The Resilient Soul of Mr. Clarke

Willie J. Clarke is a good man.  But he’s been done wrong a few times.

The interview in his Hialeah apartment begins with my showing him a compilation double album I bought a few months ago – Miami Sound: Rare Funk & Soul from 1967-1974. The songwriter and music producer says it reminds him of the worst thing that happened to him in the music business, that he was just so in love with the writing and creating, he didn’t manage his business affairs right.  Then he adds that he wonders why he doesn’t get paid “real money” as a result of having so much “material” out there.  He tells me he doesn’t want to talk about the re-issue label from Chicago that, with his assistance and support, produced compilation records like the one I just showed him featuring a lot of the music he wrote back in the day. They made him promises, he says. Financial promises. He says he’s “still keeping what you might call faith” but it makes him nauseous how they failed him.

Clarke goes on.  He says the worst offenders are musicians who use his music as their own.  (Artists steal music from each other time and again, especially hip hop artists who sample music. And the more original and unique songs, especially from an era when licensing fees and royalties weren’t considered a priority, are the most vulnerable.)

I think he’s being particularly hard on himself. After all, some things you can’t control.

Clarke reaches for some papers on his desk and hands them to me. It’s his BMI royalty statement. BMI is a global company that collects licensing fees and distributes them as royalties to songwriters and musicians.

10 cents here, 5 cents there, he says, just enough to pay the light bill.*

The man who’s written soul lyrics about women, advising them not to be done in by the men in their lives, has been done in.

But then the good man changes his tune and fires into nostalgia.

We had 6 or 8 rhythm sections. There were certain sounds. If we wanted to do a ballad, we’d get Little Beaver, my blues guy was best for that. If we wanted to cut something really fast and danceable, I’d get KC [of Sunshine Band notoriety]. .. He was funky.  There was keyboard player Timmy Thomas, …Robert ‘Shotgun’ Johnson, … a Cuban guy named Julio… We had jazz people, blues people, even a guy from Belle Glades named Melvin Carter who sang if you see a man walking the streets tonight, don’t be afraid. Don’t worry, its only me, I got pains in my heart. And Snoopy Dean [guitar], he was good. He’d start chewing that bubblegum and lean back.

Throughout all this, Clarke mimicks a bass player, a piano player, even Snoopy Dean leaning way back jamming his guitar. He makes this sound or that sound. The soul man is on a roll.

Clarke was born in the small rural community of Fort Gaines, Georgia but moved to Miami when he was four. He attended college at Florida A&M and played tenor drum in the marching band. There, he began composing music. He says voices would come to him and recite poetry in his head. He then tells me he can write a song in 10, 15 minutes. I think about testing him on the spot but I can’t fathom a topic that would meet his criteria.  Clarke wrote songs with meaning, with a message, a strong message. Many of them were about empowering women. He didn’t write about racial discrimination or racial injustices. There were broader themes he wanted to address in the music. These songs were about love, loss, and everything in between.

His peers were strong songwriters too. He talks about Willie “Little Beaver” Hale. Mama forgot to tell me that the world was about to change. Can you tell me who’s to blame. Nothing can remain the same, people even change their name… And my papa was even nowhere around, my papa was somewhere getting down. He tells me this is the story of the ghetto child, the hard life that you gotta face.

After college he spent a lot of time at Johnnys Record Shop in Liberty City which belonged to his business partner Johnny Pearsall. (The two of them later would start Deep City Records, which ran from 1964-68 and produced some of the best soul music around.)

In the back room we had a little rehearsal room. Just enough to jam a piano in there. We’d rehearse every day before we went to the studio… The girls would come by. We’d have late night parties there.

But Clarke was serious about the music. So serious he set goals for himself. Three goals, in fact.  (1) To get radio play; (2) to have a gold record (back then, 1 million records sold), and (3) to have a platinum record (2 million sold).

I ask him what song broke the cherry as far as radio play. It was The Pot Can’t Talk About the Kettle by Helene Smith, considered Miami’s First Lady of Soul. Released on one of Clarke’s labels, Blue Star,  in 1963, it has been called the “ultimate Miami collectible” record. The first pressing of the 45 RPMs totaled only 300 records.

Thank God for DJs who were, what you might call, compassionate. That was one of the wildest recordings… It’s about the rawest sound you ever want to hear on a record.

He tells me if he could record that song today it would sound much better but he likes the raw sound.

The ironic thing about having a good song. ..Sometimes you cannot sacrifice feel for perfection. Perfection is boring. Every now and then you have a little tweety bird over here, a little bow wow in this corner. People will say, hey what’s coming out next? They start grooving to it.

When local music impresario Henry Stone came looking for Clarke (circa 1968) to entice him to come work for him and what would become TK Records in Miami, Clarke says he and Johnny Pearsall couldn’t agree on the move. (Reportedly, Pearsall wanted to go in a different direction with Helene Smith, i.e., sign with a national label. But on this day, Clarke recounts a different motive for Pearsall’s resistance.)

Johnny didn’t want to go [with Henry Stone]. We don’t need him, he’d say. We can do this ourselves.   To be realistic, Johnny didn’t like mingling too much with white people ’cause as a little boy he grew up seeing the brothers being tarred and feathered. He was exposed to some prejudices and bigotry up there [in Tallahassee]… I wasn’t exposed to that kind of stuff in Miami.  Johnny tried real hard to overcome these things but there are some things in life you can’t overcome.  

Clarke and Pearsall eventually split, and so went Deep City Records. Clarke took his talents to Hialeah [site of Henry Stone’s recording and distribution business]. And I mean all of his talents.  Guitarist Little Beaver, diva Betty Wright, James Knight & the Butlers. Songwriters, vocalists, musicians. And that FAMU sound.

Joining with Henry Stone was a genius move.  Success came quick with the 1968 Betty Wright single Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do. And times were good.

I used to get up early in the morning especially during the summer when school closed [his other job was as a middle school art teacher].  When I’d get to the studio, they’d be waiting outside, the drummer and the guitar player.  And they’d say, come on, lets cut somethin’ [music]… But first lets start with this.

Oh, you brought some Red Rooster [wine]?

…and we’d drink a couple of bottles of Red Rooster and get up there and jam all morning, all day long.

About the first gold record which he achieved in 1971, he said,

One day I came to TK Records from teaching in South Miami. Henry Stone was happy sitting behind the desk. He said, Willie, have some rum and coke.

I said, whats all the party about, Henry?

He said, remember those guys from Atlantic Records that were here? Well, they told me to tell you you got a big smash hit with Clean Up Woman.

Clarke called the principal at the middle school and submitted his resignation.

The platinum record came a few years later.

—–

Since I first started writing about this topic I have heard varying opinions about what exactly is the Miami Sound. Henry Stone has said that it was during the disco years of the 70s when they had hit after hit at TK Records. They even marketed the moniker under the TK label circa 1978. But Clarke disagrees with that notion. He says it started with the Deep City music.

[Local musicians] Them Two, The Moovers, Helene Smith, and Little Beaver, that’s what I would say was the Miami Sound. Why? Because that was the music that was the attention-getter here in Miami. When it hit the radio, it made a big bang. Henry Stone wanted to know who we were.

I ask him what made this Miami Sound unique.

Two words, he says, “color blind.”

It was the most integrated society. People from everywhere. It was so mixed. When you look around there’d be different colors playing the same music.

Man, we had stiff competition. Motown, Philly, LA, Birmingham, all over. But because of the uniqueness of our sound, we were able to kind of like… ease right on through. We were different.

I can’t tell the difference between an LA sound and a NY sound. But you know a Miami Sound (snap his fingers) right off the bat.

Clarke receives a check every once in a while.  A few cents here and there.  Sometimes more. For example, Beyonce sampled Girls Can’t Do. She paid royalties. He says it was a big hit.**

Then he says,

Thank God for samples. Without samples, my life wouldn’t be all right, right now.

Copyright © 2012 Long Play Miami

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Update: December 6, 2012

* After reading this blog post recently, Willie Clarke called me and said he wanted me to acknowledge that “BMI is very important to him. They take really good care of Willie Clarke.”  I get where he’s coming from. [see next point] 

** Occasionally, royalty checks sum up to a lot more than just a few cents. 

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On July 18, 2012, this post was recognized:

One comment

  1. Pingback: When Nassau Went Funky in Hialeah « long play miami

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