A couple of award-winning documentary filmmakers and an avid art collector & philanthropist have teamed up to produce a very charming documentary about the first black-owned record production company in Florida: Deep City Records. Deep City operated in Miami from about 1964 to 1968. It was founded by two friends who first got the idea to make records when they were college mates at Florida A&M. Willie Clarke was the creative; Johnny Pearsall was the entrepreneur. They enlisted the multi-talented Clarence Reid and the three of them set the course for Miami’s special contribution to the soul music landscape of the 1960s.
Deep City recorded local musicians, many of them native Miamians culled from the churches of Liberty City and the night clubs of Overtown, while others were transplants from Jacksonville, Georgia, Arkansas, and other far away places. The record label released songs by Helene Smith, Betty Wright, Them Two, Frank Williams & the Rocketeers, Freda Gray, and Johnny Killens & The Dynamites, to name a few. Local R&B legend Little Beaver played guitar on some of Deep City’s deepest cuts.
The film, titled Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound, had its world premiere last night at the SXSW [South by Southwest] Festival in Austin, Texas.
Next stop on the festival circuit is Miami where this Friday, March 14th, the movie will have its Florida debut at the Miami International Film Festival (8:30 PM, Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center). Tickets for the film can be purchased here.
Long Play Miami is honored to be among the first to receive a copy of the movie’s trailer, and, with the filmmakers’ permission, shares it here for all music and film fans to enjoy.
Read the previous Long Play Miami post on the making of the film from January 2013.
Let’s flash back to a couple of noteworthy Miami soul classics from 45 years ago this month.
He’s Bad, Bad, Bad – Betty Wright
Local soul singer Betty Wright was fresh off her first hit record, “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do” and rolling into the fall of 1968. But momentum doesn’t last long in the music business. ALSTON Records, the Miami record label run by Steve Alaimo and Henry Stone which had released Wright’s first single, was clamoring for another hit song by the 14-year old up-and-comer. Clarence Reid, the composer behind her first hit, suggested a song titled “Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad” as a natural follow-up, a kind of sequel in the same style and narrative of the first song. But Alaimo reportedly rejected it for those very reasons.
So Reid and his writing partner, Willie Clarke, composed “He’s Bad, Bad, Bad” for Wright. In this track, Wright shows off her Aretha-like chops and swag. And backed up by a trio of girls, a couple of horns, and a bluesy guitarist, she earned herself another hit record.
By November 1968, “He’s Bad, Bad, Bad” had climbed into the top ten singles charts at Miami’s leading soul station WAME “Whammy” Radio. While the track is not one of Wright’s more widely recognized singles, it nevertheless showed the music world that this Miami teenager was not to be taken lightly.
Flash Forward: Betty Wright is still doing her thing. At last check, she had released a soul revival album in 2011 in association with The Roots.
She lives in Miami.
Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad – Della Humphrey
The second song from November 1968 is in my humble but informed opinion the more notable of the Soul Flashback hits not only due to its back story but because it gave rise to yet another 14 year old star – Della Humphrey.
The legend goes that when Clarence Reid’s initial follow up song for Betty Wright was rejected by ALSTON, he took the lyrics to Ms. Humphrey, a Miami teenager who until then had sung in her Overtown church choir and had won a few singing contests around town.
“Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad” was released not on any Miami label (due to Reid’s disdain for ALSTON’s response to it), but instead by a Philadelphia record label he had connections to. The song reached #1 with local radio stations and bumped aside Betty Wright momentarily from the top of the charts.
Humphrey reached her musical peak with that song and sadly, her career floundered after that. But the song remains a soul classic.
Flash Forward: Della Humphrey lives in a town north of Atlanta, Georgia with her husband, Bill. She has a small music studio set up in her home for whenever she feels like laying down a few vocal tracks.
(For the full story on Della Humphrey, read “The Della Humphrey Experience,” which was featured in a prominent post here in December 2012.)
Whether as a response to discrimination, poverty, injustice, or simply a lost love, traditional blues music has forever been synonymous with melancholy and human misery. You’d think that blues singers were the same; always feeling, well…, blue. If so, then Joey Gilmore is the light that cracks through that stereotype.
