State of the Art

Clarence Carter: A soul singer turns 80, and who remembers?

Clarence Carter, seen here in his 1960s heyday, turned 80 last month and deserves to be better remembered.
Clarence Carter, seen here in his 1960s heyday, turned 80 last month and deserves to be better remembered. Ace Records

I’m coming to the keyboard a few weeks too late to wish Clarence Carter a happy birthday – he turned 80 on Jan. 14 – but he’s been on my mind and in my car CD player lately. I’ve been listening to “Snatching It Back: The Best of Clarence Carter” and a two-for-one disc, “Patches”/”The Dynamic Clarence Carter.”

He’s an ideal subject for Black History Month, one of those unclassifiable blues-soul singers who came along in the 1950s and, unlike James Brown and Ray Charles, has more or less been lost to time.

Carter specialized in cheating songs: “Slip Away,” “Too Weak to Fight” and “Back Door Santa,” in which he explained, “I ain’t like the old Saint Nick/He don’t come but once a year/I come runnin’ with my presents/Every time you call me, dear.”

He recorded a version of “At the Dark End of the Street” that begins with a four-minute monologue about the compulsion every species has to make love, a feeling so insurmountable that human beings sneak away to the shadowy world of the title. He breaks into song for the last minute, his deep baritone lamenting his own inability to do right.

He’s best known for two songs. The first was “Patches,” a lugubrious 1970 number about a harsh childhood. General Johnson of the Chairmen of the Board, who wrote it and cut a version himself, wasn’t always full of praise for competitors. But he once told me Carter’s version was the best, perhaps because the royalties bought General a house. The second was “Strokin’,” a 1985 paean to sex in which he promised to leave his woman “sassified;” it became a naughty beach music favorite and a late-night karaoke number.

Yet Carter could do movingly simple versions of classic songs, from the Beatles’ “Let It Be” to the blues standard “I’d Rather Go Blind.” (An awkward title, perhaps, as he was blind – born that way in Montgomery, Ala., where he graduated with a music degree from Alabama State College in 1960.) He could be plaintive or comic, as in “I’m Gettin’ the Bills, But No Merchandise:” “Spent my last dime buy you some french fries/Not knowin’ how I’m gonna eat again.”

But my favorite Carter recording, “Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” remains one of the three greatest songs about the American racial divide. (The greatest is “A Change is Gonna Come,” recorded by Sam Cooke shortly before his death in 1964. The other is whatever you think it is.)

Swamp rocker Tony Joe White of “Polk Salad Annie” fame wrote and recorded “Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” but it has more impact coming from a black man who grew up before the Civil Rights Era.

It’s about two families, one white and one black, who live side by side in rural poverty and friendship. They make music in the evenings and share meals: “We worked the land together/And we learned to count on each other/When you live off the land, you don't have time/To think about another man's color.” The repeated chorus tells us “The cotton was high and the corn was growin’ fine/But that was another place and another time.”

Eventually, Willie moves to town to look for a job. The narrator sees him there one day and invites him and Laura Mae to dinner. But Willie, now absorbed by white society, knows better: “He shook his head real slow/And he spoke with his eyes so kind/He said, ‘This is another place – and another time.’ 

For 150 years, racism has been used in America to keep poor people from finding out they have more in common with each other than they do with the rich. No song I know expresses this unnatural division more movingly.

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