Don Covay, a soul singer who recorded genre-defining 1960s classics such as “Mercy, Mercy” and “See Saw” and who wrote the song “Chain of Fools” for Aretha Franklin, died Jan. 31 at a hospital in Franklin Square, N.Y. He was 78.
The cause was complications from a stroke, said a daughter, Ursula Covay Parkes. Mr. Covay lived in Queens.
Mr. Covay’s career traversed nearly the entire spectrum of rhythm-and-blues music, from doo-wop to funk. As a teenager, he had been a member of the Washington-based doo-wop group the Rainbows.
The Rolling Stones covered Mr. Covay’s 1964 hit “Mercy, Mercy,” credited to Don Covay and the Goodtimers and featuring a then-unknown Jimi Hendrix on lead guitar. Mick Jagger borrowed the nasal vocal phrasing and brash swagger from Mr. Covay’s original. In the song, Mr. Covay begs his woman not to leave, claiming that he will “work two jobs seven days a week and bring my money home to you.”
He later recorded the driving “See Saw” (1965) — with its memorable refrain, “your love is like a see saw, going up, down, up, down, like a see saw” — at Stax studios in Memphis with Booker T & the MGs.
Mr. Covay, who had co-written both songs, had already found success as a songwriter. He wrote “You Can Run (But You Can’t Hide)” for singer Jerry Butler and “I’m Hanging Up My Heart for You” for singer Solomon Burke, both recorded in 1962. He also wrote “Letter Full of Tears” for Gladys Knight & the Pips in 1961.
His material remained a staple of the rock repertoire. Hard-rock band Steppenwolf had a version of Mr. Covay’s composition “Sookie Sookie” in 1968, and the J. Geils Band recorded the Covay ballad “The Usual Place” in 1971.
Most memorably, Mr. Covay wrote “Chain of Fools” (1968) for Franklin in 15 minutes when the singer needed one more piece for a recording session at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama.
As a performer, Mr. Covay was part of the short-lived group the Soul Clan, which also featured Burke, Joe Tex, Ben E. King and Arthur Conley. The Soul Clan released just one single, “Soul Meeting,” in 1968.
Mr. Covay returned to the charts in the 1970s with an anguished cheating ballad, “I Was Checkin’ Out While She Was Checkin’ In” (1973) and “It’s Better to Have (and Don’t Need)” (1974), a song that reflected his background in gospel music. In 1986, he contributed backup vocals to the Rolling Stones’s “Dirty Work” album.
In 1993, Mr. Covay was honored by the Rhythm & Blues Foundation as a musical pioneer but, having suffered a stroke, could not attend the ceremony. He picked up the prize in 2000, arriving at the Philadelphia banquet in a wheelchair-accessible van given to him by the Rolling Stones.
That same year, he made his last album, “Ad Lib,” a star-studded affair with Stones guitarists Ronnie Woods and Keith Richards, Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers and fellow soulmen Wilson Pickett and Syl Johnson.
Donald James Randolph was born in Orangeburg, S.C., on March 24, 1936. He was 8 when his father, a Baptist minister, died. His mother moved the family to Washington, where he formed a gospel group, the Cherry Keys, with his four siblings. He took Don Covay as a pen name when he started writing music.
In 1956, he joined the Rainbows, an established act, and made “Shirley,” his first record with the group.
When the Rainbows broke up, Mr. Covay found work chauffeuring his idol, Little Richard, and sometimes moonlighting as the entertainer’s opening act. Using the stage name Pretty Boy, Mr. Covay recorded the frantic rock-and-roll number “Bip Bop Bip” (1957) with Little Richard’s band, the Upsetters.
He moved to New York in the late 1950s, and his 1961 recording of “Pony Time” was quickly covered by Chubby Checker. In assembly-line fashion, songwriters spun out their own songs about “the Pony” in hopeful anticipation of another dance craze on the order of Checker’s Twist.
Mr. Covay’s wife, the former Yvonne Darby, died in 1981. Their son Donald Covay Jr. died in 2009.
Survivors include four children, Wendy Covay of Washington, Wanda Richardson of Chicago, Ursula Covay Parkes of Queens and Antonio Covay of Suitland, Md.; three brothers, Eddie Randolph of Washington, Thomas Randolph of the Bronx, and Leroy Randolph of Brooklyn; and five grandchildren.
“Singing is my first love, but I like to express my thoughts in the songs I write as well as in the way I sing them,” Mr. Covay told the British publication Record Mirror in 1967. “I am always looking for experiences we all know and try to relate them through both my writing and my singing.
“This is why I think ‘Mercy, Mercy’ became so popular. It was down-to-earth, and everyone immediately recognized the meaning of the song from firsthand experience.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story provided an incorrect year of birth for Mr. Covay and an incorrect age at his death. He was born in 1936, not 1938. He died at 78, not 76.