Mr. Don Covay
I’m starting late this week because I tripped on a brick staircase and strained my typing arm (really) and was in no mood to think and/or blog (they’re not always the same thing...), so I come to you on a Tuesday, asking for forgiveness on two counts (yer honor...).
First, the late thing...
Second, please to forgive the snaps, crackles and pops on the enclosed tune.
However, I believe that once you listen to it, and pick yourself up off the floor, mop your brow with ice water and wait for your head to stop spinning, you’ll thank me.
I say that, because today’s selection is as potent a funky gobsmacker as has ever been pressed into vinyl. It’s so powerful, that I firmly believe every time I play the 45, the energy released somehow brings the record (and my stereo) that much closer to total destruction.
The WMD I speak of....Don Covay and the Goodtimers ‘Sookie Sookie’.
Back in the olden days, when I was a long-haired sprout of 14, wishing for nothing more that a respectable pair of sideburns and as many records as I could handle (I can now manage the sideburns quite well...the record problem persists), I worked weekends in a dusty pit called the Englishtown Auction Sales (or “The Auction” as it was know to the locals). I toiled for a pitiful wage, loading/unloading a van full of car stereos, boom boxes (still a novelty at the time), CB radios and accessories - and then acting as a human “theft deterrent” - for an otherwise retired couple from the Outer Boroughs of New York City (which was about an hour away). It was not the worst job I ever had (I could start another blog devoted solely to the crappy jobs I’ve worked over the years), but it was damn close. With the exception of the few weeks in NJ when it’s neither too hot nor too cold – our brief “Spring” and “Fall” seasons – I stood out in the open air, either sizzling like an overdone piece of toast, or getting the human equivalent of freezer burn for about $2 an hour, and one of the worst “free lunches” imaginable.
What does all of this have to do with anything?
Bear with me.
At the end of the day, when things were slowing down, I would wheedle my pay from my employers and walk a few rows over to see my pal Wally.
Wally, glanced from a distance looked exactly like the guy on the cover of Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung’ LP. When you got up close, you realized that he was in fact that guy, and bore on himself the “aroma” of the Auction at all times, i.e. the horrific mixture of dirt, bacon grease, car exhaust and sweat that I had to shower off when I got home from work. Wally had a black German Shepherd named Satan (I’m not kidding), and drove his family - who had the look of hippies past their expiration date - up from the outskirts of Philadelphia in an old van every Saturday and Sunday.
Wally sold records.
I would walk the 50-or-so yards to Wally’s stand and in less than 15 minutes cycle my earnings back into the Auction economy, leaving with an armload of vinyl.
One of my prized finds from those hauls was Steppenwolf’s Greatest Hits.
Now I’m not gonna sit here and feed you a line about how Steppenwolf could have been as big as Led Zeppelin if they’d had the chance (which some have said), but I will vouch for the fact that they did occasionally kick ass (and take names) bridging the gap between the hippie years and the rough birth of hard rock.
Anyway, despite the fact that I bought the LP for ‘Born To Be Wild’ (I was, after all only 14), the track that ended up as my favorite, was ‘Sookie Sookie’.
Even as a 14 year old who knew next to nothing about soul or funk music, I could sense something new and exciting at work in the heavy beat.
Flash forward some years later, and I find out who Don Covay is (after falling in love with Aretha Franklin’s version of ‘See Saw’), and things got interesting.
I started to dig for Covay’s original versions of songs popularized by others (‘Mercy Mercy’ by the Rolling Stones, ‘Take This Hurt Off Me’ by the Small Faces etc), and found out that in many cases I preferred his original versions.
This was never more true that when I finally heard Covay doing ‘Sookie Sookie’. Strangely enough it wasn’t until I picked up Rhino’s ‘Roots of Funk Vol ½’ back in 1994 that I heard a version by Don Covay, and as expected, it ate Steppenwolf for breakfast. So, flash forward a few more years and I dig up a copy of the 45 on Atlantic, and found myself listening to an even more intense version of the tune. The 45 we’re listening to today is the 1966 version by Don Covay and the Goodtimers (the version on the Rhino comp was the 1970 version by Don Covay and the Jefferson Lemon Blues Band).
Opening with unadorned tambourine slaps, the starkness is soon washed away by a blaring horn section, funky guitar, organ and a set of drums with a bass kick heavier than Solomon Burke and Billy Stewart teaming up in a chicken-fight. Don falls by, asking his peeps to “Let it hang out baby!” then dropping a succession of suggested dance steps for the crowd. When they get to the ‘Sookie Sookie’s’ in the chorus, it’s like someone dropping a sledge hammer, with one of the Goodtimer’s leaning over Don’s shoulder and screaming “BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!!!!”.
Second verse, close to the first, drums mighty hard, horns on point and then the screamer returns with something that sounds like either “ROCK ME!” or “DROP ME!”, but it doesn’t really matter since the screams are there for punctuation, like ending a sentence with a punch in the nose.
After that the fumes in the studio apparently got stronger because Don starts rapping about banana peels and turpentine, and you can almost see the band in their sequined matador jackets, conked hair and pointy boots, rocking back and forth, jammed too close together on a tight little stage dripping their sweat on the audience and making the ice cubes in everyone’s drinks spill on the floor. I can just see some poor slob, on his way home from the late shift stopping in for a rock and rye, pulling open the barroom door and getting his wig blown off by the mixture of heat, soul and cigarette smoke.
It’s that heavy.
You can dig on your Steppenwolfs, or more groovily your Tina Britts, Etta Jameses and Grant Greens (Green’s radical reworking of ‘Sookie Sookie’ from the ‘Alive!” lp was sampled by US3 for ‘Tukka Yoots Riddim’), but when you take it back to the source, you know you’ve found something special.