See the thing about blues, well, you know that’s what R&B means, rhythm and blues. It’s blues with rhythm to where you can dance.
There was such a stigma about the blues [back in the day]. Blues was mostly considered music for poor people; poor, black and ignorant…
The sad part is that people miss out on so much about the blues because there’s such a terrible misconception about it.
Blues is great music, man.
Gilmore, 68, plays blues with an upbeat. He uses guitar progressions and rhythms that make you feel good, even if [he] used to wake up every morning, to get to work by nine, but then [he] lost his job and now [he] can’t even borrow a dime.
Gilmore was born in Ocala, Florida. By the time he was 5 years old, he was an orphan. His mother passed away and his father ran off, leaving him and 7 brothers and sisters behind. The children moved in with whoever would take them. Aunts, uncles, cousins. Young Joey found solace in music.
I started banging around on tin cans, buckets and barrels and stuff. Whatever I could find a beat on.
He taught himself well enough that he was invited to join the high school band at Lincoln Park High as a drum major. Gilmore also taught himself guitar and started his own band at 14. One afternoon, the band was invited to play a gig at the opening of a gas station in Mascotte, FL. The year was 1959, and small Florida towns like Mascotte were deep into segregation, much like the rest of the south. Gilmore’s band proved to be quite popular at the event. People were dancing, mingling, integrating. And then, from a distance, Gilmore saw a truck. As it approached, he could make out the passenger. It was Fred Thomas, then Mascotte’s mayor and chief of police.
He came stormin’ in… while the party is going on. Rolled in with his foot dragging out the door. The car didn’t hardly stop long enough. In those days they had one of those big long whip antennas and the dirt road wasn’t paved like they are now and he come in with a cloud of dust behind ‘em and the whip antennae just going back and forth…He jumped out the car and came over and said, I ain’t gonna have it, I ain’t gonna have it, I ain’t gonna have these nee-gees and white folk mixing in my town.
He broke the party up and everybody had to go home.
It was funny.
To others, the memory might have had a lasting emotional effect. But to Gilmore, it plays like a comedy. He goes on to say it was no big deal, we got through it. ‘It’ being the ‘it’ that segregated people by the complexion of their skin, the period when whites and blacks stood at diametrically opposite ends of the social ladder. And Gilmore’s reaction, some 50 years later? It was no big deal.
For the most part…, blacks and whites got along better [back then] than they do today.
That’s how Joey Gilmore carries himself. He doesn’t let things make him blue.
And in return, the universe seems to bestow goodness onto him.
In 1962, after graduating from Lincoln Park High, Gilmore was looking for a proper reason to leave his hometown of Groveland (FL). One day, Gilmore received a phone call that would change the course of his life. It came from his brother-in-law who lived in Miami. The call went something like this: Hey Joey, Frank William’s band is looking for a guitarist. Do you want to come down here?
Soon after, he was on a Greyhound bus, one-way ticket stub in hand. Gilmore arrived in Miami on a Sunday. By the following Wednesday, he was performing at Cafe Society in Overtown with Frank Williams & the Rocketeers, one of Miami’s most popular R&B bands of the 1960s. But the progression from Groveland to the Cafe Society stage wasn’t so linear.
After meeting Frank Williams that Sunday, Gilmore learned that the band was actually looking for a bass guitarist, not a lead guitarist. They told him he had three days to learn how to play it. Gilmore got to work.
They had a dressing room upstairs over the stage. That’s where I would go, every day, day and night, and practice on bass.
It turned out Gilmore was no stranger to the bass guitar.
When I was at home, I used to get on my back porch, turn my record player on, get me a stack of records and I would take my amplifier and I’d turn all the treble off the amplifier, nothing but bass. Just turn the bass wide open and turn the volume up high so I can get that punchy sound. And I’d take my guitar and tune the strings down…and I would sit down with the record player and play the bass line on every song.
The Wednesday night performance at the nightclub went smoothly and launched Gilmore’s professional career, one that would figure prominently in Miami’s surging inner city nightclub scene of the 60s and 70s.
