With a deeply masculine baritone voice that let a hint of vulnerability and anguish peek through, Clarence Carter was one of the most distinctive rhythm ‘n’ blues singers of the 1960s.
With hits like “Slip Away,” “Too Weak to Fight” and the hard–blues “Back Door Santa,” Carter carved a cavernous niche for himself on both the R&B and pop charts.
He had his biggest record, “Patches,” in 1970, and it exemplified all that was unique about Carter: The singer is remembering his daddy, a poor sharecropper, and his long–ago fatherly advice. Although the voice is strong, and sure, there is also a great melancholy there, an inescapable aura of sadness.
Now 74, Carter has lost none of his awesome vocal power. He headlines the Savannah Blues Festival concert, “The Blues is Alright,” Sunday in the Johnny Mercer Theatre.
A native of Montgomery, Ala., Carter was born blind, and attended the Alabama School for the Blind in Talladega. In 1960, he graduated from Alabama State College with a degree in music.
With Calvin Scott, he cut a couple of singles that went nowhere, but soon after that partnership dissolved Carter arrived at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, where legends including Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Joe Tex recorded.
Under the wing of the studio’s founder, producer Rick Hall, Carter made a string of records that not only showcased his stunning baritone and abilities as a guitarist, pianist, songwriter and arranger, but put the considerable FAME studio band — and the gritty Muscle Shoals sound — on the musical map.
Consider: “Tell Daddy,” “At the Dark End of the Street,” “Snatching it Back” and many more.
In 1985, Carter made a brief re–appearance on the charts with “Strokin,’” an overtly sexual song propelled by an incessant, almost hip hop, beat. Its libidinous subject matter continued a streak begun with the hits “Slip Away,” “Looking For a Fox” and “The Dark End of the Street.”
He’s lived in the Atlanta area since 1972.
In the early days, did you think that being blind was going to hold you back?
Clarence Carter: Not really. Most of us who are blind are going to tell you that most of the time, it’s an inconvenience.
And that’s the truth. It’s according to a person’s perception of being handicapped. If you’re handicapped because you can’t drive a car, then you’re handicapped, but I just think that’s an inconvenience. I just happen not to be able to see to be able to drive a car.
I know how to drive one, because I taught both of my brothers how to drive, and I taught my daughter how to drive. All in my car.
Clarence Carter: I just know the fundamentals. My stepfather had a car ever since I can remember. And he used to tell me a lot about a car, when he’d come and get me and ride me with him. He would tell me all the different things — what he did with the brakes, with the gearshift. So I learned a lot about cars through him, as I was growing up. I applied what I had learned when I was teaching my brothers and my daughter.
When you first went off to the School for the Blind, were you already thinking about music?
Clarence Carter: I went to school when I was six years old. Mothers and fathers now would jump through the ceiling if you told them their child had to go 86 miles away from home to school. But that’s what I did. I was six when my mother put me on the first train I’d ever ridden on.
Now, blind children can go to a hometown school. But back then you couldn’t do that — you had to go to a school that was designed for you. Music to me then was ... all right. I more or less wanted to go outside and play.
They had a music department, and I started taking piano lessons. Once I finished high school and I got into college, I went to Alabama State.
I wanted to learn music, all right, but not the music my teacher wanted me to learn. She’d come to my practice room sometimes and hear me practice, and she’d say “Oh, Mr. Carter, why do you want to waste your time messin’ around with that boogie–woogie?”
But learning all that Beethoven and Bach and stuff like that she taught me, I got a very good theory of music. What causes it to sound good? How did you make this sound better? That kind of thing.
Did you put together your band then?
Clarence Carter: I was playing piano, but most of the time I played guitar. The way I went to college was the state paid a little of it and I paid the rest. I used to go to the clubs at night and play. I’d get home at one or two in the morning, then I had to get up at six o’clock so somebody could come by and pick me up, and take me to school.
I really wanted to teach school, that was my goal. When I finished Alabama State, I wanted to straighten the world out. You know, I was going to teach these kids exactly what they needed to know!
The principal that was going to give me the job said I would have to do community work on the weekends. Uh–uh, no. I wanted to play in the band on the weekends. So that’s where my crossroad came.
Why Muscle Shoals?
Clarence Carter: Once I was into the music, and I had a band, I wanted to do some recording. Well, I figured, ain’t nobody going to discover me here in Montgomery. If an artist came to Montgomery and they didn’t have a band, the club owner would hire my band. I played for Otis Redding, I played for John Lee Hooker, I played for Gene Chandler, a whole bunch of ‘em.
I had heard about FAME Studios, so I just got on the telephone and asked the operator to connect me. I called and asked how much would it cost to get time to cut two songs? They told me, and I went up there.
The purpose in the back of my mind, though, was “I want to meet the man that owns this place.” I figured “If I go up here, I believe we sound good enough that he’s going to want to come and say hello or something.” So I just took a chance.
And sure enough, he came from his office because his engineer rang the office and said “You need to hear these boys.” That was my first meeting with Rick Hall.
What were you thinking at the time? Did you want to make hit records, or just “I want to get out of Alabama”?
Clarence Carter: I wanted to make some hit records. I was looking forward. You see, Bill Pinkney, from the original Drifters, used to come through Montgomery and he’d come to the club where I played. And when I’d come down off the stage, he’d always come to the table and sit down and talk to me. He’d tell me about all the things that happened on the road, the good times, the girls and everything. He hyped it up. I was ready!
I was very fortunate to be, I guess, in the right place at the right time, with the right person. I have to give it to Rick Hall, he taught me a lot. He showed me a lot. I had some songs and things, but as to how to cultivate them and make them into something ... he and the other musicians in Muscle Shoals kind of taught me what to do.
Where’d you get that emotional singing style?
Clarence Carter: That’s just the way I did it. When I had Calvin playing with me, when we were together, I used to let him do most all of the singing because I really didn’t think I sang that well. I liked to play the guitar.
Finally, I did start to do a little singing and I noticed that people enjoyed it. I said “Well ... durn! I might be able to sing sure enough!”
That leads me to “Patches,” which was, of course, a prime example of that vulnerability in your voice ... I was a kid when that record came out, and it always sounded to me like you really were feeling that story.
Clarence Carter: Actually, I did. One night I left Texas about four o’clock in the morning and few up to Muscle Shoals. I got in and Rick said “I want to play this song for you. We want to cut it, because Atlantic Records has got other people cutting it, and they’re going to take the best cut. Whoever does the best job on it.”
I said “Let me go to the hotel and get a little sleep, and then I believe we can get it done.” He said “No, I already called the musicians, they’re already showing up.”
I said “Rick, I played a gig last night, and my voice ain’t gonna be right! I need to go to bed.”
And he said “If you just sing this song, then you can go to bed.”
I was tired, I didn’t have much sleep, I didn’t know the song. One of Rick Hall’s engineers whispered the words in my ear while I sang the song.
You really became identified with that record.
Clarence Carter: That was really the big beginning of me. I had had “Slip Away” and “Too Weak to Fight,” and both of them were gold records, but I think “Patches” really etched me into the music world. Where people are probably going to remember me for a long time to come. Which I always wanted – but I never knew it would happen that way.
That’s been more than 40 years. I gotta ask you ... every show you do, whatever the situation, you probably have to do “Patches.” What’s it like to sing that every day of your life for four decades?
Clarence Carter: You know what? It’s just like I sang it the first time. I sing it the same way. When I get on the bandstand to sing, I don’t be watching that girl that’s down there lookin’ good. I concentrate on listening to the response I’m getting from the audience. And how do I get some more response from the audience — that’s what be in my mind.
Even if I just got mad with my wife 20 minutes earlier, when I go on the stage I’ve forgotten about her. I want to be sure that the people I came to entertain want me to come back again. That’s my thing.
Now, what about “Strokin’”? That’s a pretty bawdy tune.
Clarence Carter: Yes, it is. I said to myself “I want to create a song like these youngsters do.” Use all these synthesizers and things — they were just coming in at the time, and I wanted to see if I could do that. I just started foolin’ around with some lyrics and put it together. I played all the instruments.
When I was recording it, the engineer got so tickled that he couldn’t even stop the tape. The tape ran off the reel. When I got back up to the control room he said “Clarence, don’t you know what you just said? They can’t play that on the radio!”
I said well, they can hear it at the disco.
And today if I go onstage and I don’t sing “Strokin,’” they might have to have a police escort for me to get out of town.
“The Blues is Alright” With Clarence Carter (Event is also called the Savannah Blues Festival), Shirley Brown, Marvin Sease, Thodis Ealy, Bobby Rush, J. Blackfoot
Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.
When: At 6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 14
Tickets: $38, $43
Phone: (912) 651–6556