Born on May 25, 1968, in South Dakota; son of Richard (a college professor and genealogist) and Jean (a ceramist) Covert; 1984; married twice; second marriage to Rebecca Covert; children: (first marriage) Fiona Grey Schenkelberg. Addresses: Record companies---Waterdog Music, 329 W. 18th St., No. 313, Chicago, IL, 60616-1120, website: http://www.waterdogmusic.com; Minty Fresh, P.O. Box 577400, Chicago, IL 60657, website: http://www.mintyfresh.com. Website--Ralph Covert Official Website: http://www.ralphsworld.com.
An American singer/songwriter, musician, performer, producer, playwright, actor, educator, and record company executive, Covert is best known as an artist who writes and sings appealing music for children under the monikor "Ralph's World." He was also well known as the leader of the Bad Examples, a pop/rock group based in Chicago that was together (with various lineups) from 1987 through 2000. In addition, Covert has released well-received solo records for adults. A prolific songwriter and energetic entertainer, Covert has been praised for his ability to charm both children and their parents. He is credited with using the palette of contemporary music--rock, pop, folk, country, and other genres--and a sincere, tuneful approach to songwriting, to create works for young people that their elders also can enjoy. Covert's work with the Bad Examples is equally well regarded. The group featured Covert on lead vocals and rhythm guitar; lead guitarists Joe Campagna, Tommy O'Brien, John Duich, Steve Gerlach, John Zdon, and Rob Newhouse; bassists Greg Balk and Tom "Pickles" Piekarski; drummers Terry Wathen, John Richardson, and Ron Barnes; and keyboardist Steve Wozny. The Bad Examples played Covert's songs, which ranged from humorous sing-alongs to edgy rockers to tender ballads, in a variety of musical styles, most notably power pop and blues/rock. The Bad Examples have been praised for their superior musicianship and engaging live performances, which employed impromptu jams and ad-libbed songs, among other techniques. Covert sings his compositions in a flexible, slightly husky tenor, and plays acoustic and electric guitar and piano.
A Boy's Gotta Rock
Born in South Dakota, Covert was raised in Brookings by his father, Richard, a professor at South Dakota State University, and his mother, Jean, a ceramist. Covert had two younger sisters, Cheryl and Nancy. He often described Nancy, who flourished despite borderline Down's Syndrome, as a major inspiration. From an early age, Covert wrote stories and poetry and acted in original skits. When he was eight, a counselor at his summer camp played side one of the Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for the entire two-week period. After this, Covert told Billy Heller of the New York Post, "I had no question what I was going to do with the rest of my life." After returning home from camp, Covert started to compose songs, and he focused even more seriously on music when one of his songs, "Old Man Dan," earaned accolades from his teachers and classmates. The song would later appear on Covert's album Peggy's Pie Parlor.
The Covert family left Brookings in 1974, living in Iowa and West Virginia before settling in Illinois. Covert learned to play guitar while in high school. His father gave him money to buy an instruction book, and Covert recalled on the "Ralph's World" website, "Dad had this vision of me playing `Turkey in the Straw,' but I came back with Alice Cooper... A boy's gotta rock." In his senior year in high school, Covert and his friend Brian Booth, later to become recognized as a solo artist, released an album of home recordings, Gonna Be a Star. The title cut won an honorable mention in a national songwriting contest. Covert went to the University of Iowa, where he majored in English and German and studied music and ballet, while continuing to write songs. In 1983 he made a music video for his composition "Telephone," with his backing group, A Certain Crowd. The video was shown on the first public access television program in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and became a finalist in a national contest sponsored by cable programmers. By the time that he graduated from college in 1984, Covert had written five novels and had played the lead role in an independent film, Working Title, a movie for which he created the musical score.
Examples on the Rise
Shortly after graduation, Covert moved to Chicago and began to work as a solo artist, playing his original music in bars, and then decided to form a band. Covert passed out demos of his songs to hundreds of local musicians who impressed him with their playing. In March of1987 the original lineup of the Bad Examples--Covert, Balk, and Wathen--came together; in October, Campagna joined the band. In 1988 O'Brien replaced Campagna and Piekarski replaced Balk; soon thereafter, Duich replaced O'Brien. The band put out Meat: The Bad Examples as a demo cassette for club owners and booking agents; as an advertising gimmick, they taped condoms to the cassette boxes. The tape became so popular that fans demanded a commercial release on tape and later on CD. Meat included the first version of what is perhaps the Examples' signature song, "Not Dead Yet." This composition, which Tom Surowicz of Twin Cities Reader described as "a barn-burner with a great comic lyric that both celebrates and thumbs its nose at classic rock," appeared on several Examples' releases. It was covered by Chicago arena-rockers Styx, appearing on their Edge of the Century album (1990), a release that attained gold-record status. In 1991 Covert and musician friend Jay Whitehouse founded Waterdog Records, an independent label that put out new releases and reissues.
The Examples released two additional studio recordings, Bad Is Beautiful and Kisses 50 Cents; three live albums, Cheap Beer Night, The Two-Meter Sessions, and 5000 Days; and a greatest-hits compilation, Popscape, which also included some of Covert's solo material. In 1990 the band signed a seven-album overseas deal with Holland's CNR Records, one of the longest contracts the company had ever given to a new band. The group became stars in Holland, placing several songs (including "Not Dead Yet") at the top of the charts. However, they were unable to secure a contract with a major label in the United States and remained a cult band, though one with a stellar reputation and a loyal following that crossed several generations. The Examples are credited with carving out a successful career for themselves without major-label support and for opening up the Chicago music scene for other original groups. Often called Chicago's best pop band, the Bad Examples have often been compared to the English group Squeeze and the New Zealand outfit Crowded House.
While he was in the Bad Examples, Covert began producing solo records. In 1993 he released Eat at Godot's, an acoustic album that showed the artist's more intimate side. Writing in Showcase Chicago, Deborah Brosseau called it "songwriting at its best--pure, pained, honest," while Tim Sheridan of All Music Guide noted of Covert, "Singer-songwriters are as common as table salt, but every so often you come across an artist of understated brilliance." However, the album's sales were stunted when Waterdog's distributor, Landmark, went bankrupt; later, Waterdog partnered with Big Daddy Distribution. The next year Covert released a four-song EP, Adam McCarthy, and the title track, which describes the difficulty in watching someone die from a terminal disease, has been considered one of Covert's best. Written for a friend who passed away from leukemia at age 33, the song was recorded live during a radio interview. It received such a response that Waterdog decided to rush-release it. In 1997 Covert produced Birthday, a collection of lullabies, fairy tales, and story songs that he dedicated to his daughter Fiona, who was born in 1995. Tom Lounges of The Beat called Birthday "a landmark album, a desert island disc." Covert produced his first play, Sawdust and Spangles, in 1997. Co-written with his friend G. Riley Mills, the play chronicles the life of W. C. Coup, the inventor of the two-ring circus. Covert and Mills also collaborated on two other plays, Streeterville, a biographical work, and The Flower Thieves, a rock fable set in a circus. All three plays included music by Covert and became critical and popular successes. Covert and Mills also wrote the story and music for "Jackie O in Hell," a segment of an omnibus of plays about Jacqueline Onassis that was produced in 1995.
Entered Ralph's World
Shortly after the birth of his daughter, Covert began teaching "Wiggleworms" classes for children ages three months to six years, at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where he already had established himself as a teacher of songwriting for adults. Realizing the need for music that could be enjoyed by both parents and their offspring, he began to write songs for children. Jim Powers, an executive at the independent label Minty Fresh, approached Covert to produce an album of original material for youngsters. Covert's first album in this vein, Ralph's World (2001), was the first release on the children's label Mini Fresh, a subsidiary of Minty Fresh. Ralph's World was noted for taking familiar genres such as the animal song, the guessing game, and the tongue-twister, and adding delightful variations and clever wordplay. Moira McCormick of Billboard called Ralph's World "one of the finest kids' audio releases of this or any year," and P. George Silver dubbed it "a revelation" in Chicago Social. In his subsequent releases--At the Bottom of the Sea, Happy Lemons, Peggy's Pie Parlor, and The Amazing Adventures of Kid Astro--Covert built on his formula, performing catchy originals in a variety of styles, including surf, jazz, rockabilly, and swing. He introduced children to concepts such as the alphabet (recited backwards) and diversity, and to songs from his childhood like "The Banana Splits Theme" from the television show of the same name. In his live performances, Covert took the interactive charm of his shows with the Bad Examples and applied them to his shows for children--kids play air guitar, slither like snakes, and show their belly buttons on cue while parents dance and sing along.