Gilmore played bass guitar with the Rocketeers for two consecutive years until 1964 when he joined the Army. When he returned after a two-year stint, Frank Williams had found a replacement, bringing in Arkansas-native guitar virtuoso, Willie (Little Beaver) Hale. No worries. Frank Williams formed a new band for Gilmore and named them The Rocketeers No. 2. And this would be Gilmore’s band. He would play lead guitar and often handle lead vocals. The Rocketeers No. 2 performed at popular nightclubs in Overtown and Liberty City, among them, Double Decker Lounge, Mister James Club, and the Continental Club. This went on for a few years.
Gilmore cut his first ever record as lead. The song was written by Little Beaver and titled, Somebody Done Took My Baby And Gone. It was issued on Frank William’s independent label, SAADIA RECORDS, which was named after one of his twin daughters.
The record was then reissued two months later by the Philadelphia soul label, PHIL-LA-OF SOUL, one of the major soul labels of that time.
It was a national hit record. It was in the top 10 on every soul radio station in the country.
I ask him to tell me about that experience.
Sad to say it but I was green as grass. I didn’t know anything about the business end of it so consequently I never got a dime from none of it.
But I had popularity as far as going to different towns and playing. I had radio play all over the place. I would go to places and it was like wow, this is superstar. But I didn’t know it. I thought I was a band player.
When he says he was green as grass, he means it. Joey Gilmore got ripped off by concert promoters over and over again. He didn’t have a manager to help him with those things. He says all he knew how to do was put a band together and play music.
In 1976, Gilmore signed with the Henry Stone label, BLUE CANDLE, a division of TK Records. He released a few singles and a self-titled (Joey Gilmore) funk album.
He rode that wave for a few years.
Musicians thrive on the whims of the public but that can be risky because things might be roaring today and tomorrow it’s different. That’s the way the music world is, constantly up and down.
Gilmore then turned to blues music. In 1989, he released So Good To Be Bad, a blues album in the style of his hero, B.B. King. The record landed him gigs overseas, including a 12-week tour in Switzerland.
Since then, Gilmore has recorded four additional blues album, the last two titled The Ghosts of Mississippi Meet the Gods of Africa (2006) and Bluesman (2008), both to critical acclaim. A few years ago, he won the prestigious International Blues Challenge awarded by The Blues Foundation of Memphis, TN. These days, he’s still going strong. This summer he’s booked to play blues festivals in Austria, Italy, and Germany. You may occasionally get a glimpse of the man performing at the Sunday Jazz Brunch in Fort Lauderdale. And when you listen to Joey Gilmore play the blues, don’t expect melancholy. Not from him.
Everybody has stories and you want to spend time whining about yours? [No way.] I could be down in the dumps and I turn on the TV or go out and talk to people and man, if you listen for awhile, you say, I ain’t got no problems. Homeless people… and people who don’t have jobs.
Every day I wake up on the green side of the earth is a blessing to me.
I don’t let anything get me down.
… even if somebody done took his baby and gone. Here is Gilmore’s 1971 hit song:
 I checked the Billboard Book of Top 40 R&B Hits, an anthology that covers the period 1942-2004. While Gilmore’s song Somebody Done Took My Baby and Gone does not appear to have cracked the Hot R&B chart in 1971, a reflection more of the times, in the 1940s, there were 2 similarly titled songs that did garner a mention: Somebody Done Changed The Lock On My Door (Louis Jordan, 1945) and Somebody Done Stole My Cherry Red (Eddie Vinson, 1949).
Copyright © 2013 Long Play Miami
For the last decade the Chicago-based company, The Numero Group, has been mining the long-ago discarded music recordings of now defunct independent record labels around the United States. Devoted to “dragging brilliant recordings, films, and photography out of unwarranted obscurity,” Numero has found gems in closets, warehouses, crates and bins in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit and reissued these funk and soul treasures on their own label, Eccentric Soul.
A few years ago, Numero reached out to the only living partner of Miami’s own Deep City Records, Willie Clarke.
