Robert Covington

Red Beans/RB-012

Most Chicago blues fans know Robert Covington as the energetic shuffle drummer who lays down the foundation for the Sunnyland Slim Blues Band. As Sunnyland’s percussionist, Covington gets the chance to sing two or three songs a set. His affable nature and resonant voice have made his part of the show a highlight.

This LP, though it features Covington’s propulsive percussion on all but one track, is designed to showcase his talents as a vocalist. Covington’s voice has matured remarkably over the past several years; it’s become deeper and more expressive, and he’s been steadily expanding his repertoire away from basic blues and boogie into more sophisticated contemporary forms.

Although primarily known in Chicago as a bluesman, Covington has solid R & B credentials as well, having worked with Ernie K. Doe and Ted Taylor before hitting Chicago in 1965. Since his arrival here, Covington has slowly built up a resume that includes recording stints with the likes of Johnny Littlejohn, James Cotton, and guitarist Lacy Gibson, as well as Sunnyland Slim. He’s played drums in bands fronted by musicians who play in a wide variety of styles, from the high-energy blues of Buddy Guy to the sophisticated boogie swing of Erwin Helfer.

Covington is showcased here in a variety of stylistic contexts, some more satisfying than others, but all pointing to a versatility and musical richness that he’s just beginning to tap. “Trust in Me,” the opener, kicks off in a loping, funky rhythm buoyed by a mellow horn arrangement that accentuates the soulful romanticism of the melody. Covington’s voice, here and throughout, is the voice we know from the clubs: smooth, with a hint of blues grit, and delivered with a good-natured enunciation that makes it sound as if he’s smiling while he sings. This knack of bringing humor to even the most angry blues is one of the most distinctive facets of Covington’s style.

On this LP, Covington’s ebullience is complemented perfectly by guitarist Carl Weathersby’s soaring, precisely crafted leads. Weathersby is one of Chicago’s premier young blues guitarists; his debt to the string-bending Kings is obvious even as he takes off in more funky, contemporary directions. His working knowledge of traditional Chicago forms is as satisfying as his sense of adventure is promising. He’s especially adept as a rhythm guitarist. His chording is propulsive but never intrudes, and his harmonic sense allows him to imbue standard melodies with subtle shadings.

It’s always revealing to see how a musician updates standards and makes them his own. Ever since Muddy Waters’s definitive, early-50s version of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” the song has been redone and reinterpreted to within an inch of its life. Here Covington transforms it by replacing the original, grinding stop-time shuffle with driving funk, overlaid by the harsh harmonica riffing of Scott Bradbury. Muddy sang the song as a sexy invitation, given impetus by his self-confident delta growl; in Covington’s hands, the song has a hard-edged worldliness that transforms the invitation into a demand. The original blues fire is retained, but its heat is turned higher.

“Blues in the Night,” on the other hand, becomes a mellow croon in Covington’s hands. The angry, almost misogynistic tale told by the lyrics is related with a sigh of resignation laced with good humor–especially during his “ahooey” train-whistle moans–and a relaxed sense of fatalism. While this approach will probably make the song more palatable to postfeminist sensibillties, it’s questionable whether it makes good musical sense. Like it or not, expressions of anger toward lovers are an integral component of blues and jazz expression–because, of course, they’re an integral component of life. This reading walks the line between reinterpreting and watering down. Fortunately, the nightclubby noodling of pianist Sumito Ariyoshi and the bluesy melodiousness of John Brumbach’s tenor sax bring a melancholy weariness to the song that keeps it close to its roots.

More successful is “I Don’t Care,” a driving boogie shuffle kicked off by Weathersby and given a high-energy blues wail by Covington. Weathersby’s guitar screams with vintage Chicago fire, Ariyoshi smashes his keyboard with endless treble triplets, and the song tears along at a full-throttle roar. In this case, Covington’s joyful approach enhances the song; a story of anger and betrayal becomes a life-affirming testament of survival.

Covington seems most at home in this context. “Better Watch Your Step,” a perennial favorite on his club dates, is definitive Covington. His affable enunciation is backed by a medium-tempo shuffle, and he takes lyrics that might sound unpleasant or threatening in another context (“There’s women out there who’d jump over walls / to get half of what I give to you”) and redeems them by singing them from the perspective of a lovable rogue (“When you say you was with your girlfriend / I know that’s a lie you see / You couldn’t have been with her / because she spent the night with me!”) who admits his rakishness as he delivers mock threats to his recalcitrant lover.

Like most Red Beans recordings, this LP was produced, by and large, to the artist’s advantage. The only exception is the jarring guitar that winds its way through “Watch Your Step.” Played by producer Pete Crawford, it’s been remixed to sound as if it were being played through a broken amplifier, an affectation of young, usually white, blues guitarists that I’ve always found somewhat patronizing. Crawford is a superb guitarist in the mid-50s Chicago vein, but that simply is not the style in which Covington sings, and it’s harshly out of place. This attempt to force Covington into a bag of “authenticity” detracts from the obvious commitment he brings to his own material. It’s a rare lapse in judgment by Red Beans.

The song that most expresses Covington’s versatility and potential is the closer, “I Want to Thank Ya.” It’s a deeply emotional love song set to blues, featuring Covington’s voice at its most richly timbred and soulful. Like the lovely “When I See You Smile” on Johnny Dollar’s LP on the B.L.U.E.S. R & B label a few years back, this song provides us with a glimpse of a gentle side of the singer’s musical personality, a refreshing respite from the contentious approach toward women and relationships on other cuts. (It might be significant that this version of “I Want to Thank Ya” was originally recorded on B.L.U.E.S. R & B as a 45 in 1983.) The song is tender and knowing, with an underlying passion, and it’s accentuated by the Ben Webster-like tone saxophonist Gary Wiggins brings to his solo. Covington’s voice achieves a gentle strength that nicely complements the joyful rakishness of the other songs; apparently it’s a quality that he summons most readily in the lower registers.

This track provides a clue to an important untapped potential. Listening to “I Want to Thank Ya,” I was sorry that Red Beans didn’t give Covington the opportunity to develop this side of his musical personality–his voice sounds as if it’s aching to wrap itself around a smoldering, romantic soul ballad. Covington is a superb singer of blues, he interprets standards with creativity and imagination, and he’s becoming more confident in a pop-funk context. As a passionate soul balladeer he’d strike pay dirt.