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.

 

 

 

 

Whoo- Hoo ! Does Gladys Knight Have Pips ?

By the time Gladys Knight & the Pips signed for Tamla Motown in 1966 the family group were an established live attraction with 2 US Top 20 hits to their name. Gladys had 2 small children, her husband was the group’s MD. They were ready to take care of their own business &  independence was not always a good fit with Berry Gordy’s Motown manifesto. A case can be made that they did not always get a fair shake at the Detroit label. The Pips were never at the front of the queue for the sure-fire hit songs from the Holland-Dozier-Holland production line, their records were released on the label’s Soul subsidiary. They knew what worked & worked what came their way. Their breakthrough hit, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, in 1967 was TM’s biggest selling 45 to date. Their last hit for the label in 1973, the Grammy award winning “Neither One of Us” made #2. In between they made some music which sits comfortably alongside the headline acts on any Motown anthology.

 

 

This clip is, despite the sound quality, pretty special. Shot in 1970 on a hospital ward for soldiers wounded in Vietnam, Gladys looks stunning & sings wonderfully. The Pips, brother Merald, cousins William & Edward, look sharp & dance up a storm. There’s a rocking band over in the corner so let’s do the show right here. The healing power of music. I feel better watching a film of it over 40 years later.

Of course “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is Marvin Gaye’s song now. Producer  Norman Whitfield had co-written it with Barrett Strong then recorded versions with Smokey Robinson & Marvin which didn’t pass Motown’s weekly quality control meetings.(Must have been a good week !). It was a faster, more urgent take on the song by Gladys Knight & the Pips that was released & became a hit. This was the style favoured for their singles, in fact an earlier song, “Take Me In Your Arms & Love Me, a hit in the UK, was edited for a US LP because it was too darned hot ! Motown were moving to the West Coast, busy making Diana Ross a movie star & bigging up the Jackson 5. The label missed that Gladys & the Pips’ smooth take on songs with a country feel,  Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night” & the hit “Neither One…”  was bubbling up & breaking through.

 

 

Leaving Motown was the best thing that ever happened to the group. At Buddah there was better promotion, a greater freedom to choose their own material, a growing maturity & sophistication & Gladys blossomed as a singer & as a star.”The Empress of Soul” led her group to a run of Top 5 singles & gold record sales for their LPs. “Neither One Of Us” had been written by country songwriter Jim Weatherly & “Imagination”, the first post-Motown LP employed 5 more of his songs. This music was not the earthy country soul of Muscle Shoals & the Southern USA, it was the Sound of Young America growing up with its audience. An audience that had always liked Gladys Knight & the Pips.

On one of Weatherley’s songs “Midnight Train To Georgia” (originally “Midnight Plane To Houston”) Gladys’ swelling vocal is complemented by perfectly arranged backing vocals from the Pips. This is the group’s signature song & while I like to stray from the beaten path on these things I know a classic when I hear one. “Midnight Train…” has got to be included here. The group was riding high. At the 1975 Grammy awards they were impressive & charming when they sang the nominees for Song of the Year. “And the Pips” appeared on the short-lived Richard Pryor TV show performing backing vocals with an empty microphone stage left.

 

 

In 1974 they recorded a soundtrack LP for the film “Claudine” with the great Curtis Mayfield. The film starred Darth Vader & Diahann Carroll (oh my !). Carroll hooked a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role as a welfare mother of 6 children. It was not a typical blaxploitation movie. No superfly, black private dick risking his life for fellow man across 110th St. For the soundtrack Gladys & the Pips’ smooth assurance meets Curtis’ Chicago funk & lyrical social commentary to create, in my opinion, the best LP of a long career. Over on “Soul Train” they know that they have got it going on with “On & On”, the Pips getting down with their bad selves & no-one to edit beautiful Gladys now. Even the normally self-absorbed dancers know that they are in the land of the good groove. Fantastic.

At the time these records were made I liked more ham-hock in my cornflakes when it came to African American music, some funk in the trunk. Now I watch the clips & they make me smile. A class act at a time when Soul music was moving towards disco & the mainstream. Gladys went on to continued success with the Pips & as a solo artist. That’s a lot of music to sort through. A good start would be to compare those 7 years at Motown with the hits in the 3 years after 1973. You may not be able to decide which you prefer but you will have a damn good time trying.

It’s like being on soul train

Over here in the U.K. we never got to see “Soul Train” on our TVs. There would be an occasional clip on “Top of the Pops” if an act was not coming over to Europe but there has never even been any retrospective compilation of a show which seemed to get all the acts you needed in a very creative period for American black music. I know there was a lot of lip-synching going on & those dancers were all “look at me, look at me” but it looked to be a pretty cool show when we were afforded a glimpse.