Deep City was started by Clarke and Johnny Pearsall around 1963 in Miami’s Overtown section. Clarke and Pearsall met while attending college in Tallahassee at Florida A&M. Clarke was a drummer in A&M’s Marching 100 Band. He and another local, Arnold “Hoss” Albury, a trumpet player in the same band, brought that big brass sound to the Deep City vision in Miami years later; big horns loom large over many of the tracks they recorded under their label.
Numero’s discussions with Clarke lead to Eccentric Soul, the Deep City Label, the resuscitation of seventeen Deep City originals released on a double album in three formats: vinyl, CD, and MP3. The songs, mostly written and arranged by Clarke and Clarence Reid, featured the vocals of starlets Betty Wright and Helene Smith, or the big soul sound of The Moovers, or Miami #1 soul band at the time, Frank Williams & the Rocketeers.
The Numero Deep City compilation record was released January 31, 2006. NPR chose it for it’s Record of the Year: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6567709
Not long after, as the story goes, Dennis Scholl received a copy of the album from his business partner. After one listen, Scholl was “blown away.”
This is unbelievable, high quality, emotionally resonant music. And I was like: who are these people and how come no one knows about them?
And that was the beginning of the odyssey.
The odyssey he refers to is a film in production now for almost three years: Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound, inspired by the Numero compilation record. Scholl is co-producing the film along with local documentary filmmakers Marlon Johnson and Chad Tingle. It’s their first long feature together. They have previously co-produced short films, two of which have won Emmys. But the Deep City documentary is a big story, says Scholl, speaking from his downtown office at the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation where he serves as Vice President of the Arts. I met with him and Marlon Johnson there last week for a discussion about the upcoming film.
These are big undertakings. They are hard. They are expensive. It is easy to make a film and hard to make a good film.
They knew this was not a film that would receive outside funding initially but they agreed to do it anyway. Tingle and Johnson invested the sweat equity while Scholl covered their hard expenses. They shot with a high-definition camera and did many hours of interviews. In the end, they knew they had something. They acquired footage from the Wolfson Moving Image Archives featuring life in Miami’s Overtown, the predominately black community, the heart and soul of Deep City’s sound. Tingle and Johnson began stitching the film together and prepared an eight-minute teaser to drum up interest in the film.
Scholl said at the beginning they didn’t know what to do with it.
We didn’t want to do it as a commercial enterprise where we were trying to put the film in a theater and make money from it. So we went to our friends at WLRN (Miami’s NPR & PBS member station)… We showed them the trailer… and we played them the music.
And they said, we’re doing this.
WLRN acquired the film but gave Scholl, Johnson and Tingle free reins to make it as they intended and put it on the film festival circuit. Referring to them as “unbelievably good partners,” Scholl says WLRN is the only institution telling Miami stories these days.
People forget that Miami’s history is very, very compressed. The fact that things happened here so quickly is great but it’s a very compressed time frame compared to the rest of the world and even the rest of America.
So we’re now starting to go back as a community and look at our heritage and look at what people accomplished here…That’s what these stories are about. They are stories made my Miamians, about Miamians, for Miamians. And in doing that, we found this story. And these are really special people.
The Deep City film highlights the stories of Willie Clarke, Helene Smith, the late Johnny Pearsall, and singer-songwriter Clarence Reid.
These are people who deserve recognition, and should be paid homage to.
The partnership with WLRN allows them to consider applying to the Sundance Festival, Tribeca Film Festival,Toronto Film Festival and SXSW.
[WLRN] really understands the importance of telling this story nationally. They really want to hold off [on the television broadcast] until we have this festival run.
Fall of 2013 is the deadline to submit the film to the aforementioned festivals and they appear to be on schedule. After that run, PBS will release the film on public television.
But that’s tomorrow. For now, what they have in the works is a love letter to Deep City Records.
We just want to make sure that people know that music comes from artists and the people that made this music are really, really special.
Film screen shots courtesy of Marlon Johnson, Co-Producer.
March 2014 Update:
Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound is complete and has been accepted at SXSW, Cleveland International Film Festival and will have its Florida debut on March 14, 2014 at the Miami International Film Festival.
Music docs are all the rage again since 20 Feet From Stardom won Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars last week and Sugar Man won it the year before.
