Clarence Carter’s first million-seller was “Patches” in 1968. He made a million dollars. His first wife got the money. Clarence Carter’s second million-seller was “Slip Away” in 1970. He made a million dollars. His second wife got the money. Clarence Carter’s third million-seller was “Snatchin’ It Back” in 1972. He made a million dollars. His third wife got the money. Clarence Carter’s fourth million-seller was “Strokin’.” He made five million dollars. He got to keep the money.
If someone was going to rename soul music, they might consider calling it Clarence Carter music. Carter, a blind singer and guitarist, was born January 14, 1936, in Montgomery, Alabama. After a succession of local bands, he teamed up with another blind singer, Calvin Scott, and formed the C & C Boys who recorded for Fairlane and Duke Records. After being dropped by Duke in 1965, the duo ponied up $85 and went to Rick Hall’s Muscle Shoals, Alabama, studio to cut a demo of “Step by Step” and “Rooster Knees and Rice.” The demo got picked up by Atlantic and became a local hit, but in the meantime Scott was seriously injured in a car wreck. Carter continued alone and Hall signed him to his fledging Fame [an acronym for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises] label. His first Fame release, “Tell Daddy,” served as an inspiration for Etta James’s huge hit “Tell Mama” and his second, “Thread the Needle,” made a brief appearence in the national charts. In January 1968, Carter was signed to Atlantic and his second single, “Patches,” was a Top 10 hit on both sides of the ocean. Over the next three years, Carter’s name was constantly in the charts, chalking up hits like “Slipped, Tripped and Fell In Love,” “Snatchin’ It Back,” “Take It Off Him, Put It On Me” and “Too Weak To Fight.”
Most of Carter’s records had a simple, yet soulful formula. Carter would set the pace with a repeated guitar figure that his voice and the Muscle Shoal horns would build off of. If the song was a ballad, there would usually be preaching break, although in the case of “Making Love (At the Dark End of the Street,” he preached for four minutes and sang for only 25 seconds. If it were up tempo, Carter would usually slip in his patented naughty chuckle, a vocal accessory borrowed from a Montgomery deejay, “Mr. Lee.” Carter’s favorite topics were cheating and infidelity, and he played the role of victim: “Getting the Bills (But No Merchandise)” and perpetrator: “Back Door Santa.”
In the mid-1970s, Carter left Muscle Shoals and began producing his own singles and albums for a succession of major and independent labels. Unlike many artists whose careers blossomed during the classic soul period, Carter survived the disco era. Via relentless touring and the occassional minor hit, he maintained a loyal black middle-aged fan base. Carter’s perseverance finally paid off handsomely in 1986 when he recorded the slightly more than risque “Strokin’.” The infectious “Strokin’” was a rare across-the-board hit as it sold in nearly every market, from blues to country. As Carter explained when we reached him at his Montgomery home studio, the record redirected his career.
A member of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, and surely a future member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Clarence Carter appears at the Essence Festival July 6.
Clarence, it’s truly a pleasure and an honor to talk to you. I’ve been listening to your records ever since the days of WLAC.
WLAC—Nashville, Tennessee. Hoss Man Allen, Gene Nobel and John R. I listened to that station too. I got a chance to go to Nashville once and meet John R and he was a wonderful gentleman. They broke a lot of big records on that station including some of mine for which I’m very thankful. Where I lived, everybody listened to WLAC at night. If you didn’t have a radio, all you had to do was stick your head out the window and you could listen to someone else’s and hear WLAC.
What have you been doing lately?
Well, I was supposed to have a new album out in April, but now it won’t be out until December. In fact, I hope I’ll have two albums out by then because I’m working on a Christmas CD too. I’ve been working on those two projects and I’m producing a young lady whose name is Patricia Conley. I’m also a landlord which takes up some time and I’ve been putting together a sound system. I actually get a lot work other artists don’t get because I carry my own sound system. When we perform I’m the entertainment and the sound engineer. I guess you’d say I’m a jack of all trades, master of none.
Are you performing a lot?
Oh yes. I like to stay home Monday through Wednesday, but the rest of the week, I’m usually on the road. This time of year, I do a lot of beach music festivals. I’ve become a favorite with beach music fans. My venues have really changed in the last ten years or so.
Last time I saw you in New Orleans was at a casino.
I do a lot of casino work and I’m glad that it came along. They kind of picked up the slack when a lot of the little night clubs went out of business. I don’t play a lot of night clubs anymore unless it’s on a package with two or three other artists.
You don’t think the casinos put the clubs and independent promoters out of business?
I never thought of it like that, but sometimes the casinos won’t charge admission just so people will come in. A club couldn’t never do that, I’ve never been in the club business, but if I was, I certainly wouldn’t open it anywhere near a casino.
Do you remember the first time you performed in New Orleans?
I certainly do I played a show for Shelly Pope the disc jockey [then at WNNR]. I don’t remember the name of the club, but it held about 175 people. They charged $1 admission, the club was full and everyone had a good time. At the time  I’d just come out with “Tell Daddy” and Shelly was playing it.
That song sure did something when Etta James got a hold of it.
It sure did. I wasn’t mad that she had a hit with my song [retitled “Tell Mama”] at all. In fact I’d have kissed her for as long as she wanted me too for recording it because I wrote it. You know, I still get checks for that song because it’s been in several movies, on TV, and they still play it on the radio.
You and Etta recorded at the same studio—Fame—and had some tremendous hits. What was it about that studio that was so special and how did they get that unique sound?
Well, Fame was located in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Back then, Muscle Shoals was a dry county [no alcohol could be sold there]. We couldn’t drink beer, so instead we concentrated on making music. But no, there wasn’t really anything special about the building—it was about 70’ by 110’—but they used a lot of reverb in there which gave everything a fat sound. What I really think made that studio special was how excited you were when you went in to do a session. You’d be thinking to yourself, “Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Hughes, Wilson Pickett or Etta James were just in here and cut hits. Why can’t I cut the next one?” The studio is still there pretty much the way it always was. Rick Hall [the founder and owner of Fame] isn’t around much anymore, he pretty much has turned it over to his son. Muscle Shoals has changed a lot though. It used to be a country town, but it’s pretty built up now.
There was a talented writer there when you recorded at Fame called George Jackson.
George was something else. They told me at Fame that because Muscle Shoals was dry, when they did sessions George would ride the bus from Memphis and show up with two suit cases. One had his clothes, the other was filled with beer. But he was a great writer and full of ideas. Like that song “Snatchin’ It Back,” I said “George, I got this song but I can only take it so far.” He’d walk around but in a few minutes he’d have the song finished. When I had my own commercial studio, I often invited him to come down. I’d ask him what kind of beer he wanted and he’d show up. But I always knew I’d get one or two great songs out of him. This man wrote “One Bad Apple,” “That Old Time Rock and Roll” and “Down Home Blues” besides the songs he wrote for or with me. I haven’t seen him in 15 years, but he should be sitting on a yacht somewhere enjoying the fruits of his labor.
What do you look for when you consider a song to record?
It depends on the situation. I like a song that tells a story that people can easily relate to.
You recorded some songs around the civil rights era that addressed some social problems. I’m referring to “The Court Room” and “Willie and Laura Mae Jones.”
You know a lot of people liked those songs but I didn’t want to record them. My producer [Rick Hall] wanted me to cut them and I agreed because I figure a producer is supposed to see something in an artist the artists doesn’t see and bring it out. I didn’t even know what the message was in those songs. I don’t see myself as a sociologist or feel like I can address the problems of society in a song. That’s not my type song. But now a song about cheating, like “Dark End of the Street” or “I Got Caught Making Love To Another Man’s Wife,” that’s my type of song.
Was “Patches” a song Rick Hall asked you to do?
Yes, somebody gave it to him. It had been recorded by the Chairman of the Board. I didn’t want to record it either. When we cut it I didn’t even know what lyrics were, I had to have someone stand behind and whisper them in my ear. General Norman Johnson wrote that song. After we did so well with “Patches,” I thought we should see if he had any other material. But by being concerned with publishing and making money, Rick didn’t want to. I just thought there might be more water in that well.
How do you write material?
Well, some songs are easy to write and record, some are hard. Like on “Slip Away,” I had this idea for lyrics and a guitar lick that I’d been keeping in the back of my head. When we got to the studio it came together right away. But now we had the darndest time recording “Snatching It Back.” I wanted to call the song “How Can I Get It When You Keep Snatching It Back,” but Rick said “No, you can’t sing that. The deejays can’t put that on the air.” Well, we were going no place fast with the song. Finally Rick called a lunch break but I said, “No, I’m going stay here and get this song right.” So me and the bass player worked on a new pattern and suddenly everything fell in place. When the rest of the musicians came back from lunch we cut it right away.
A lot of people don’t pay attention to your guitar playing but it’s quite appealing.
Well, it’s unconventional. Now on keyboards I’m conventional because when I grew up, I was formally taught Bach and Beethoven. Now on the guitar I was self-taught, so I make chords a little differently than most guitar players. I tune the guitar regularly but I tune it to an E flat rather than an E. Instead of reaching up for the high note, I prefer to reach back for the low note. And I use a capo. Me without a capo is like bringing kryptonite around Superman. The other night we were performing and I broke one. I was dumbfounded and thinking, “What am I gonna do now? I can’t play without a capo.” Then I remember I had another guitar in my motor home and all my guitars have capos so I had someone run out and get it so I dodged a bullet.
You also produced some great records. One in particularly was by a girl from New Orleans, Mathilda Jones.
I really thought Mathilda had the potential to be great. When I heard her sing with that Louisiana accent I thought she was very unique. When I started my own label, Future Stars, I signed her. We cut a Dan Penn song, “Wrong Too Long,” and it was a great record and it started making some noise. Unfortunately she got with the wrong manager. He thought I was interested in her, not her talent. Jet Magazine wanted to interview Mathilda so I sent her a ticket to New York. Her manager wouldn’t let her go because I didn’t send him a ticket too. Well, the interview never took place and we lost our momentum.
She’s playing the Essence Festival this year too.
Really? I hope I get a chance meet her again.
Is it hard introducing new material to your audiences?
Yes it is because I have so many songs now that people expect me to play. I can’t just do three or four new songs in a row even though I might want to sometimes because pretty soon the people in the audience start thinking, “When is he going to play the songs I want to hear?” I’ve got a new song right now, “You Got to Grunt,” that I’m trying to work in, but I can’t always play it because of time constraints. And you know I have to end every show with “Strokin’” or people get upset. My philosophy is I just want to make the audience glad once—not twice. Glad to see me come, glad to see me go.
Tell us about the incubation and recording of “Strokin’.”
I had recorded a song called “Don’t Bother Me, I’m Busy” that really didn’t do too much. Then I recorded a song called “Love Building.” If you listen to those two songs, “Love Building” has the same beat and rhythm as “Don’t Bother Me, I’m Busy.” “Love Building” started making a little noise and it was real popular song when I performed it live. On the bandstand, I started adding this line about “I be strokin’” and all that other stuff. Well, black folks know what strokin’ is and they really reacted when I said sang those lyrics. I decided I was going to write a song with those lyrics and keep that same beat and rhythm. At the time the MIDI [musical instrument digital interface] had just come out. I noticed some these youngsters were making records on the MIDI and having success. I decided to get one for my little basement studio. I wrote the song on the keyboard and added all the other parts. No one played instruments on “Strokin’” but me. I took the song to David Johnson’s Studio in Muscle Shoals—he’s the police chief there. His engineer mixed it for me. I took it home and listened to it but I didn’t like the mix. I called David and told him so. He said, “Hell, bring the damn tape back and I’ll mix it myself.” He did and it sounded pretty good. At the time, I called my booking agent, Rogers Redding, [Otis’ brother] and I said, “Rogers, I truly believe I just cut a hit record.” I was going to put the record out myself, but at the time I didn’t have any money. I went to see John Abbey [the founder and editor of Blues and Soul magazine] in Atlanta because he said he could help me get the record distributed. In the end he started his own label, Ichiban, and “Strokin’” was the first record he put out on it.
I’d had some hits, but I had no idea “Strokin’” was going to be as big as it was. It happened so fast I was unaware what was going on. I was on the road working when I called Rogers to check in. He said, “I guess you’re ready to do some flying?” I said, “Flying? What do you mean?” The record had been out about one week but he said the phone hadn’t stopped ringing since then and it was all people wanting to book me. I knew black people would buy the record if they heard it because I’d sensed their reaction to it in the clubs. But I had no idea it was going to cross over into all these other markets and sell so well. It surprised me but I’m sure thankful.
Are you looking forward to playing the Essence Festival?
Sure. I played there in 1997 filling in for Bobby Bland when he was sick. Then they invited me back the following year. It’s a good venue for me, because it’s a different audience than I usually play for. The only problem is that you’re in and out of there really fast and you can’t play all the songs you intended to. Although I think this year I’m doing two shows which suits me just fine.