Mercy, Mercy (Don Covay song)
Rosemart single listing "Covay-Miller" as writers.
|Single by Don Covay and the Goodtimers|
|from the album Mercy!|
|B-side||"Can't Stay Away"|
|Format||Seven-inch 45 rpm record|
|Recorded||A1 Sound Studios, New York City, May 13, 1964|
|Genre||Rhythm and blues|
|Label||Rosemart (no. 45-801)|
|Writer(s)||Don Covay, Ronald Alonzo Miller|
|Don Covay and the Goodtimers singles chronology|
"Mercy, Mercy" (sometimes referred to as "Have Mercy") is a rhythm and blues song first recorded by American R&B singer/songwriter Don Covay in 1964. It has been identified as a song that "not only established a new guitar dominated soul sound, but also proved a formative influence on white r&bers [sic] Mick Jagger and Peter Wolf". The songwriting is usually credited to Covay and Ron Alonzo Miller, although other co-writers' names have also appeared on various releases.
In late 1964, the song became a hit, reaching number one on the Cash Box R&B chart and number 35 on the Billboard Hot 100. Several artists have recorded "Mercy, Mercy", including a well-known version by the Rolling Stones in 1965. More recently, Covay's original version has received attention as one of Jimi Hendrix's first recordings as a sideman.
Recording and composition
In 1964, after years of writing and recording songs for several record labels, Don Covay was again hoping to land a record deal. A recording session was arranged for May 13, 1964 at the A1 Recording Studio in New York City, operated by Atlantic Records co-founder Herb Abramson. New York radio station WWRL disc jockey Nathaniel "Magnificent" Montague provided financing for the session. Covay has given differing accounts regarding the recording. In one, "Mercy, Mercy" was recorded the day following a well-received performance by Covay and his band the Goodtimers the previous night. For the session, various members of the Goodtimers have been mentioned, including guitarist Ronald Alonzo Miller (also suggested as the bassist), backup singer George "King" Clemons, bassist Horace "Ace" Hall, drummer Bernard Purdie, guitarist Bob Bushnell, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, and a young Jimi Hendrix.
Music critic Richie Unterberger describes "Mercy, Mercy" as a "soul tune with a gospel overlay in the pleading tone of the lyrics". It opens with the refrain, sung by Covay with a higher-register harmony:
Have mercy, have mercy baby
Have mercy, have mercy on me
Covay's vocals have been described as "impassioned" and "assured", with "his phrasing and inflection as well as his attitude" as an influence on Mick Jagger. The guitar has a prominent part, beginning with the chorded lead-in: "The guitar player uses rhythmic patterns that are tasteful modifications of the motifs favored by Curtis Mayfield and Jimmy Johnson – and there have been suggestions that it is Johnson himself on the record". Covay recalled that the song was recorded in one or two takes and additional single-note fills at the fade-out suggest a second guitarist or an overdub.
Releases and charts
"Mercy, Mercy" under the artist name "Don Covay and the Goodtimers" was released as a single by Rosemart Records in August 1964. It was picked up for distribution by producer Abramson's former label Atlantic and entered the Billboard Hot 100 September 5, 1964. The single reached number 35 during a stay of ten weeks on the pop chart. It was also a best seller in the R&B market, reaching number one on the Cash Box chart (Billboard's R&B chart was suspended at the time).
An original pressing of the Rosemart single lists the composers as "Covay-Miller". The performing rights organization BMI shows the writers as "Donald Covay" and "Ronald Alonzo Miller". However, different releases list "Covay-Ott", including Covay's Mercy! album (Atlantic SD–8104) and the Atlantic UK single (AT.4006) (Horace Ott played keyboards on and is credited with several songs on Mercy!). Additionally, Miller is sometimes identified as "Ronald Norman Miller", a Motown composer, and "Ronald Dean Miller", a later R&B songwriter. BMI does not list "Mercy, Mercy" among Ott's or the other Miller's songwriting credits.
Curtis Knight, Jimmy [Jimi Hendrix], and I all used to live in the same apartment building — around 81st Street [near the A1 Studio] ... Don Covay came around shopping for a record deal. He used to go down to the Harlem clubs looking for somebody to use ... on songs he was looking to sell to Atlantic [Records]. He'd say, 'I got this tune I want you to help me with ... come on down to the studio ... Can you sing this part? Can you play this part?'
Covay has sometimes identified Hendrix as a participant and on others does not mention him. According to biographer Roby, Hendrix "arrived at A1 Studio [and] was asked to play a simple Curtis Mayfield-like R&B riff and not overstep his boundaries at the song's dramatic pause". However, to author Shadwick, the song's guitarist "certainly enjoys a prominent role — and perhaps this does suggest a regular band-member performing a well-learned routine rather than a last minute substitution".
According to Clemons, before it was released as a single, Hendrix performed "Mercy, Mercy" at several small clubs. Booker T. & the M.G.'s guitarist Steve Cropper recalled meeting Hendrix at the Stax Records studio in Memphis in 1964, when Hendrix mentioned that he had played on Covay's "Mercy, Mercy":
That about knocked me to my knees ... because that was one of my favorite records at the time. I hadn't worked with Don [Covay] yet, but I asked Jimi to show me that great lick he played. [Later] Jimi took my guitar and started playing that sucker upside down [Cropper played a right-handed guitar, while Hendrix played left-handed]. I laughed and told him, 'I can't learn that lick by looking at it that way'.
Cropper's recollection is supported by a 1968 Rolling Stone magazine interview with Hendrix: "He [Cropper] showed me how to play lots of things and I showed him how I played 'Have Mercy' or something like that". Cropper later recorded an instrumental version of the song with Booker T. & the M.G.'s for their 1965 Soul Dressing album.
Hendrix performed "Mercy, Mercy" with Curtis Knight and the Squires in 1965. A live version with Knight on vocals, was recorded at George's Club 20 in Hackensack, New Jersey; it later appeared on the German bootleg album Mr. Pitiful (Astan 201019), released about 1981 with Curtis Knight manager Ed Chalpin listed as the producer. He also performed the song in 1966 with his band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames at the Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village. In England later that year, Noel Redding recalled that it was one of the first songs that he played at his audition for the Jimi Hendrix Experience; it was also the first song performed during Mitch Mitchell's audition (Redding had initially auditioned with drummer Aynsley Dunbar).
During the Experience's first performances during a short tour of France in October 1966 and before they worked up some original material, they played it along with a few other R&B cover songs during their 15-minute opening sets. A performance of the song by the Experience at the Flamingo Club in London on February 4, 1967 was recorded and has been issued on several bootleg albums. Hendrix announces the song as "very straight Top-40 R&B rock 'n' roll record ... a little thing called 'Have Mercy'... 'Have Mercy on Me, Baby'". At 3:50, the song features more elaborate and driving guitar work, although remains focused on chording.
Rolling Stones version
The Rolling Stones recorded their interpretation of "Mercy, Mercy" during their early American recording sessions, when they were beginning to emerge from their blues- and R&B-cover band roots. The session took place at the Chess Records studio in Chicago on May 10 and 11, 1965 with engineer Ron Malo. The group generally follows Covay's arrangement, but "really upped the guitar wattage, as heard in the memorable opening section of interwoven guitars and, more particularly, in the booming low fuzz guitar riffs that underpin the verses". Mick Jagger's part shows him "gaining confidence as a soul-rock vocalist"; he "clearly modeled his vocal on Covay's original, which apparently had a lasting impact on the way Jagger subsequently used his voice".
The song was not released as a single, but was included on the Rolling Stones' Out of Our Heads album. It became their first number one album in the U.S. (released July 30, 1965) and reached number two in the UK (released September 24, 1965). The band was filmed performing the song with Brian Jones and during their first appearance with Mick Taylor in Hyde Park on July 5, 1969, which was later included on their Stones in the Park DVD.
Several other musical artists have recorded "Mercy, Mercy", including: Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers, the Chocolate Watchband, Los Yorks, Jeff Lynne, Wilson Pickett, Alan Price Set, the Remains, Phoebe Snow, the 13th Floor Elevators, the Wailers, and Gary U.S. Bonds, Jeff Lynne, Chuck Jackson and Todd Rundgren for the album Celebrating the Music of Don Covay.
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