube version of “I’m Your Puppet” by Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, the guys what wrote it. In 1966 James & Bobby Purify hit with the song. Dan & Spooner, confident that this music thing just might work, left Alabama for American Studios in Memphis where they became involved in a period of extraordinary creativity & success.  I was seeing the names Holland, Dozier, Holland on all of those Motown records, finding out that Steve Cropper & the M.G.s were playing on all the Stax hits & I was checking the name Penn on the credits of a lot of good tunes. “Out of Left Field”, the B-side of “Judy In Disguise”, that was one.

Dan always thought that the hit version of “Puppet” was a little fast & this take on the song harks back to the 1965 original. Allmusic identifies a weary resignation in this later version which just ain’t there. It’s a middle-aged interpretation, taking it’s time to appreciate  the good stuff, not coming & going in a heaving rush…you get me ?

Another slice of Paradise. I believe that this clip is possibly a high point of Western civilization…seriously. Dan Penn wrote “Do Right Woman” & “Dark End of the Street”, 2 dead-stone, all-time, Hall of Fame classics with Chips Moman, the owner of American Sound Studios. Atlantic Records wanted to break Aretha out of the R&B charts & added some Memphis/Muscle Shoals magic to an already formidable talent. “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” is a modern manifesto for women along with the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”. When Gram Parsons, another outstanding voice, recorded the song as a country waltz it was no less distinctive both as a tune & for being sung by a man.

“Do Right Man” was the title of Penn’s 1994 solo LP, his first for 20 years. I love the 1973  “Nobody’s Fool” but the hits are on “Do Right”. There’s a simplicity about these songs which seems effortless but you know it isn’t. There’s a lyrical maturity & there is Soul.  He started to perform his great songs in concert & I was lucky to see him in London in 1994. An unassuming man, dressed a little incongruously in farm dungarees, he had no choice but to accept the gratitude of a large audience who considered him to be a legend.

The ideal accompaniment to a long Summer evening when business has been taken care of & a man can sit a while, smoke, whittle, scratch or just watch the light fade. All of these or any combination thereof is acceptable. Casual Records, a British label founded by the estimable D.J. Ross Allen, released a couple of compilations called “Country Got Soul” in 2003. Whether the tracks were country, soul or a hybrid is of no consequence, they are great collections. In 2005 some of those surviving artists gathered at Dan Penn’s basement studio in Nashville & recorded “Testifying” as the Country Soul Revue.

Spooner showed out, Donnie Fritts too. Bonnie Bramlett was still singing & Tony Joe White reminded us how good he was.It’s a good old boys (& girl) Buena Vista thing & “Sapelo” by Larry Jon Wilson is a stand out piece of glorious Southern Gothic. This was my introduction to Larry Jon, the singer who ‘could break your heart with a voice like a cannonball’. I have no idea what & when “Oglethorpe Time” is but it sounds great. So does “Testifying”,  warm., intimate music produced by artists happy to have been doing what they’re doing for quite some time.