Covert is considered a versatile songwriter whose works have touched both children and adults with their empathy, depth, and craftsmanship. As an entertainer, he is regarded as dynamic and personable, and as an exceptional songwriter and performer who has brought together children and adults through their shared love of music. In addition, Covert has been praised for raising the quality of children's music. Writing in the Southtown Economist, B. Scott Hersey stated that Covert is "relentlessly intelligent and intense, as interested in examining the human spirit through a poet's introspection as he is in standing onstage." Writing in the New York Times about Covert's contributions to children's music, David Edelstein predicted that it is possible "that Mr. Covert will turn out to be that genre's Elvis Presley, or at the very least its Elvis Costello." Covert told the Star Tribune, "Whether writing for children or adults, it needs to be musically interesting and lyrically well put together. It's the same tool bag and skill set you use when you write pop music, except in children's music it's more about animals and less about breakups."
by Gerard J. Senick
Ralph Covert's Career
Worked as solo performer in Chicago clubs, 1984-87; formed pop/rock band the Bad Examples, 1987; released demo cassette Meat: The Bad Examples, including the song "Not Dead Yet," which became the band's most popular work, 1987; signed first record deal with AEMMP Records, released 12-inch single of "Not Dead Yet," 1989; signed European deal with CNR Records, Holland, 1990; founded independent label Waterdog Records with Jay Whitehouse, released first studio album, Bad Is Beautiful, 1991; released first live album, Cheap Beer Night, 1992; released first solo album, Eat at Godot's, 1993; produced play Sawdust and Spangles with co-writer G. Riley Mills, 1997; held "5,000 Days" show, a five-hour farewell concert for band at FitzGerald's in Chicago, 2000; released first album of music for children, Ralph's World, on Mini-Fresh, 2001; released 5,000 Days, live album culled from tapes of band's last concert, 2002.
Ralph Covert's Awards
(With the Bad Examples) Band of the Year, WXRT Radio, 1989; (with the Bad Examples) Columbia College, Brightest Stars on Chicago club scene, 1989; (with G. Riley Mills) Joseph Jefferson Award, Best New Work, for play Sawdust and Spangles, 1988; (with Rik Vrijman) De Grote Prijs De Nederlands (Dutch music award), Best Lyrics, 1997; Billboard and Parents magazines, Best Children's Album of 2001, for Ralph's World, 2001; (with Mills) Joseph Jefferson Award, Best New Work (non-equity), 2001, for Streeterville; Family Fun Magazine, Number One CD of 2002, for At the Bottom of the Sea; Parenting Magazine, Video of the Year, for Say Hello! ("Ralph's World" DVD), 2003.
- Selected discography
- Solo albums
- Eat at Godot's Waterdog Records, 1993.
- Adam McCarthy (four-song EP), Waterdog Records, 1994.
- Birthday Waterdog Records, 1997.
- Ralph's World Mini Fresh/Minty Fresh, 2001.
- At the Bottom of the Sea Mini Fresh/Minty Fresh, 2002.
- Happy Lemons Mini Fresh/Minty Fresh, 2002.
- (With G. Riley Mills) The Flower Thieves: A Rock and Roll Circus Fable from the Midnight Circus (cast recording), Waterdog Records, 2002.
- Peggy's Pie Parlor Mini Fresh/Minty Fresh, 2003.
- The Amazing Adventures of Kid Astro Mini Fresh/Minty Fresh, 2004.
- With the Bad Examples
- Meat: The Bad Examples self-released cassette, 1987; reissued, 1989; reissued on CD with bonus tracks, Waterdog Records, 1993.
- Bad Is Beautiful Waterdog Records, 1991.
- Cheap Beer Night (live album), Waterdog Records, 1992.
- Kisses 50 Cents Waterdog Records, 1995.
- Popscape: The Best of Ralph Covert and the Bad Examples (compilation; includes solo material), Waterdog Records, 1996.
- The Two-Meter Sessions: Live on Radio VARA, Jan. 9, 1992 (live album), Waterdog Records, 1998.
- 5000 Days (live album), Waterdog Records, 2002.
- Larkin, Colin, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 3rd edition, Muze Ltd., 1998
- The Beat (Indiana), September, 1997.
- Chicago Social, June, 2002.
- New York Post, December 16, 2001.
- New York Times, January 30, 2005.
- Showcase Chicago, July-August, 1993; October-November, 1993.
- Southtown Economist, November 6, 1992.
- Star Tribune, April 19, 2002.
- "Ralph Covert," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 10, 2005).
- Ralph Covert Official Website, http://www.ralphcovert.com (March 21, 2005).