Clarence Carter at AMHOF Best known for his sexually charged songs about illicit affairs and physical attraction, Montgomery County native Clarence Carter (1936- ) has released 37 albums and topped the charts with numerous songs. Carter’s music has been included in the soundtracks of numerous television shows and films. He earned three gold records for his early hits “Patches,” “Too Weak to Fight,” and “Slip Away,” and gained worldwide fame later in his career with the comically raunchy “Strokin’.” His music is notable for his distinctive country-influenced rhythm and blues (R&B) singing style and his guitar and keyboard techniques informed by his background in classical music. Blind from birth, Carter references his blindness in several of his hits, including “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “I Can’t See Myself.”
Clarence Carter was born January 14, 1936, in Montgomery, Montgomery County, into a sharecropping family. He gravitated to music early in this life, teaching himself guitar by listening to blues artists John Lee Hooker, Sam John “Lightnin'” Hopkins, and Jimmy Reed. At the age of six, Carter entered the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind (AIDB) in Talladega, Talladega County, where he also learned to play the piano. His high school years were spent alternating between AIDB and Talladega’s West Side High School. After graduating in 1956, he enrolled in Alabama State University as a music major, learning to transcribe charts and arrangements in Braille and noting in interviews that his study of classical music gave him a good grounding in music theory. Carter attended class during the day and then played the area clubs at night to help pay for school. He graduated in 1960 with a bachelor of science degree in music and initially wanted to be a teacher.
Clarence Carter Carter decided to pursue music full time when he was offered a job that would have forced him to give up performing on weekends, He formed a group with fellow ASU classmate Calvin Scott, also blind, and they performed with a backing band at area clubs. The band soon signed to local Fairlane Records and released two singles as Clarence & Calvin; in 1962, they moved to Duke Records and released four singles as the CC Boys. During this period, the band also served as back-up musicians for touring acts, such as Otis Redding and John Lee Hooker, during stops in Montgomery. Realizing that they were unlikely to get much notice in Montgomery, the pair decided to record two of their songs, “Step by Step” and “Rooster Knees,” at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Colbert County. FAME owner Rick Hall overheard the band practicing and recognized their talent and offered to mentor them. Carter credits Hall with helping him to develop his distinctive sound and singing style. In 1965, the CC Boys recorded the single “Regulated” at FAME studios, and it came to attention of an Atlanta disc jockey, who sent the song to famed producer Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. Wexler signed the group to Atlantic’s Atco Records label, which released the single, but it got little attention and Atco dropped them.
The group, then known as Clarence & Calvin and the Mello Men, took a job as the house band at Birmingham’s 2728 Club and performed there until June, when Calvin Scott was severely injured in a car accident on the way home from a show. Scott sued Carter for help with his medical bills, and the conflict resulted in Scott leaving the group. (Scott would go on to a solo career as a soul musician with renowned label Stax Records.) Carter continued to perform with the band and signed to the FAME label in 1966, co-writing and releasing the single “Tell Daddy.” It reached number 35 on the Billboard R&B chart early the following year. Chart-topping soul singer Etta James ended a hiatus in her career to record a version of the song, named “Tell Mama,” bringing greater attention to Carter’s original. He released one more single for FAME and then was re-signed to Atlantic Records in 1968, recording his first album, This Is Clarence Carter, which earned him his first gold record with the million-selling hit “Slip Away.” Fellow Alabamian Spooner Oldham played keyboards on the song. The following year, he garnered a second gold record with “Too Weak to Fight,” from the album The Dynamic Clarence Carter.
Carter embarked on a national tour with a full band and back-up singers, one of whom, Alabamian Candi Staton, Carter married in 1970. The couple had one son and divorced in 1973. His successes continued throughout the early 1970s with such songs as “The Feeling Is Right” and covers of “The Dark End of the Street” and “Patches,” which reached the number two position on the U.S. R&B chart and the United Kingdom’s singles chart and sold more than one million copies in three days. “Patches” would be Carter’s first song that gained him attention with white audiences. The hit won a Grammy Award for “Best R&B Song” in 1971 and went on to become his most-recognized song.
After a period of mediocre record sales, Carter left Atlantic in 1972 and returned to the FAME label and released two albums. He had a hit with the novelty song “Sixty Minute Man” but otherwise his career languished. In 1975, Carter moved to the ABC Records and released three albums on that label. He continued to tour, but the audiences had shifted away from R&B music as disco became more popular. He changed labels several times during the early 1980s, with little success. In 1985, he moved to Ichiban Records, a newly founded label in Atlanta, Georgia, and found new success with the tongue-in-cheek and raunchy “Strokin’,” recorded for the album Dr. C.C. Inspired by the increasing use of synthesizers in music, Carter adapted his traditional R&B sound to the more popular sound of the day for the single; he wrote the song and played all of the instruments on the recording. He released six albums on Ichiban between 1985 and 1992. Carter left Ichiban in 1992 and was without a label for more than a decade. In 2003, he released Slippin’ Away on the Black Cat label, released two albums on the Planet Song label, and released Dance to the Blues in 2015 on the Cee Gee Entertainment label.
In 1989, Carter won the Governor’s Achievement Award for Popular Music by the Alabama Music Hall of Fame He was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 2003, along with Lionel Richie, Emmylou Harris, and Percy Sledge. He currently resides in Decatur, Georgia, and continues to tour, playing most often at beach festivals and casinos. Carter travels with his own sound system and serves as his own engineer, an unusual practice for musicians of his genre.
Colurso, Mary. “Year of Alabama Music: Clarence Carter.” Al.com, May 13, 2011; http://blog.al.com/mcolurso/2011/05/year_of_alabama_music_clarence.html.
DeYoung, Bill. “Clarence Carter, Soul Man.” Connect Savannah, February 9, 2010; http://www.connectsavannah.com/savannah/clarence-carter-soul-man/Content?oid=2132341