Here’s wishing similarly good vibes to Deep City.
Link to the film’s trailer is here: https://longplaymiami.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/deep-city-has-arrived/
Copyright © 2014 Long Play Miami
Not one but two documentary films are currently in production about Miami, based on the protagonists of the soul music scene of the 60s and 70s. One film, Deep City – The Birth of the Miami Sound, is focused on the first black record company in Florida – Deep City Records – and covers the period from 1964 – 1968 when the Miami-based company produced soul recordings that still resonate today.
The second film, Rock Your Baby – Henry Stone & the Miami Sound, is a broader narrative on the life of Henry Stone, featured here last July, and his record distribution empire TK Records, which spearheaded the soul-turned-disco era of the 70s with the global success of KC & the Sunshine Band and other musical acts culminating in nearly 30 platinum and gold records.
Long Play Miami spoke to the people behind the two documentaries in an effort to raise awareness of the films but also to understand the inner workings of each. It should be noted that while some of the same personalities are either featured or mentioned in both films, there is minimal collaboration between the films, which is a little odd because the Deep City and TK narratives are really inter-connected, kind of like DNA molecules. Deep City Records shut down in 1968 and three of its key members joined Henry Stone’s company. The convergence of talent that included singers, musicians, and songwriters proved to be a blessing for the Deep City-TK collective almost immediately, and lasted well into the late 70s.
Deep City‘s film producers have reached out to Henry Stone but haven’t received a commitment. They say they would like to give Stone the opportunity to tell his side of the story about the break up [of Deep City]” but they will do their film with or without Stone’s input. And its fine, says co-producer Dennis Scholl: “When Henry brought Willie Clarke, Clarence Reid, and Betty Wright with him from Deep City to TK in 1968, that was the end of Deep City and the end of our film.” On the other hand, Joe Stone says his father prefers to do his own thing “so as not to water down the Henry Stone brand” while they’re making their film, Rock Your Baby.
So two films, not one. And its all good.
“I think it’s great that the music in Miami that was so critical to the rest of the world is finally getting some recognition,” said Joe Stone.
Copyright © 2013 Long Play Miami
For three months I tried to schedule this interview but he’d either cancel, fail to show up, or send an excuse through his manager, Tom. So when we finally sat down at the Miami Jai Alai one morning last week, I was keen on not letting him drift away. (At least physically.)
Who is Clarence Reid?
He is credited with co-writing and/or arranging more than 220 songs since 1963 for mostly Miami independent record labels. He also released over 30 albums, singles, or EPs of his own. This makes him arguably the most prominent and prolific contributor to Miami’s 60s and 70s soul music scene.
Reid’s back story begins in Cochran, a rural town spread across 4.2 square miles in the belly of the State of Georgia.
When I was about 6 years old, all the blacks up there, they had this thing that if you’re black you’re supposed to listen to the blues like B.B. King and all of that stuff.
I didn’t like blues. Everything is wrong.
The corn don’t roll, the hen don’t lay… I didn’t like it.
I liked the hillbilly music. I would get [that music] and change them around in my own stuff.
Shittin’ in the morning sun / I’ll be shittin’ till the evening come / watching my turds fall in / then I take them back out again. [parody of Otis Redding classic]
…the blacks [would say]…, you’re disgusting’…, but the white people loved it.
He performed around Cochran and he says the white folks ate it up. He’d get paid for it too, sometimes coming home with as much as 90 or 100 dollars or about 10xs what some of the workers were making in the rural fields.
On the road again / Just can’t wait to get on the road again / the Hershey highway means ass, where all the turds have ever been / I can’t wait to get on the road again. [parody of Willie Nelson classic]
When his grandmother found out how he made the money, she was incensed:
You’re a disgrace to the black race and you ain’t no better than a blow fly.
And I said, ‘what the heck is a blow fly?’
A blow fly is a black and red and green insect, they lay eggs on dead things, they turn into maggots, she’d say.
And so BlowFly was born. (More on that later.)
The interview continues.
