The road to stardom is rocky for anyone who chooses the blues as a profession, but none more so that Clarence Spady who – by his own admission – has been his own worst enemy in a career that’s soared to the heights of success and plunged to the depths of despair on multiple occasions.
Like the mythical bird the Phoenix, he’s soared to the heavens on multiple occasions only to crash and burn then rise from his own ashes to fly once again.
Success seemingly comes easily to Spady. His debut album, Nature of the Beast, showed so much promise that it earned him a 1997 W.C. Handy Award nomination for best new artist of the year, and his follow-up, 2008’s Just Between Us, made it to the finals of the soul-blues category in the rebranded Blues Music Awards.
A uniquely gifted guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, Clarence is hitting the high notes once again in 2021 with Surrender, a CD that – since its release in May — has already earned outstanding achievement honors in the 2021 Global Music Awards and third-place recognition for the title tune in the International Songwriting Competition.
As Blues Blast learned in a recent interview, however, for Spady, enduring success has been fleeting because of personal demons that have haunted him repeatedly through the years – something, he vows, he’ll never allow to happen again.
A native of Paterson, N.J., who’s been based two hours west in Scranton, Pa., for decades, Clarence was born into a musical, church-going family on July 1, 1961. His mother spun gospel LPs by the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and Mahalia Jackson while his father favored the blues.
“When Mahalia stopped, you could hear the scratch (at the end of the side), and my dad would go in and swap out a Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, B.B. King or Howlin’ Wolf,” Spady remembers. His father, also named Clarence, and uncle, Fletchy both played guitar, and he picked it up quickly, too.
“My dad, he was a hacker,” Spady says. “But Fletchy, he could really play. He had a nasty feel like Otis Rush and a raspy voice like Roosevelt ‘Booba’ Barnes (the Mississippi juke joint legend who recorded one album for Rooster Blues before succumbing to lung cancer at age 59).
“Fletchy did maybe four or five shows a year, and played in the church, but there was a show in his kitchen every weekend (laughs)! He didn’t need to go out to play.”
Clarence was age five when his father and Fletchy – who grew up in rural North Carolina, played in jukes on weekends and was influenced by T-Bone Walker and Lowell Fulson — were jamming in the kitchen one afternoon.
“I grabbed the neck of the guitar, and he continued with the right hand strum,” Spady says. “They were playin’ in E, and I kept puttin’ my hand up on the fretboard. It was an amazing feat ‘cause everybody’s talkin’, and J&B and Dewar’s is on the table, flyin’ around.
“But my aunt Bea notices. She goes: ‘Oh, my god! Little Clarence is playin’!’
“My dad goes: ‘Okay, Clarence, wait a minute…until after the song.’ But Fletchy says: ‘No, let him go! Let’s see what he’s gonna do!’
“My dad was playin’ the E and A string, so I started doin’ it. The next thing you know, everyone’s focus shifted toward me, and I was playin’ the custom blues…bah-bum, bah-bum, bah-bum…usin’ one finger like my dad would do.”
For the adults, it was a real jaw-dropper. Soon after, big Clarence taught him the E progression, and Fletchy began teaching him the rest.
“That was it!” Spady says today. “He just created a devil — because I gravitated toward the blues!”
Clarence was still in kindergarten when he performed for the first time, bringing a six-string to school and entertaining classmates with a rendition of James Brown’s “Sex Machine” accompanied a friend from another musical family, Cord Smith, who played drums.
“Then, when I was six years old, Uncle Fletchy was playin’ at the Paterson Elks Club with one of the bands he fooled around with on the weekends,” Clarence says. “He was gonna bring me up to play, so my godmother went out and bought me a new suit.”
Fletchy brought him up to play Tommy Tucker’s “Hi-Heel Sneakers,” telling him in advance: “Now don’t you worry. We’re not gonna play in a bunch of keys. We’re gonna stay right there and focus on E.”
“I said: ‘Good deal!’” Spady recalls. Even at that tender age, he was beginning to realize that the open-tuning allows plenty of the string movement necessary to play the blues in an uncomplicated way. But there was one problem: Fletchy’s gig started at 9 p.m., already past Clarence’s bedtime. By the time he got up to play, he says, he was so tired that he dropped his pick three or four times.
Despite his early talent, Clarence admits to being a lazy student who never tried to push himself on the instrument. But by the time he was 11 or 12 though, his fingers had grown long enough that was comfortable playing most keys and becoming adept at playing major seventh and minor ninth chords. His early influences included B.B. and Albert Collins.
The Spady family relocated to Scranton in 1969 when Clarence was in second grade, leaving Paterson – a melting-pot city of differing ethnicities a few miles west of the Hudson River – for a blue-collar community that was almost all white. “We brought the blues with us,” he says. “They already had ‘em. But we gave it a name!”
