Thursday, September 30, 2010
Clarence Carter sees himself as proof that people will give you a chance if you have something to offer.
Despite being blind since birth, Carter has carved a mark on American music as one of the pioneer performers of rhythm and blues. Now 74 years old, he can still control an audience with his powerful stage presence, deep baritone voice and playful, good-natured but sometimes bawdy banter with female fans.
Born in Montgomery Alabama in 1936, he was six when he started school at the Alabama School for the Blind in Talladega. During his high school years, he split time between the School for the Blind and Westside High School in Talladega. In 1960, he graduated from Alabama State College in Montgomery with a B.S. degree in music.
He started his performing career with a school friend, Calvin Scott. The duo, sometimes referred to as the CC Boys, had two releases under Duke Records: “You Stole My Heart” and “Money and Women.” Neither did well: Carter and Scott’s first royalty check was for 25 cents.
His association with Scott ended in 1966 and he signed a contract with Fame Records. It was under Fame that he had some of his biggest hits: “Slip Away” in 1968, “Too Weak to Fight” in 1969 and “Patches” in 1970.
In 1974 he signed with ABC Records. He released three albums under the deal, the most memorable being “Loneliness and Temptation.” Disco hurt Carter in the 1970’s, but he made a comeback in the 80’s and 90’s, especially with the risqué song “Strokin’.” During that time, hip-hop performers paid attention to Carter, particularly Run DMC, who sampled his song “Backdoor Santa” for their Christmas Song “Christmas in Hollis.”
We saw him in action as he headlined the 18th Annual Bluebird Blues Festival, held this Sunday at Prince George’s Community College. Our interview began with him describing how he started to learn guitar at the age of 11:
Carter: I didn’t even know how a guitar was made, let alone…..see like, there’s a lot of things that a lot of people take for granted. Like you see a guitar, you know what it’s supposed to look like. But unless I feel it, I ain’t going to know. And I had never felt a guitar in my life. My mama put that guitar in my lap, and she told me, she said, “you know who Santa Claus is?” And I said “no ma’am.” She said “I’m Santa” (laughs).
BBP: Did you ever have problems playing it, because of not being able to see?
Carter: Not because of not being able to see. I had trouble learning what to do with it, but not because I couldn’t see.
BBP: Tell me a little bit about the CC Boys? I understand that’s where you got your start.
Carter: I think that was about the first time a lot of people got to know us. Me and a guy in school, his name was Calvin and my name is Clarence, so we did the CC boys.
BBP: Tell me how that got started...tell me a little bit about that time in your life.
Carter: I didn’t quite hear you.
BBP: Tell me about that time in your life with the CL Boys.
Carter: Oh, you don’t want to know about that. You need to read the bio to get that.
BBP: Well, I thought I was going to try and get it from you…
Carter: Go on the internet. It’s on there.
BBP: Well tell me how Patches came around, I understand that…
Carter: That’s on the Internet too.
BBP: I know, but I was trying to get your words…
Carter: Oh, but I don’t want to go there, now. What I want to do is do something that we haven’t put on the internet, or in my bio.
The interview stopped for a minute after someone asked Carter for his autograph.
BBP: The first time I remember you is “Patches”
Carter: You were late (laughs).
BBP: Oh, I’m not that old…(laughs).
Carter: I had “Slip Away,” “Too Weak to Fight.” But a lot of people got to know me when I put out “Patches,” really. A lot of people…it was a song that was kind of like a family-oriented song. It was kind of a thing like…a lot of people lived that. A lot of people had to grow up and help take care of the family. And I think that’s where it struck a nerve, really. It struck a nerve with those people, and ever since then they just…did you know “Patches” was a million seller in three days?
BBP: Yeah, I heard that…
Carter: In three days! (Someone from ) Atlantic Records called me and he told me. He said “Clarence, you know you have a million seller in three days?” I thought he was talking about somebody else. Cause you can go a lifetime and never get a gold record, you know, so I was quite appreciative that I was able to do that.
BBP: So what was your reaction when you found out it was a gold record in three days?
Carter: I had gotten a gold record before, because I had gotten one with “Slip Away.” I had one with “Too Weak to Fight,” but to get one that quick. I thought that was quite unusual. But it worked out well, and you know, it enhanced my career. That kind of song, I got to even play for a different kind of audience.
BBP: How would you characterize that audience? How was it different?
Carter: The audience that I got then or the audience today?
BBP: The audience you had then.
Carter: Well, it was different because it was white people, mostly white audience. See down south, most of the time when you played, you played to nothing but black people. But when I did “Patches,” then the white audience turned onto my music and then they went back and would read up on what you’ve done before this, you know. So it was what we used to call in the record business, you “cross over.” You cross over from a one-dimensional audience to a multi-audience, you know. And uh, I thought it was a great thing for me.
BBP: Who are some of the people you’ve liked and who are some of the musicians who have kind of inspired you to do what you are doing now?
Carter: Well, you know like Ray (Charles) was one of my first because he—I knew he was blind when I was in school. I got quite a thrill of seeing him be successful. Because then I realized that the world didn’t care whether you could see or whether you could not. If you had something to offer then they were willing to give you an opportunity. Even President Roosevelt was in a wheelchair. Even the president of the United States. So if you got what you need you can get what you want.
Carter then said he needed to stop the interview to get out of his performance clothes. He then agreed to one more question.
BBP: How has the music business changed from the time you started back in the sixties to the way it is now?
Carter: Oh Lord, there’s just no comparison. People take stuff now and they do what they call sample it, and all that kind of thing. We didn’t sample anything. We didn’t have the keyboards to make all of the sounds. See, I can sit down now and I can record a whole album by myself, just me on keyboard. But back then you had to have all of the musicians in there, and everybody had to play at the same time and if the trumpet player say, made a mistake, everybody had to record it over.
BBP: Do you miss those old days?
Carter: Well, if you came up among those days, you kind of miss them, but me myself, I move forward with the times. Whatever comes out new, I’m always trying to get it. I think I get my wife to take me to the music store at least, once every two weeks (laughs). I want to go see, what they got new.
BBP: Who do you like that’s out now?
Carter: Nowadays I don’t hardly know any of them, like mostly the rap artists, I really don’t know them. I really don’t. My kind of music they don’t hardly like to put it on the radio much anymore.
BBP: Okay. I understand that when rap came out a lot of the musicians were following you, rap musicians were sampling your music and so forth.
Carter: Yeah, they would do it. Luckily for us, some of the music organizations started finding ways to be able to allow them to sample it alright, but then they have to pay you royalties for it. Well, the one thing, you can’t stop technology. It’s going to go on, you know, and you just have to learn to adapt to it.
BBP: Are you coming out with anything in the near future?
Carter: Well, my newest album now is called On Your Feet. It’s already out. I’ll probably put out another—I’m thinking about having another one ready for maybe about March of next year.
BBP: All new original material?
Carter: All new original material. I don’t hardly go and re-record because you—if I go try and record “Patches” again it’s not going to sound the same way. I’m not going to have the same feel, you know what I’m saying? It’s like a one-time thing, you can try it, you know. I’ve tried re-recording some of my older stuff, but it never comes off to my satisfaction.
BBP: And some of the themes you’re going to explore with this new album, can you talk about them?
Carter: Don’t want to do that. Might give somebody an idea. You know how people are these days. They’ll get your idea and you’ll hear it on the radio and you won’t realize how it got there.
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