It’s 1969, and you’re in a record store. Flower power is in full swing on most of the shelves, but this hypothetical record store you’re in also has an album with a pitch-black cover that features a blood-red altar covered in skulls and inverted crosses.
Three people — a striking blonde and two vaguely interchangeable ’60s-looking dudes — stand over the altar. Because of the cover design, you’re unsure if the album is called Witchcraft or Witchcraft Coven, but it’s definitely the smaller type that catches your eye: “Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls,” it reads.
Assuming you buy the album, you’re even more shocked by the inside of the gatefold: The blonde from the cover is lying naked on an altar, with a chalice on her chest and a skull — possibly one of the ones from the cover? — over her nether-regions. A group of men, some of them also from the cover, stand around her, casting the “devil horns.”
Coven was formed in Chicago the late ’60s by Esther “Jinx” Dawson — the blonde from the album covers, and also the band’s lead vocalist — and drummer Steve Ross. After opening local shows for two years with luminaries like the Yardbirds, Alice Cooper and Vanilla Fudge, they caught the eye of Bill Traut, a Chicago-area label owner and producer who would work with everyone from jazz pianist Oscar Peterson to Styx. He had been struck by the band’s live show, which consisted of elaborate and theatrical “Satanic rites.” Dawson, who grew up in a very wealthy and old family and had been trained as an opera singer and classical pianist, frequently cast “the devil horns” while playing live and cultivated an image both sensual and evil — which, combined with her powerful vocals, helped elevate the somewhat paint-by-numbers sound of the band.
Traut may not have been a Satanist, but he was certainly an opportunist, and he recruited local guitarist and songwriter James Vincent to help Coven put material together for their debut album, Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls. (It’s unclear how this title was a selling point.)
Vincent — credited as Jim Donlinger on the album — described Coven in his book Space Traveler: A Musician’s Odyssey.
“These young people, who incidentally always wore black, claimed to be real witches … I kind of laughed the whole thing off at first, and quite frankly took on the project only for the money … Bill brought me a large box full of books about witchcraft and related subjects. He told me to read them and start writing some songs.”
Vincent describes Traut as being particularly invested in Witchcraft‘s last song, the 13-minute “Satanic Mass,” which the liner notes proudly touted as being “the first Black Mass to be recorded, either in written words or in audio.” He also describes Traut later proudly showing him heaps of mail addressed to Coven — one letter from a group of witches who’d attempted to curse their local power company with the Black Mass, only to have its effects rebound on them — and it looked like Coven was off to a great start.
A number of slight coincidences — minor at the time, though hilarious in retrospect — stalled this early progress. First off, the lead track of the album was called “Black Sabbath,” and the group’s bassist was one “Oz Osbourne.” Sound familiar? At first, it looked like they’d beaten Sabbath to the punch: Reviewing Black Sabbath’s 1970 self-titled debut in Rolling Stone, Lester Bangs called them “England’s answer to Coven,” but as the Englishmen grew in popularity, people quickly forgot about America’s predecessor to Black Sabbath. (Also, the fact that Black Sabbath genuinely sounded more evil than Coven’s Jefferson Airplane-esque psychedelia probably helped things.)
The hand of doom for the band’s run at success came from, of all places, Esquire. In the magazine’s March 1970 issue, an article called “Evil Lurks in California” linked the counterculture’s interest in the occult to Charles Manson and the Tate-LaBianca murders. A “[Sunset] Strip hippie” explicitly mentions Coven and their debut album in the article. The bad publicity convinced Mercury Records — whom Traut had convinced to distribute Witchcraft — to yank the record from circulation, and the band was effectively doomed. (Dawson says they walked away when Mercury refused to support them; she also mentions that while she never met Manson, he was photographed holding a copy of their record outside Tower Records in L.A.)
Then came Billy Jack. Dawson recorded vocals for a song called “One Tin Soldier” for the soundtrack to the cult film (when Linda Ronstadt was unable to do so), and it cracked the Billboard Hot 100 three times in as many years: Number 26 in 1971, Number 79 in 1973, and Number 73 in 1974. Dawson used the song’s popularity as a springboard to revive Coven’s flagging prospects, and the group managed to release two more albums, including 1974’s Blood on the Snow, for which a music video — one of the first ever and produced in conjunction with Disney Studios — was filmed.
Dawson began channeling her energies into film and modeling work through the rest of the ’70s and ’80s. She also designed clothes for the likes of Jimmy Page, Cher and even Barbra Streisand, having created all of Coven’s outfits at their height. She teamed up with Coven’s original drummer to work on the film Heaven Can Help (directed by future Mystery Science Theater 3000 subject Tony Zarindast), which came out in 1989. (Dawson stars as, naturally, an evil rock singer.)
Dawson and Coven have been, for the most part, written out of history as both progenitors of heavy metal music and the resurgence of “witch” culture. Stevie Nicks might guest star on American Horror Story: Coven, but it’s unlikely Ryan Murphy is even aware of Dawson’s existence. But she continues to perform under the Coven name, and if anything, she’s consistent with her branding: Her Facebook helpfully lists her hometown as Chicago, Illinois, though she currently lives in “Hell” (in the Cayman Islands). Her occupation is “Irreverent Ceremonial Magus.” (She’s also in the Screen Actors Guild.)
Dawson also operates an eBay store that primarily serves to move Coven merchandise, though you can also have her make you a custom sigil/occult coat of arms with your name on it. Her Twitter mentions that Coven has been recording as of March of this year, and the group has played out in the past years, even if adapting to the vagaries of modern promotion via social media seemed difficult initially for Dawson.
Though she suffered a heart attack in 2008 and was pronounced D.O.A. before being revived (“I am a true walking dead“), Dawson says she’s working on an autobiography and continues to keep the flame alive. “I seem to be able to fit in no matter the decade,” she said in 2016. “I still wear all black, my hair style is the same, as is my makeup. My desires are the same. My music is pretty much the same. It only seems that people come and go around me, and that changes.”
The circumstances that kept Coven from achieving the widespread fame of their contemporaries — or any of the groups that aped their look without the commitment — are easy to laugh at with the benefit of hindsight. But they have their fans, and though the Devil may not have helped Jinx take over the world, she’s certainly been able to keep on keeping on, another faithful soldier in the army of darkness.