An Interview with Clarence Carter
by Brad Evans
As he sings in “Patches,” Clarence Carter was “born and raised down in Alabama on a farm way back up in the woods.” It was on January 14, 1936 to be exact, the day the world welcomed the infamous Dr. CC who’s been prescribing his loin-lingering music since the late 1960’s. In the live introduction to the song “Take It All Off,” Carter says, “You know, I was reading in the paper this morning and they said that my show was very, very sexy. And you know, I was thinking my show can’t help being sexy because I’m sexy.” There may be no better way to describe the man responsible for decades of hot, soulful—and yes, sexy—hits like “Slip Away,” “Sixty-Minute Man,” “Back Door Santa,” “Snatchin’ It Back” and of course, “Strokin’.” Clarence Carter has had more to say about missing love, stealing love and making love than almost any other contemporary R&B artist out there. And he’s done it all with a great sense of humor… notice he said he’d been reading the paper? Clarence Carter has been blind since childhood. SUNDAY Clarence Plays The Second Sunday Concert Series in Washington Park, a finale to another great season.
Tell me a little bit about your childhood? What was it like?
Good lord have mercy. You going to have to go the autobiography for that. That was 71 years ago. That’s too much to even talk about for an old man like me. (Laughs)
Alright well tell me about college then, you should remember that. You have a bachelor’s degree in music. What was college like for a blind black man in Alabama in the sixties?
Well, you know, it was kind of difficult for me. It was difficult to get the state to pay for my education. If I had some money or my mama had some money, it might would have been different. I let them know that if they let me go to school, I wasn’t going to waste their money. I was going to go through with it, and I wasn’t going to have the worst grade in the class either. I was determined. But even beyond the state, just trying to get the school to let me in was hard. They didn’t know if they could teach a blind man, so there were a lot of hurdles. I say to myself, maybe the divine picked the right person, because I got it done.
When did you decide you wanted to play music professionally and for the rest of your life?
When I found out that teaching school wasn’t a five-day job, it’s more like a seven-day job. I wanted to teach school on Monday through Friday, and I wanted to play music on Saturday and Sunday. But they told me that I couldn’t do it, that I had to be out in the community and whatnot, so I just thought that playing music might be something I would enjoy more, and lord, it worked out.
Do you think it would be fair to say that you may have written more “cheatin’ songs” than any other musician?
(Laughs) I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about that until then, but you know what, I may HAVE been involved in more cheatin’ songs than anyone else.
How many times have you actually been caught making love to another man’s wife?
Only once and I said after that I wouldn’t ever get caught again. Now remember I said I wouldn’t ever get CAUGHT again. (Laughs)
Where were you and what were you doing when you penned “Strokin’”? What was its inspiration?
Believe it or not, the “Strokin’” idea came about when—well, see when I started recording, we didn’t have but one or two tracks that you could lay down with the whole band. Then they came out with new technology that allowed you to lay down different instruments in different tracks. So I figured I was going to try it. I wanted to try and do a song, without a band, by myself. I had the song “Strokin’,” so I just went in there and did it by myself. I played every instrument myself. I did “Strokin’” at Muscle Shoals, and when I went over there with that idea, they were excited as they could be. They were so used to bringing all the big bands in. The engineer didn’t know what I was going to sing when I got ready to do the vocals though. By the time I got done, he was laughing so hard he let the tape run off the spool.
Certainly a central them of your songs, has been love, or the makin’ of love. Was there any particular event in your life that led you to want to spread the gospel of love?
I wish there had been. It wasn’t though. I just got into it and I found that people bought that kind of music, coming from me. And I stuck with it. You know when an artist finds a certain genre that works, they want them to stick with it.
What’s different about the world today than the world that the younger Clarence Carter inhabited?
Well today, maybe one of the biggest things is that I can look around me and be satisfied. I used to want things to happen and wanted them to happen now. I’m much more patient now. I don’t need things to happen immediately like I used to. I’m more laid back.
Have you ever been to Macon before? Do you have any good stories about Macon?
I used to be there so much when Capricorn was there that I feel like I lived there. I used to be there with Phil and Otis and everybody. I used to go to a little club down there, and listen to other folks play. One night me and another guy go to a club. He was with me now, supposed to protect me, and a fight broke out and I reached out to grab him and he wasn’t there so I climbed up under the table. And you know what (laughs) it worked out fine! (Laughs) When it was over, and everyone was looking for me, I just came out from under the table.
\What’s been your best memory about the music business after all these years?
I guess you know, once upon a time, I was on a beach music fest in NC and they had about 30,000. I can remember all them people out there singing (and here he sings) “Strokin’ to the East, Strokin’ to the West.” It was amazing to hear that many people singing my song. Just amazing.
Which brings me to the next question, and I apologize for asking this, I know you must get it all the time: Is it best to the north or to the south, the east or to the west?
It’s better from southeast to the northwest. NO doubt about it. (Laughs)