When Reid first moved to Miami, he hooked up with a number of local music people: Willie Clarke of Deep City Records, Henry Stone of Tone Distributors (and later TK Productions). In 1963 he recorded Like White on Rice on Stone’s DADE Label, a ballad that was been described as ‘a strong vocal performance backed with a pumping piano and some fine horns’ by at least one soul music enthusiast I found through my research.
In 1969, Reid had his biggest hit, Nobody But You Babe [ALSTON]. The song peaked nationally at #7 on the R&B charts. But after that, commercial success as a frontman (at least as “Clarence Reid”) was hard to come by. Yet he continued to thrive in the songwriting field.
He wrote early hits for Betty Wright, KC and the Sunshine Band, and Gwen McCrae, a trio of artists that dominated the Miami R&B/soul/early disco scene from 1968-1974.
Back in the day, … the wife would tell her daddy, hey daddy, you want me to rock you in my rockin’ chair?
Yeah.. That [song] means fucking.
This thought process is a good segue into what inspired Reid to don a mask and a cape and create an alter ego known as BlowFly. Reid’s Blowfly was a foul-mouth performer of parodied songs like the Otis Redding or Willie Nelson classics mentioned above. He is considered the original dirty rapper predating the likes of Miami’s own 2 Live Crew by more than a decade.
As BlowFly, he released Rap Dirty in 1971, considered the first ever dirty rap recording, and continued with a string of albums throughout the 70s and 80s. They were called ‘party records’ back then because they were only played at house parties. The records were sold clandestinely behind the counter at select record shops because of the profanity not only in the lyrics and song titles but also the cover art which often featured topless women. (BlowFly was featured in the 2010 documentary, The Weird World of Blowfly.)
Yet despite all the profane, misogynist-like rap songs he recorded as BlowFly, Clarence Reid had a deep respect for women. He wanted them to be strong. He appreciated them, protected them, pedestal-ed them. He manifested these emotions in a kinder gentler way through his other compositions.
About the Miami Soul classic Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Can Do (and Still be a Lady) [Betty Wright, ALSTON, 1969]
.. I couldn’t understand. If you had 5 women at 1 time, you was a lover or a Casanova. But if your sister dated two guys, she was a whore. I just couldn’t understand it. So I came up with that record,. …That was big on the charts, top 10.
Or about Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad [Della Humphrey, ARCTIC, 1968]
People used to say about this girl or that girl… ‘she’s a whore’ and everything…, I would get mad, ‘you all made her that way’. I remember this boy would take his sister with him on dates. Then he’d say I’ll be right back and had guys give him money to leave his sister there so they can bang her. This was in Georgia back then…All the girls, they weren’t bad, [the guys] would make them go bad. .. that’s when I came up with that song.
I ask him if he’s still in touch with any of the singers he composed for. No, he says, with a little bit of bitterness.
Someone tells them, you’re big enough to go on your own now. What they don’t understand is that I created stuff from scratch. I don’t care how good the other manager was, if you can’t create shit, you’re gone. That’s the way it was.
But Reid doesn’t really have any regrets. In fact, he doesn’t even give me a chance to ask him about regrets. He’s already onto the next topic, a song he wrote that was sung by Vanessa Kendrick.
How can I do what’s right / When what I need is wrong / how can I follow the rules of love / when love won’t let me be strong.
Then he parodies Christmas carols.
Silent night / holy night / your p#ssy’s so loose / were it once so tight.
Then he asks me my astrological sign and then dazzles with a dirty song about being a Libra. He turns around and serenades a woman having a Coke next to us. This is Clarence Reid a/k/a BlowFly and its the show of the day at the Miami Jai Alai.
The previous week at the Ricochet Lounge in Midtown Miami he said he performed in front of a packed house as BlowFly. (I saw him play at The Stage earlier this year. He can still work a crowd.)
At the end of this month he’s headed to Vancouver, Los Angeles, and Portland. He says the crowds are diverse. Young, old, black, white, ‘even the Spanish’ line up to see him perform these days. And one thing is certain…
When they come to my show, they leave happy.
Copyright © 2012 Long Play Miami
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.
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
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.
On July 18, 2012, this post was recognized: