June 4, 2013 – Joey Covington (Hot Tuna) was born Joseph Edward Michno on June 27, 1945 in East Conemaugh, Pennsylvania. He became a professional drummer as a young teenager, taking gigs in, among other things, polka bands and strip clubs in his hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. A colorful character, on his website he listed among his fondest early memories “Getting to New York City on a Greyhound bus with a suitcase, a set of drums, and a hundred dollars in my pocket.
He built a long storied career starting at age 10 as a self-taught drummer/percussionist, along with becoming an award-winning songwriter and ultimately recording on over 22 albums, of which 16 went gold and platinum.
In the early to mid-’60s, he was playing with bands that opened shows for the Rolling Stones, Dave Clark 5, The Shangri-Las, Lee Dorsey, Lou Christie, Chad and Jeremy, Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliners, among others, and a stint playing drums backing up Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars featuring acts such as the Supremes.
Covington settled in Los Angeles late 1966 and was quickly discovered and produced by famed producer/songwriter Kim Fowley as a singing drummer. The single released was a cover of The Who’s “Boris The Spider” with “I’ll Do Better Next Time” on the B side (the first song Covington ever wrote). He co-formed several bands in Los Angeles during that period. Tsong with Mickey Rooney Jr., and a yet-to-be-named band with Papa John Creach, Jimmy Greenspoon and Joe Schermie.
Papa John later was brought in by Joey to Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, Jefferson Starship and went on to a long solo recording career. Jimmy & Joe went on to become members of Three Dog Night.
A member of Jefferson Airplane, Joey at first co-formed Hot Tuna with Jefferson Airplane members Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady in late 1968 while Grace Slick was undergoing and recovering from throat node surgery. With Hot Tuna they opened shows for the Airplane. In early 1969 Joey was playing in both Hot Tuna and augmenting, then ultimately replacing Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden.
Covington appeared on their chart topping albums “Volunteers”, “Bark” and “Long Long John Silver”. Covington co-wrote Jefferson Airplane’s 1971 hit single “Pretty As You Feel” that reached number 60 on the charts and the 1976 Jefferson Starship hit single “With Your Love” that reached number 12 on the Billboard 100. He also recorded with members of Jefferson Airplane on their solo projects including Paul Kantner’s 1970 Jefferson Starship album “Blows Against The Empire”, Papa John Creach’s first solo album in 1971, and “Sunfighter” an album by Paul Kantner and Grace Slick released in November of 1971. It was Joey Covington who discovered violinist John Creach, gave him the nickname Papa, and brought him into the Jefferson Airplay family in 1970.
After leaving the Airplane in 1973 Covington released his solo album Fat Fandango and founded the San Francisco Allstars with former members of New Riders of the Purple Sage and other bands. He toured with the Allstars during the 1980s and 1990s. As a session player Covington recorded with Peter Kaukonen, Kim Fowley, Nick Gravenites, Juan Gabriel, Cristian Castro, Jaci Velasquez, and Jay Gordon. In 2006 he composed several songs for the artist Lauren and produced her album “Hideout Is a Crook’s Best Friend”.
The Early Years
Polka Bands and Strippers in Johnstown
The third of six children he grew up near Johnston in the very small town of East Conemaugh. His father Louis had been a minor league baseball player projected to play in the majors before he was drafted into World War II. After the war, Louis became a truck driver and married Elizabeth (Betty) Sisco, an aspiring country singer. Joey Michno began playing drums at age 10 teaching himself by listening to the music of jazz percussionists Joe Morello, Cozy Cole, Sandy Nelson, Candido and Preston Epps. During his years at East Conemaugh High School he played tom toms in the marching band, learned rudimental drumming, and became the drum sergeant.
He began performing professionally in 1958 at age 13 playing drums in polka bands at VFW Lodges. As he was underage his mother and father had to chaperon his gigs. Without his parent’s knowledge he played drums in a strip joint called the Airway Club in Johnston, Pa. He beat on his Tom-toms while the strippers did their bump and grinds. At age 15 Joey decided he wanted make a career as a professional drummer.
While in high school Covington joined the Johnston surf rock band called the Vibra-Sonics. The Vibra-Sonics were comprised of George Tweedy (lead), Bob Tweedy (rhythm), Bill Sabo (2nd lead, rhythm), Joe Colner (bass) and Joey Michno (drums and vocals). They won several battles of the bands and opened a show for Simon and Garfunkel. The Vibra-Sonics played shows throughout Western Pennsylvania in the early 1960s. In 1963 they lost all of their instruments when the Conneaut Lake Park nightspot that they played at, the Cowshed, burnt to the ground. They recorded a single for Ideal Records. Ideal was a Pittsburgh based label owned by Augie Bernardo that also released singles by the El-Reys, the Stereos, John Harrison & the Hustlers, and the Four Challengers. The Vibra-Sonic’s released the single “Drag Race” / “Thunder Storm” on Ideal Records in 1964. On Drag Race, surf song reminiscent of the garage band classic “Wipeout”, Joey played rapid fire snare. Both songs from the single have been reissued on two surf music compilations.
Graduating from high school at age 18 Michno faced the Vietnam era draft. The Navy offered him a chance to play tympani with a Navy band if he enlisted. But a terrible car accident, one night after a gig, took away that chance. In December of 1964 the Vibro-Sonics were returning from a gig in Latrobe, Pa when one of their cars was struck by another car driven by a drunk driver. Joseph Colner the 16 year old bassist was killed. Joey Michno suffered multiple fractures of his pelvis, right leg, and three toes. The driver of the car that struck the Vibro-Sonics was arrested for involuntary manslaughter, speeding, driving without a permit, and for fleeing the accident. Covington spent three months in a pelvic sling before he went home to his parent’s house to learn to walk again. His recovery took six months.
On the Road to Rock Stardom
In 1965 at age 20, Covington left home for New York City after his father gave him an ultimatum. Louis told Joey “son, if you’re gonna be a rock star, you’ve got a month to take your drums and get out on the road, or, if you’re gonna live at home, you’d better get a job and bring some money into the house.” Joey took on his father’s challenge. He took to the road in search of a professional drumming job. Joey grabbed a hundred bucks, packed up his grey marine Ludwig drum kit and bought a one-way bus ticket to New York City.
In New York Joey went to the Peppermint Lounge to see Joey D of the Starliters who wrote the hit song “Peppermint Twist”. Michno walked up to Joey D, introduced himself, and asked where he could find a gig. Joey D told him to contact his agent Sid Green. The next day Michno called on Mr. Green saying Joey D sent him. Green gave him a card and said I’ll call you if anything comes up. But Joey persisted. He told Green “I can’t go back to Johnstown, my father will make me get another kind of job, and I’m a great drummer, and I’m gonna be a star, and I’m not leaving your office until you find me a gig!.” Joey pulled out his Vibra-Sonics single and had Mr. Green listen to it. Green liked his fast drumming but told Joey to come back in a few years. He offered to buy Joey a ticket back to Johnstown. Joey was about to leave when the night club singer and pianist Danny Apollinar came into see Mr. Green. Appollinar told Sid that two members of his trio just quit and he needed a new drummer and bass player in a hurry for a gig in Fort Lauderdale in two days. Mr. Green said Danny I have a drummer right here who can play anything. Appollinar hired him on the spot for $200 a week plus room and board. Green waved his commission and told Joey to go be a star. After two days of rehearsals Joey Michno went on tour with Appollinar. With that experience he got more calls and went on the road in 1965 playing shows with the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars, the Shangri’la’s, Billy Stewart, the Supremes, Donald Jenkins and the Delighters and the Shirelles.
In 1966 Sonny Di’Nunzio, leader of the Pittsburgh band the Fenways, called Joey offering him a steady gig, He remembered Joey from the Vibra-Sonics battle of the bands shows. The Fenways were the hot band in Pittsburgh in 1966. They had several hit singles on Pittsburgh radio including “ Be Careful Little Girl,” (1964), ”Nothing to Offer You” (1964), The Number One Song In The Country” (1964) and “Walk” (1965). They were regulars on Terry Lee’s Channel 11 Come Alive TV dance show and had opened for the Rolling Stones and the Dave Clark Five. Joey joined the Fenways playing with them seven days a week at the Staircase, Mancini’s, and other Pittsburgh area clubs. They opened shows for the Shangri-La’s, Lee Dorsey, Lou Christie, Chad and Jeremy, and the Skyliners. Joey recorded four singles with the Fenways in 1966 that were released on Nick Cenci’s Co&Ce label. The singles were “I’m A Mover” / “Satisfied” and “A Go Go” / “I Move Around”
Go West Young Man
In the spring of 1967 Joey’s musician friend Louie called asking if he’d like to ride out to Los Angeles in his new Mercedes. Seeking a new adventure Joey hit the road again with his drum kit in tow. They cruised down Route 66 making it to Sunset Boulevard in four days. In L.A. Joey Michno changed his professional name to Joey Covington.
Looking for work at the L.A. musician’s union hall, Joey met another Western Pennsylvanian musician violinist John Creach. They put together a band and played a few gigs before Creach found work playing jazz at the Parision Room. Working with producer Kim Fowley Joey record several songs at a solo artist in 1967. He sang, wrote several songs, recorded his own arrangement of the Who’s “Boris the Spider”. Covington formed a band with pianist Jimmy Greenspoon who later became one of the founding members of Three Dog Night. When Greenspoon moved on Covington joined with Mickey Rooney Jr. to found the band Tsong that signed with MGM Records. Covington co-wrote two songs “Let’s Be Friends” and the Brit Pop single “Like We Were Before” that were released on the MGM album “Song” in 1970. During this time Covington dated Art Linkletter’s daughter Dianne.
Flying High with the Jefferson Airplane
In 1968 Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane heard Covington play at an L.A. club and invited him to meet the Airplane at their next Whiskey A Go Go gig. Airplane members Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady invited Covington to jam with them at RCA Studios in L.A. Covington continued to jam with Jorma and Jack in L.A. The trio of Jorma, Jack and Covington played their first live shows together in L.A. during October 1968. Those appearances led to the formation of Hot Tuna in 1969.
Marty Balin contacted Covington in 1969 asking him to come to San Francisco to audition for Jefferson Airplane. Covington won the audition and moved to San Francisco. During 1969 he played Hot Tuna gigs with Jorma Kaukonen. He also played Jefferson Airplane shows drumming alongside the original drummer Spencer Dryden. Covington made his first appearance as the lone the Airplane drummer on Aug 2 1969 at the Pop Festival in Atlantic City. He missed the chance to play with the Airplane at Woodstock when he broke his leg. Joey made his first recordings with the Jefferson Airplane playing percussion on two tracks of their November 1969 release “Volunteers” that reached number 13 on the Billboard charts in 1970. In December of 1969 Covington performed with the Jefferson Airplane at the infamous Altamont Free Concert. Headlined by the Stones the concert drew 300,000 but was marred by one murder and three accidental deaths.
Spencer Dryden, the Jefferson Airplane’s original drummer, was fired from the band in February 1970 by a unanimous vote of the other members. Burned out by acid and Altamont, Dryden took some time off before he joined the New Riders of the Purple Sage in 1972. The Jefferson Airplane sent out a press release in April of 1970 announcing Joey Covington as their new drummer. He toured the U.S. and Europe with the Airplane in 1970.
Covington invited his friend Papa John Creach to sit in with the Airplane for a concert at Winterland in San Francisco on October 5, 1970. The Airplane members loved Papa John’s playing and made him a permanent member of the Airplane and Hot Tuna. Joey helped Papa John put together his first solo album by selecting the songs, hiring the musicians, playing drums, and writing the Papa John top 40 single “Janitor Drives a Cadillac”.
Blows Against the Empire
In December of 1970 Covington played drums on Paul Kantner’s “Blows Against the Empire” album that was the forerunner of Jefferson Starship. David Crosby. Graham Nash, Grace Slick, Jack Cassidy and several members of the Grateful Dead appeared on the album.
Barking Up the Right Tree
Covington recorded with the Airplane in the summer of 1971 on their album “Bark”. It was the first release on the band’s own label Grunt Records. Covington co-wrote and sang lead vocals on the single “Pretty As You Feel” which was the last Jefferson Airplane song to reach the Billboard 100. Covington also wrote and sang vocals on the whimsical track “Thunk”. He played drums on all eleven of the tracks. Bark was another commercial success reaching number 11 on the Billboard charts.
In 1972 Covington began to work on outside recording projects lessening his role with the Airplane. He recorded the album Black Kangaroo with Jorma Kaukonen’s brother Peter. Covington played on two tracks of the Airplane’s July 1972 album release “Long John Silver”. Joey play live concerts with the Airplane into 1973.
Wanting to work on his own projects Covington left the Airplane in 1973. He released a solo album entitled “Fat Fandango” on Grunt Records in 1973. Joey wrote all of the songs on the album and produced it. The Allmusic Guide reviewer wrote: “Fat Fandango by Jefferson Airplane drummer Joey Covington is a major revelation, a wonderful artifact from the day when record labels allowed certain bands their own imprint and side musicians a chance to fully express their artistry. ….This is a great, lost party album”.
Covington formed the San Francisco All Stars in 1978 with Steve Love of the New Riders of the Purple Sage and Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist John Cipollina. They toured the U.S. but never released any recordings. As who’s who of musicians and movie actors have been members of the All Stars including Slash, Spencer Davis, Rick Danko, Mike Finnegan, Skunk Baxter, Billy Roberts, Spencer Dryden, Paul Shortino, Jimmy Crespo, James Gurley, Brian May, Albert Collins, Joe Shermie, Mike Bloomfield, Fuzzy Knight, Joe Chambers, Bruce Willis, Kiefer Sutherland, Max Gail, Jr., and Gary Busey.
Joey Covington has composed songs recorded by Juan Gabriel, Pandora, Jaci Velasquez, and Cristian Castro and has played drums on records of Nick Gravenites Blue Star and Jay Gorden’s Jaywalking.
In the Pittsburgh Music Hall of Fame
The Jefferson Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. But the Hall of Fame did not include Joey Covington saying he was not an original member. The Hall ignored the fact that Grace Slick was not an original member. They also ignored the fact the Covington recorded on three of the Airplane’s albums, wrote the Airplane’s last hit single, toured extensively with the band, recorded on solo projects with Paul Kanter and Grace Slick, brought Papa John Creach into the band, and was one of the founders of Hot Tuna. Pittsburgh Music History recognizes the achievements and talent of Joey Covington. From humble beginnings playing VFW polka gigs in Johnston, he took on his father’s challenge to earn a living as a drummer, went on the road and was invited by Marty Balin to become an important contributing member of one of the seminal rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s.
Joey Covington died in a car crash in Palm Springs, California on June 4th 2013 at the age of 67. According to the Desert Sun newspaper, Covington, who was not wearing a seat belt, crashed into a retaining wall at a highway curve. His car flew off the road hitting an elevated highway. Joey’s wife believed that a heart attack or stroke caused him to drive off the road. He died on the scene.