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JUDY CLAY +
A talented journeywoman soul
singer, Judy Clay (born on September 12, 1938) joined the
Drinkard Singers gospel group (which also included Cissy Houston)
in the late '50s. Like many singers who started with
gospel, she moved to soul in the '60s, releasing a string of non-hit
singles for the Ember, Lavette, Scepter and Atlantic labels which
are esteemed by British "Northern Soul" fans today; she
also sang backup vocals for soul singers like Wilson Pickett and
Solomon Burke. In the late '60s, she briefly teamed with Billy
Vera to form what may have been the first interracial recording
duo (see separate entry), recording an album and a couple minor
hit singles, "Storybook Children" and "Country
Girl-City Man (Just Across The Line)." Her recordings
with Stax and Atlantic in the late '60s (which included a '69
session at Muscle Shoals Sound) produced a hit R&B duet with
William Bell, "Private Number," and a minor hit solo
single, "Greatest Love." She continued to work as
a backup vocalist in the '70s, with Aretha Franklin and Ray
Charles among others.
Struck with a brain tumor in 1979, she returned to gospel music shortly after her recovery. She died on July 19th, 2001.
Interview of Billy Vera in The Guardian (UK), July 27th, 2001:
"Judy Clay, who has died aged 62, was a hell of a
singer. But, apart from two duets with me, Storybook Children (1967)
and Country Girl-City Man in 1968, and two records later that
year with William Bell, Private Number and My Baby Specialises,
she had no chart success.
This must have been no small source of frustration. You can't have a voice as good as hers and not know how good you are; she was, arguably, one of the best in her adopted family, which also included Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, and Cissy and Whitney Houston, as well as her own sister, Sylvia Shemwell.
As an act, Judy and I - Billy Vera and Judy Clay - were notable for being the United States' first racially integrated duo, a fact which, even in the 1960s, prevented us from being seen on national television. Other than an appearance on Hy Lit's show on WKBS in Philadelphia, and one on Robin Seymour's Swingin' Time in Detroit, our little revolution was never televised.
In New York, the Clay Cole Show taped us but, once they knew our racial makeup, our segment was never aired. To add to the indignity, we went on to see our songs performed on network TV by Sammy Davis Jr and Tina Turner, and by Peter Lawford and Minnie Pearl.
We were never taken up as a cause by the limousine liberals of the day. This may have had something to do with the fact that our audience was mostly everyday blacks and working-class whites.
Our music was just plain old soul, so the hippie culture found nothing in us to connect with. We didn't wear leather fringe vests and bell-bottom jeans. Judy went on in floor-length gowns and my outfits were mohair continental suits. We played the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, not the Fillmore East. And that was just fine with the un-chic bridge-and-tunnel crowd and the Harlemites, who gave us standing ovations, even as bloody riots were taking place across the Hudson river in Newark, New Jersey.
Our first Apollo appearance was during those riots, and stage manager Honi Coles, fearing that we might not be well received, put us second on the bill, the spot usually reserved for the weakest acts. After the first house, he came to our dressing room and said, "I'm moving you to right before the star's spot; ain't nobody gonna follow you two."
Given today's unfortunate state of race relations in the US, it is hard to imagine what an act like ours meant to an older generation of black Americans, to whom integration and assimilation were goals. I recall coming off stage one night after we had stopped the show - and been forced to do an encore of Storybook Children - and seeing Judy's "aunt", Cissy Houston, crying tears of joy and hope in the wings, with her four-year-old daughter Whitney in her arms.
Judy was born Judy Guions in St
Paul, North Carolina, and soon moved to Fayetteville, where she
was raised by her grandmother. She started singing in church as a
small child. Moving to Brookyn in the early 1950s, she continued
her church singing, indeed her choir featured on Sunday night
By her early teens, she had been adopted by Lee Drinkard, of the famous gospel group, the Drinkard Singers. Lee was Cissy Houston's sister and Dionne Warwick's mother - and Judy was soon involved in the group with them, as well as with Dionne's sister Delia, Dee Dee Warwick.
The Drinkard Singers released three albums in the 1950s which featured Judy - the Newport Spiritual Stars record in 1954, a live album from the Newport jazz festival and a 1958 studio LP. Judy's voice could raise the roof and stir the soul; if you ever run across a copy of that 1958 RCA Victor album, grab it and see what I'm talking about.
In 1961, Judy recorded More Than You Know/ I'd Thought I'd Gotten Over You as a solo artist. More singles followed, on Ember, Lavette, Scepter and Stax. Then, on Atlantic in 1968, came our Story Book Children/ ReallyTogether.
Many years after Judy and I had performed at the Apollo, the legendary manager of that theatre, Ralph Cooper, pulled me from a crowd, took me in his arms and told a roomful of people how important he felt our act was. It had been seen at the time in Harlem as a giant step forward.
After she had made two singles with William Bell, and a couple more solo singles, Judy and I cut one more duet, Reaching For The Moon, recorded for Atlantic at the Muscle Shoals studio. One solo single she recorded there, Greatest Love, made the r&b charts. Subsequently, she worked as a back-up singer, underwent brain surgery at the end of the 1970s, and released Stayin' Alive, recorded live in Newark.
In later years, Judy and I would speak by phone once or twice a year. She was back in North Carolina, singing occassionally with Cissy Houston's baptist choir in Newark, and very proud that the baby she was carrying when we first met had grown up to become a West Point graduate. And no one was prouder than she when I finally managed to get a big hit of my own, At This Moment, some 20 years after our moment.
She used to tell me, "Duets are coming back. We ought to make another record." When I was working as leader of the houseband on a late-night network talk show, I tried, and almost convinced, the powers there to book Judy so we could perform together once more. But, being the whores for ratings TV people tend to be, there was always one more flavour-of-the-week act which took precedence.
With Judy's passing, we have lost a great singer who never got her due. She is survived by two sons, Todd and Leo, a brother, Raymond, and her sister, Sylvia Shemwell, of the Sweet Inspirations.
In fact, Clay had a staggering
number of credits as a backup singer with Ray Charles, Wilson
Pickett, Booker T. & the MG's, Donny Hathaway, Patti LaBelle,
Yusef Lateef, Mongo Santamaria, Eddie Harris and Les McCann. And
she had some modest hit records. With Billy Vera, a white singer-songwriter,
she sang "Storybook Children" (1967), considered to be
the first interracial soul duet in recording history. With
William Bell, she scored again with "Private Number" (1968).
As a solo artist, she made the charts with "Greatest Love"
Yet her July death in Fayetteville, where she spent the last 20 years of her life, drew almost none of the attention one might expect after a stellar career. Sadly, it was business as usual for the 62-year-old Clay, who never quite seemed to get her due as a singer, and who knew it until the day she died.
Born Judy Guions in St. Paul, N.C., Clay moved to Fayetteville, where she was raised by her religious grandmother. "My mother grew up in the church, and that's where she started singing," says Clay's son, Leo Gatewood, director of finance for BMG Music in New York City. "All she wanted to do was sing. Put her in front of a microphone and let her sing. That was it." And that's what she did. After moving to New York in the early 1950s, Clay sang in a Harlem church choir and met the Drinkard Singers, a family gospel group from Georgia. She was adopted by Lee, their oldest sister. Lee Drinkard would later become Lee Warrick (mother of Dee Dee and Dionne Warwick), while sister Emily "Cissy" Drinkard would become Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney). Larry and Nicholas Drinkard, Ann Moss and Marie Epps comprised the rest of the group.
They all recognized, as others already had, the power of Clay's voice. Deep, intense and rough around the edges, it calls to mind gospel great Mahalia Jackson--who, in fact, "discovered" the Drinkards and had them open for her at Carnegie Hall. "It was raw and effortless," Gatewood says of his mother's singing. "She was pure soul. You can call the music what you want, but she was probably the most soulful person I've ever known--because my definition of soul is not just singing on the off-note. It's singing from the soul, and that's what she did."
The Drinkards had three gospel releases on LP. Clay would be the first to leave the group, in 1960, and enter the world of secular recording for soul labels like Ember, Lavette and Scepter. But none of her recordings seemed to catch on, the intensity of her voice making her, perhaps, an acquired taste for the pop market. Meanwhile, the Drinkards evolved into the studio background group in New York. In various combinations, members of the family--as well as Clay and her sister, Sylvia Shemwell--took part. This group later spawned "The Sweet Inspirations," who made their own albums and toured with Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin, among others. Clay's cousin Dionne Warwick broke into the big time with the help of songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David. But Clay herself never seemed to break out of the background.
It wasn't until 1967, when Atlantic Records head Jerry Wexler teamed Clay up with singer-songwriter Billy Vera to record "Storybook Children" that she had the makings of a real hit. But the fact that Vera was white and Clay was African American was too much for some. Vera, during a recent phone conversation from his Los Angeles home, said the duo was well-received at New York's Apollo Theater and was popular with the "blue collar" nightclub crowd of both races, faring well with civil rights proponents. But executives in the television industry wouldn't touch them with a 10-foot pole, denying them the network TV appearances that would have made their song a national hit. To make matters worse, Clay--who had married jazz drummer Leo Gatewood Sr. in 1966--was pregnant with son Leo when she made the recording, and some mistakenly thought it was Vera's child she was carrying. To add insult to injury, recalls Vera, "Storybook Children" was performed on network TV--by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood. And there was no trouble airing a second single they'd recorded, "Country Girl, City Man," as long as it was performed by Minnie Pearl and Peter Lawford. This galling treatment did little to temper what had become common knowledge in the music industry--Clay had a bad attitude. She was "difficult." And with good reason: Exceedingly talented, she was perplexed by her bad breaks, poor timing and failure to match the success of her contemporaries.
"I got along with her very well," says Vera, "because I understood that beneath her gruff exterior, there was a scared little girl under there. But everybody had problems recording her." Gatewood adds, "My mother was outspoken. There's a lot of B.S. in this industry, and my mother didn't take a lot of B.S.--she didn't take any." In another stroke of bad luck, the distribution deal between Atlantic (Vera's label) and Stax (Clay's label) came apart, ending the duo's partnership. After a few more solo releases failed to go anywhere, Stax paired her with William Bell to record "Private Number," which turned out to be a hit. But Clay's prickliness seemed to do her in once again and she was released from her contract.
Still, it wasn't her last duet. Atlantic signed Clay and paired her with Vera again to record "Reaching for the Moon." Like their earlier duets, the song caught on with the black community and seemed destined to be a breakout hit. The pair was offered a return engagement at the Apollo for the same pay they'd earned on their earlier visit. Clay bristled, and demanded a better deal--ultimately nixing the appearance. Atlantic, discouraged by their would-be star's behavior, stopped promoting the record.
Clay went on to have one solo single that made the charts--"Greatest Love." But by 1978, with her marriage ending, her career a series of bitter disappointments, and her last album unreleased due to an unscrupulous producer, something had to give. It turned out to be Clay herself.
Undergoing surgery for a brain tumor in 1979, she came back to Fayetteville to heal. She returned to the church, promising God that she would no longer sing secular music. Following a 1980-81 tour of South Africa with Ray Charles, she kept her promise.
Bishop Carol Dedeaux, Pastor of the Whomsoever Will Church of God in Fayetteville, where Clay sang until her death in late July (following complications from a major car accident), became acquainted with her while the two attended prayer meetings--and discovered to her delight that she owned several old 45s of Clay's singles. "Even before she passed, she had such a strong voice, so rich," Dedeaux says. "She gave her all to her gospel music. And I want you to know, it was just awesome. Whatever she sang, even something as simple as "Yes, Jesus Loves Me," she just had a way of singing it that brought it across, and she didn't sound like anybody else. She's really going to be missed, not just so much for her voice, but for her spirit."
Somehow, that spirit persevered. Clay would occasionally visit Newark, N.J., to sing in Cissy Houston's New Hope Baptist Church choir there. She became a licensed evangelist in 1990, continuing her Monday night prayer meetings in Fayetteville even after diabetes required her to spend three days a week on a kidney dialysis machine. Dedeaux recalls her as "a beautiful person" with a great sense of humor. But Gatewood also remembers his mother's pain. "I can't communicate to you how much of an issue it was to my mother to not have her career," he says. "It was an overriding theme in our house, so much so that as a child, I would try not to let her see any award shows, because she would openly cry. She'd see somebody like Patti LaBelle or Aretha on TV, and try to comment. But you could see, it crushed her. That never changed."
But there may be life in Judy Clay yet. British-born David Nathan, author of The Soulful Divas (Billboard Books), grew up listening to Clay, and says she was always a bigger musical fixture in England than in America. "If you go to Britain, she's definitely well-known in R&B circles," he says. "England has a completely different relationship with her." In fact, a British compilation featuring some of her early recordings, Blue Soul Belles, Vol. 4, is due out in a few months on Scepter Records. And maybe, finally, Judy Clay will begin to earn the recognition that alwayseluded her in life.
Stax 230 : You Can't
Run Away From Your Heart / It Takes A Lotta Good Love
Stax 0005 : Private Number / Love-Eye-Tis (with William Bell)
Stax 0006 : Bed Of Roses / Remove These Clouds
Stax 0017 : My Baby Specialises / Left Over Love (with William Bell)
Stax 0026 : It Ain't Long Enough / Give Love To Save Love
UPTIGHT - BOOKER T. & THE MG'S - Stax 2006 : Children Don't Get Weary (vocal by Judy Clay) (reissued on CD)
SOUL EXPLOSION - Stax 2-2007 (part): It's Me (reissued on CD)
PRIVATE NUMBERS - VEDA BROWN & JUDY CLAY - Stax/Fantasy SCD-88016-2 :
Private Number ; Love -Eye-Tis ; Bed Of Roses ; Remove These Clouds ; My Baby Specializes ; Left Over Love ; It Ain't Long Enough ; Give Love To Save Love ; It's Me ; Chidren Don't Get Weary ; + 8 tracks by Veda Brown.
BILLY VERA & JUDY CLAY - Ichiban :
Judy Clay tracks Stax recorded tracks: You Can't Run Away From Your Heart / It Takes A Lotta Good Love.
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