It was there that Spady established lifelong friendships and developed a love for rock, Motown, the Philly Sound, bluegrass and country – which led to a lot of experimentation on the six-string without formal training and which led to the development of the style he has today, incorporating jazz, Latin and funk, too.
Fresh out of school after graduating at age 18, Clarence made a beeline on his own back to New Jersey to chase his musical dream. He quickly found a steady job at a recording studio operated by producer Greg Plummer in Englewood, A high-school wrestler, one of Clarence’s teammates then and occasional playing partner now was former Saturday Night Live funnyman-turned-blues artist Chris “Bad News” Barnes. Spady immediately moved to New Jersey, where he started working for producer Greg Plummer in the recording studio he operated in Englewood, a bedroom community situated directly across the river from Manhattan.
“I wanted to get more exposed to the New York scene,” he says. “Comin’ up through junior high, I’m seeing all these shows at the Apollo and sayin’ to myself: ‘That’s where we gotta get to!’ My home might have been in Pennsylvania, but my heart was two hours away.”
For Clarence – and the music world in general – it was an era of change in which the synthesizer was starting to revolutionize the industry by using digital sounds to replace horns and keys. And the young bluesman realized pretty quickly that he had to branch out to something else to make a living.
“For me,” he says, “it was ‘welcome to the world of Top 40.’”
At first, Spady joined A Touch of Class, a band which featured his Brenda Mickens, a vocalist Spady describes as a cross between Etta James and Ma Rainey, and which was directed by her music impresario hubby Raymond. The group’s musical director, John Pougiese, quickly took him under his wing, teaching him horn arrangements, rhythm and harmony progressions that he still incorporates today.
“They did pretty well for themselves,” Clarence says, “but my stint with them wasn’t very long because here come all the distractions in the world that could ever come my way, movin’ to an urban area and hangin’ out with the guys who I used to listen to when they were playin’ with (B-3 organ great) Jimmy Smith.
“They were doin’ all the hip stuff, and it didn’t take long before I was, too. And they weren’t just doin’ it in music. They were doin’ it in life, too” – taking full advantage of all the outside benefits…the booze, drugs and women…that life onstage presented.
“At least I thought it was hip,” Spady says now. “It took me a long time to figure out it wasn’t.”
Because of his association with Plummer, Clarence got to do a little session in that era with The Johnson Family – brothers Jimmy, Bob and Jerry – a funk ensemble that included Buddy Blackstone on lead guitar. It was Buddy who stressed the importance of having a working knowledge of the complete range of chords and of being a consistent rhythm player.
Spady’s world changed in a major way about two years after he returned to Jersey and met vocalist Greg Palmer – the front man for one of the top cover bands in the country — for the first time. It was 1981, and Palmer was playing a three-month engagement at the Holiday Inn in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., but was becoming increasingly unhappy with his backing musicians. On a Sunday night prior to a weeklong vacation, he decided to keep his drummer and fire everyone else.
He brought in Clarence and two other musicians that Monday, and they put together 96 tunes on his setlist – but he hadn’t gotten up the courage to inform his former bandmates, all of whom arrived for work the next Sunday to find new musicians on stage and their equipment stored elsewhere.
For the next six years, Spady touring steadily with Palmer, opening for the Four Tops, Spinners and other major acts and enjoying lengthy runs at many of the premiere showrooms across the U.S., unlike many of their contemporaries who’d work a week one place and then drive 600 miles to work another.
“We always were booked at a club for four to six weeks at a time,” Clarence remembers fondly. “We’d leave Atlantic City and go to Hilton Head (S.C.) because we knew we were going to be there for the whole month of April when the Heritage Golf Classic was going on…or Saratoga for the month of August, ‘cause that’s when the racetrack is open…20 weeks in A.C. at five-week increments.”
They spent three nights each week rehearsing, too. A stickler for fresh performances, Palmer regularly selected new chart-toppers, gave them to his sidemen to learn one week before making them stage-ready through practice the following week, insisting throughout that work together on openings and endings and assuming everyone would already know the songs’ middle.
Hilton Head holds a special place in Spady’s heart because it was there – at the Marriott at Shipyard Plantation – that Stevie Wonder joined the band for a lengthy set. “He closed the night down with us,” he recalls. Fortunately, Palmer’s group included two of Stevie’s CDs in the repertoire, which came in handy because they played 13 of his tunes with him into the wee hours of the morning.
Despite gigging 40 weeks a year and being paid great money, Spady slowly came to the understanding that working in a Top 40 band has major drawbacks – something that was reinforced through discussions with one of his bandmates, Bob Elliott, who was about 20 years his elder.
“Bob kept stressing: ‘Clarence, I’ve done this circuit for a long time,’” he says. “‘You don’t want to be my age, sittin’ in Harrah’s, waitin’ to go down and do another hour set.
“You want to pursue the blues? Just go out there and do it! But get off this show-band touring routine because you can get too comfortable. It pays the bills. But you’re never home though.’
“I finally left Greg when we were at the Forge Restaurant in Miami Beach. I kept giving him little warnings: ‘We either have to start recording, or I’m gonna have to put myself in a situation…’ Greg was sarcastic: ‘Bye!’”
The encounter with Wonder could have been a life-changer, but turned into the first of several lost opportunities in Spady’s life. His playing had impressed Stevie’s musical director enough to jot down his contact information. He add Clarence’s name to his extensive list of him who worked in his band on a first-call, rotating basis.
And he was true to his word. Spady was invited to fly to Arizona for two weeks of rehearsals for an upcoming gig, but…
“I never made it,” he says. “The party scene was too much to resist. I was excused when I missed the first date, but knew I wouldn’t be when I missed the second one. I called, and the person who answered said: ‘Yes, yes, I give Henry the message.’
“When I didn’t hear back for two or three days…I got the message alright!”
Spady subsequently relocated to Michigan, playing funk out of Ypsilanti with the Norma Jean Bell Band and other groups, slipping away occasionally to Detroit and seeing Duke Robillard and others in action at the Soup Kitchen, once one of the top stops on the blues highway. After a three-year run, however, he moved back home to Scranton and took a job as a union-member heavy equipment operator by day and playing music at night.
“I was an excavator guy, and I did that for 17 years, running everything from backhoes to bulldozers and cranes,” he says. “I like to play in dirt, so I did a lot of pipeline work. That’s all dirt, and you don’t have to worry about no one, buildings collapsin’ or anything like that.
“I’d work 50 to 60 hours a week and gig in New York on the weekends, driving straight from the jobsite to Manhattan on Friday night and getting back home to go back to work at six the next morning.”
At Shiloh Baptist Church, he served in the choir for a while and played keys occasionally, too, picking up tips about harmony and chord movement from the church’s musical director, organist Carol A. Coleman. “There’s something special about the way chords move in gospel,” Clarence insists. “I’ve incorporated it into my style of blues playin’.”
In 1989, Spady began laying the groundwork for his own group. Initially the Scranton Blues Band, it evolved into West Third Street Blues Band, which was the ensemble that helped compose and arrange Clarence’s debut album, Nature of the Beast. Recorded in the studio and finally appearing on disc four or five years later, it delivered the feel of a live performance, something that he’s continued to strive for throughout his career.
Originally self-produced, that disc was captured in a high-energy setting at the Scranton studio of friend/percussionist/car dealer Richard Burne with all of the musicians in the same, partition-free room — something that’s rare in the industry today. Most of the original material was drawn from Clarence’s true-life experiences with women as well as the drug habit he developed after high school.
The album finally struck gold when it was repackaged and re-released on the Evidence label, but Spady was so clueless about the industry at the time, he initially failed to recognize the significance of the W.C. Handy nomination he received.
“I had no idea what that was,” he admits. “I had to ask my manager (childhood friend Scott Goldman): ‘What does that mean?’
“I didn’t know all that could happen in the blues. The only thing I wanted to do was to be able to say that I played in Chicago and get down into the Delta to play some jukes…do a few festivals and everything. Anything else was a bonus, a gift that I didn’t know anything about. And I’m still learning!”
Living Blues magazine included him in its “Top 40 Under 40” listing of prominent younger artists a short time later.
“It felt good, and I thought I was on top of things,” he says, “but I guess that ego or pride got in there and it was like: ‘It’s only up from here.’ My dad was sayin’: ‘You can sit on top of the world – just don’t let it sit on top of you!’”
One of the top labels at the time, Evidence signed him to a multi-album deal. He was playing major clubs and festivals around the globe, and ownership were “stoked” by the new material he presented. But he was eventually termed a “high-risk investment.”
Judged unreliable and back to his old habits, he was given a six-month grace period to straighten himself out – and then an extension, but eventually cut loose when that failed to happen.
“The world sat on me,” Spady says. “I’d already crossed that threshold, and didn’t know it. I still thought I could moderate things, but I couldn’t. In those six months, not only did things spin out of control, but the chatter that was goin’ around made everyone afraid to invest in me — I still feel repercussions of it today. But thank God…the world sat on my back instead of my head. It allowed me to get up again – but only if I wanted to.”
Finally back on his feet again a decade or so, later Spady hooked up with owner David Earl, a talented guitarist himself who operates Severn Records out of Annapolis, Md. Clarence wanted to put out a straight-ahead blues album, but the end product, Just Between Us, earned BMA soul-blues honors instead.
While he appreciates the recognition, Clarence he still has misgivings today because he never was given the opportunity to deliver the collection of shuffles he wanted to deliver – something that other artists in the Severn fold, including Chicagoan Mud Morganfield, eventually did for the label.
“When push comes to shove, I love R&B,” Spady insists. “But I had to fight tooth-and-nail to do ‘Be Your Enough,’ the only slow blues on the album. Everything else was blues that came from my R&B era. David kept saying: ‘That’s it!’ But it wasn’t it for me. It wasn’t where I wanted to go. I wanted to play the blues.”
That said, he admits, “it worked out as far as the energy of the music is concerned. When it came time to lay down the real tracks, I was pumped. I was ready. The more we got in there and it started comin’ together, it was all business from that point on. I told Scotty: ‘We’ll get this out and work on the next one. I’m gonna call it 12 Bar. But that never happened, either.”
Self-described as possessing a stubborn streak, Spady made multiple subsequent attempts to return to the studio for a Severn follow-up, but the relationship eventually fell apart because of creative differences.
Clarence’s career went into a tailspin once again, leaving him with the feeling that “I had stuff inside me I wanted to get out, but no one was allowing me to do so.”
It was his aim to produce material that instilled positive messages about racial equality and to serve up hope for people who were suffering the throes of addiction or the devastating loss of a child, something that he’s accomplished on his latest CD, Surrender. Released on Sallie Bengtson’s Pennsylvania-based Nola Blues Records, it’s an intimate, unhurried, understated, true-blue release chock full of emotion.
“I could easily have written about the latest hurricane or Iraq or Afghanistan,” Spady says, “but there’s so much shit goin’ on in my life that I don’t have to leave my living room for material.”
One of the the most powerful tunes, “K-Man,” celebrates Clarence’s son, Khalique, a former high school football player who died at home in his mid-20s prior to COVID about two years ago. “That turned into my favorite song on the CD,” Spady says. “The feedback that I get is that it’s happy and jovial. But that’s how he was.
“Everybody would be sittin’ around on the porch, lookin’ sour, and Khalique would show up. Now, everybody’s laughin’…the whole ambiance changed. The greatest honor I could give him is through music…something that was also his passion. He didn’t play any instrument, but he was good with a microphone.”
Spady also dips into his past for a stellar new cover of Z.Z. Hill’s “Down Home Blues,” a tune his parents always put on after a long night of partying on the weekend, turning it into a ballad that retains the deep Southern soul feel of the original but accentuates the blues.
“That’s how Uncle Fletchy played it,” he says.
Three of the tunes – including “Addiction Game,” which is delivered atop a funky beat — are from a live set captured at River Street Jazz Café in Plains, Pa., when the region was reeling after being inundated with cocaine and murders – a subject he broached previously on Nature of the Beast. Two others include the work of two beloved lost friends: his longtime drummer Shorty Parham’s tune, “Pick Me Up,” and Lucky Peterson’s “When My Blood Runs Cold,” a tune Lucky co-wrote with his father. He and Clarence developed a lasting relationship after meeting in a recording studio in Hartford, Conn., years ago.
The disc also features a guest appearance from rising talent Adam Schultz, a guitar protégé whom Clarence has been mentoring in blues for the past four years.
Despite his recurring personal issues, one thing that’s been constant in Clarence’s life for the better part of 28 years has been a regular gig Terra Blues, a venerable club in New York’s Greenwich Village for the past 28 years. It was there that Spady first crossed paths with Adam, then age 14. Now a recent college enrollee after studying jazz at Avenue, one of the most exclusive schools in Manhattan, Schultz recently released his debut album, Soulful Distancing, which Spady appeared on and co-produced.
While Clarence has seemingly fallen off the edge of the earth after success in the past, he’s currently hard at work on new material with two tunes currently in rehearsal and about ready for the studio. Others are on the way and will explore his love for 12-bar Texas shuffles and blues-rock when it really was rock and blues.
“You’re not gonna have to wait 13 years for the next album!” Spady insists, stressing that he’s finally come to terms with his old habits, which are a thing of the past. “Of all the things I used to do, I do miss smoking marijuana,” he admits. “It would be nice to take a couple of pulls off a joint again. But I’m not even gonna open that door.
“Do I get the thought? Abso-lutely! But do I open that door? No. God showed me a way to tap into that zone naturally without havin’ to smoke. It’s a blessing!
“‘You want to go to that zone, Clarence?’” he laughs. “‘Look at this picture!’ I’ve got both hands on the reins right now, and I don’t plan on letting go.”
Spady’s deeply appreciative of the fans who’ve suck with him “through the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s God-given, and we hope to keep the excitement goin’!” he says.
Check out Clarence’s music and where he’ll be playing next by visiting his website: www.clarencespady.com