The Five Stairsteps, out of Chicago, a family group who were originally arranged in descending order of size & had a kind of Platters deal which was already out-dated. The first single had a Curtis Mayfield written B-side which swung a little more. They tried out a more Motown sound (James Burke did a fair Smokey impression)  before hooking up with Curtis again at his label, Curtom. The next singles were R&B hits, produced by Curtis & often covers of Impressions songs. They would sit really well alongside Baby Huey, Sister Love & Major Lance on a Curtom mix which should exist if it already doesn’t.

“Ooh Child” is the Top 10, gold record moment for the Burke family & what a lovely, optimistic song it is. The boys had been down to the Superfly boutique to get some new threads for their TV appearance. Alohe went for the jumper & slacks combo. She looks and sounds as beautiful as her name. Clarence Jr & James do their bit but this is Alohe’s song…wonderful.

At this time the Stairsteps were handing over the title of “first family of soul” to the boys from Gary, Indiana, the Jackson 5. It was of no consequence because the true first family were these guys…

By 1972 the Isley Brothers, Ronald, Kelly & Rudy, had been making records for 15 years. “Shout” & “Twist and Shout” were known to everyone who listened to pop music even if they did not know the original versions. They joined Tamla Motown, made some records that were more popular in the UK than in the US. Man, I hear the intro to “This Old Heart Of Mine”, I am back in that scout-hut youth club & a dancing fool again. Wanting more freedom than Motown would allow they left to write and produce for their own label T-Neck. The first single “It’s Your Thing” cleaned up.

The new sound served them well & 10 more singles used this winning formula. However the brothers were not just listening to James Brown. Covers of songs by Buffalo Springfield, War & Dylan got them airplay outside of the R&B stations. There were some young Isleys around, brothers Ernie & Marvin, brother-in-law Chris Jasper, who were putting the old hands on to these rock tunes. “Pop That Thang” comes from the 1972 LP “Brother, Brother, Brother” the first the new boys played on.

This is a confident performance of the song. The Isleys had made the move from soul to funk and were more popular than ever. They had some new sounds coming & they were ready to shake some action. The next LP “3 + 3” was by the new sextet. It was distributed by Epic & had the weight of major label promotion behind it. The brothers had been around the block & were ready for this new success. In the next 5 years they were one of the biggest black music acts around. I have favourite Isley tracks from all their long career. “Pop That Thang” is da funk with no frills and Ronald’s unmistakable lead vocal…love it…bang, bang, bang !

Gladys Knight, and her Pips, came late to Motown after some success elsewhere. Ms Knight always thought she got the short end of the stick from the label, being given songs that bigger acts had turned down. Her producer, Norman Whitfield, did give her first shake at “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” but it was Marvin who had the worldwide hit 2 years later. Whitfield had, in 1969, taken over production of the Temptations. Looking for a piece of Sly Stone’s action he developed a “psychedelic soul” sound. If  “Friendship Train” was rejected by the Tempts then Gladys got lucky this time.

This clip is from episode 1 of the syndicated “Soul Train” . The Pips have hardly pimped their strides but despite the odd leisure wear are as swinging & as dancing as Don Cornelius promises. Gladys is just stunning. The song, obviously linked to “Cloud Nine” & “Papa Was…” benefits from only having the two lead voices & not being over-complicated. The early attempts by Motown at socially conscious lyrics (selling records came first) could be clumsy. By this time they were getting it right. If you want a less pop version of this song check for Whitfield’s extended edition by the Undisputed Truth…suitably nuts.

Gladys brought a country tinge to her music with, among others, a cover of Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It”. It proved commercial, when she left Motown for Buddah she mined a very successful seam & became the star Motown never made her.

You know, maybe “Soul Train” was not always all that. In the UK we had the late night “Old Grey Whistle Test”. There are some great highlights from that show but it could often be flat and worthy. You needed a cup of tea, a fat one & some decent music after too many of the episodes. “Soul Train” is not like that in my imagination & from the clips I love to watch.

In the 80s two friends and myself were having the sort of weekend that only the finest pharmaceutical amphetamine made possible. A Friday night/Saturday morning session, a visit to Upton Park to see the Hammers, topped off with a Nigerian christening party. The living room of the house was dark and was now a dance floor. The room was filled with beautiful African princesses dressed in those sparkling dresses you saw in the market and wondered who wore them. The room was moving as one to the fine, fine music. My bug-eyed friend bobbed towards me with a big smile. He leaned into me & shouted “This is like being on Soul Train !”. I laughed because it was as close as we were ever going to get to it.