The Soulful Side of the Blues
8th October 2012 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
The Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival, held at Lafayette Square Friday, October 12, through Sunday, October 14, is one of the most popular and adventurously scheduled free events presented by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation. Part of its lofty reputation is derived from the fact that the music is non-stop. The festival has gotten to be known for its unique “turn around” concept—just as the music stops on one stage, the other stage, located directly across the square, strikes up.
This year, the festival, which presents a mix of local and national artists playing a range of blues styles, strongly acknowledges the soulful side of the blues by including a trio of legendary soul artists in the line-up. The great Otis Clay, the Mississippi vocalist who began his career as a gospel singer with such groups as the Christian Travelers and went on to record such memorable hits as “That’s How It Is (When You’re in Love)” and “Tryin’ To Live My Life Without You,” kicks off the blues-fest-goes-soul at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday. His strong vocals will be backed by the noted Bo-Keys, a group full of horns and musicians from Memphis.
Sunday evening brings the style on full swing. At 4:30 p.m. on the main St. Charles Street stage, Latimore arrives. The sophisticated singer that gave us such gems as “Let’s Straighten It Out,” represents the festival’s closing soul finale with the renowned vocalist and guitarist Clarence Carter taking over at 6:45 p.m. to end the night and festival with a groove.Carter, an enthusiastic man of 76, is the maker of such absolutely memorable hits as “Strokin’,” “Slip Away,” “Too Weak To Fight” and “Patches.” He promises to do them all in their entirety.
“I try to do songs that people want to hear,” Carter says of his Blues Fest set. “Some artists do a medley of their hits and I don’t do that,” he promises.
Clarence Carter, who grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, remains unique in that he stands as one of a very few guitar playing soul singers. The great Otis Redding, a competent guitarist, did play the instrument on his classic, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” and Curtis Mayfield influenced many with his personal tuning and approach to the guitar on “Gypsy Woman.” However, neither artist was associated with or performed on guitar regularly. Carter, on the other hand, always brings his axe to the stage and recording studio.
Carter remembers when he first became infatuated with the guitar. A man, who was also blind, used to come by his home in Montgomery along with a washboard player. “I used to think that guy was the best guitar player in the world. I don’t know whether he was or not,” he says with a laugh. “I used to love it and I think it just sucked me in. My mother bought me a guitar when I was 11. I didn’t even know a guitar had six strings on it,” recalls Carter, a self-taught guitarist.
At about age six, Carter began attending the Alabama School for the Blind in Talladega, Alabama, noted as where the gospel group the Five Blind Boys of Alabama got its start. As a student, he was very much encouraged to pursue music.
“When I was no more than seven or eight years old, my teacher had me in a men’s chorus. At that time, I sang the high tenor and that’s how I learned harmony. As a result of that, I was able to hear all of that kind of thing when I grew up and got into higher learning so music theory was easy for me,” says Carter who went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in music from Alabama State University.
A studied musician and hit maker, Carter has always relied on his lively and sometimes risqué personality and song lyrics.
“I like humor,” he says jovially. “I’ve found that that’s quite a comical thing with people when you start talking about how sexy you are. I imagine they’re saying, ‘Yeah, he thinks he is. He might used to be.’ I found explicit songs do sell product.
“I like for people to be happy,” he continues. “I don’t mean happy-go-lucky, to the point where you don’t take anything seriously. I think you live a much better life if you can look at it as a good thing. There’s no sense complaining about it – do something about it. When I get on stage, I let them know I’ve come here to have a good time together and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Since his high school years, Carter has continually played in a band of one sort or another. Perhaps that’s why he was somewhat stunned when, in 1966, “Slip Away” made it to the top of the charts.
“When I used to hear it on the radio, I almost couldn’t believe it was me,” he says with a chuckle. “You know, when you’re trying to get into something and you keep getting disappointed and then all of a sudden you get success it’s learning how to accept it.”
A prolific and talented composer, Carter, along with his bassist of the era, wrote “Slip Away” but, he explains, he never put his name on it. “At the time I didn’t know it was going to be a gold record,” he says with regret but also with his signature laugh. Carter continues to write and his latest album, Sing Along with Clarence Carter, which he produced in his home studio in Atlanta, is chock full of original material.
Carter has performed in New Orleans “many, many times,” starting back in the 1960s when he was booked into a number of small clubs. He played Jazz Fest three years ago and has worked at the House of Blues, area casinos among other spots.
“I’ve always had a good time in New Orleans and I’ve met some good people. I’m looking forward to coming down there because I love gumbo. The next thing I like is jambalaya. When I used to hear Hank Williams sing “Jambalaya” I didn’t know what it was. When I found out, I said, no wonder he was singing about it.”
The complete musical schedule for Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival plus more information is available at www.jazzandheritage.org/blues-fest.
This article was originally published in the October 8, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper