- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 25, 2000

Musician Don Covay played alongside Jimi Hendrix, wrote hits for everyone from Aretha Franklin to Bonnie Raitt and was called a "major influence" by Mick Jagger.

Yet the rhythm-and-blues guru's name remains unfamiliar to the public.

His peers, however, know better.

Wilson Pickett, Paul Shaffer and Huey Lewis were among about a dozen musicians who joined Mr. Covay to record a comeback album 25 years in the making.

Dubbed "Adlib," the new disc captures Mr. Covay at his improvisational best, growling over grooves as if he never left the recording studio.

Speaking from his home in Kettering, Mr. Covay says the project refutes those record executives who thought his music had deserted him.

"I was glad to be back," Mr. Covay says. "Everybody said I lost it, and I wanted to show I hadn't. I had Jesus on my side."

That faith helped him overcome a devastating stroke in 1992 that left him partially paralyzed and uncertain of his musical future. Years of physical therapy restored his voice and some of his movement.

These days, he even breaks into snippets of song during conversation, as if years of holding it all in left him spilling over with melody.

The album, his first in 25 years, includes mostly new compositions, feisty numbers including the sensual "One-Stop Woman."

The album may have been therapeutic, but his faith proved the most potent elixir, he says.

"Jesus has been really influencing me, talking to me," he says.

His song-writing chops needed no reconditioning.

"I was doing a lot of spontaneous thinking," he says of his turn in the studio. "I've always been a quick thinker."

To hear him tell it, the muse remains out of his control.

"When the soul starts coming out, I can't hold it back," he says.

He recalls beginning his career opening for rock firecracker Little Richard.

"Just don't be too good," the outrageous performer would tease before Mr. Covay pounced on the stage.

"I learned a lot from him," says Mr. Covay, 62. "He was some kind of performer. The audiences were hypnotized."

At the time, Mr. Covay was living in Washington and performing with his band, the Rainbows, which he says once boasted Marvin Gaye among its members. The group enjoyed some local success, but Mr. Covay sought a grander stage.

Watching Little Richard prance and preen on stage persuaded him to go off on his own, but with a bit more style.

"I went home and put some curls in my hair. I said, 'I've seen what I wanna do,'" says Mr. Covay, famous for outrageous accouterments such as glittery cowboy hats.

His first single, "Bip Bop Bip," had a touch of Little Richard-style mojo. The songs that followed were all Mr. Covay, rootsy and unshackled.

Another brush with rock immortality came when an unknown guitarist named Jimi Hendrix joined his band for a spell.

"I was impressed — he learned all the songs [immediately]. He had everything hooked up," he says.

While Mr. Covay enjoyed modest success with his solo efforts — he recorded for both Atlantic and Mercury — his greatest successes came with other acts tearing up his songs.

Chubby Checker cut his "Pony Time," Mr. Pickett recorded his "Three Time Loser," and Gladys Knight and the Pips covered "Letter Full of Tears" during Mr. Covay's busiest musical periods.

The devastating 1992 stroke proved merely an interruption in his music, not an end.

The stroke "kept me away from the studio, but I didn't give up," he says. "I had to learn to do things all over again," with the help of physical therapy.

Jon Tiven, a longtime pal and collaborator, assures that Mr. Covay's gifts remain unaffected by his condition.

"It's obvious his creative powers are still with him," says Mr. Tiven, the new album's producer and co-writer. "He's just this fountain of creativity."

Though Mr. Covay speaks casually of his latest album, Mr. Tiven understands how much the project meant to his old friend.

"It's the most important record he ever made," Mr. Tiven says. "This was a major motivator for him, to do something like this. This is what Don lives for."

Their song-writing sessions proved Mr. Covay to be "as creative and fun to work with" as he used to be, Mr. Tiven says.

"He would be writing the song off the top of his head as we were laying the tracks down," he says. "When he does something the first time, it's always the best."

Mr. Covay's spontaneous work ethic never compromised his lyrics, though, the collaborator says.

"He's a tough wordsmith. He made us work hard to get words that were very interesting," Mr. Tiven says. " 'You gotta do something different,' he would say."

Most of the musicians who chipped in on "Adlib" did so by saying they would do "anything for Don."

Yet wider fame, the kind that might grant him entrance into one hall of fame or another, continues to elude him.

Mr. Tiven says he could not be sadder about the lack of recognition, but he understands it all the same.

"The record-buying public doesn't care about the people writing the songs," he says. It cares more about the face behind the microphone and on the album covers.

Mr. Covay still talks occasionally to Little Richard, the man who helped ignite his career, and he has every intention of returning to the studio to uncork some more of his soul.

"My work is never done," he says without a hint of regret.

The next few months also promise some live performances to spread word of the album.

"It's gonna be a smash," he predicts, hoping to shatter a lifetime of anonymity.

"My health is good. I'm getting better and better," he says.

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