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THE WILLIE CLAYTON STORY, PART 1 (1956-1992)



Willie Clayton: “I have very, very high hopes for Soul Caesar, and I’m very, very pleased with the project. It took a while. Normally we get our albums done a little quicker, but for this we wanted to take our time. Actually, believe it or not, I had thirty some songs to pick from. I chose these and hopefully for the fans and listeners this selection is showing that we made a good choice.”

Released on November the 5th, Willie’s latest CD, Soul Caesar, on his End Zone label again shines brightly among the top records of the year. This time his main partner in music is Christopher Forrest, also known as Chrisco, a producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist out of Winona, Mississippi. Earlier Chris has worked with Calvin Richardson and Vick Allen, among others. Together Willie and Chris co-wrote and co-produced as many as nine songs, and Chris takes care of most of the instrumentation. Willie: “Everything on this project is new, also that Teddy Pendergrass song (It Don’t Hurt Now) we recorded this year.”

There are three mid-tempo toe-tappers, the opener Do What You Came to Do, the danceable Two Step and the erotic Get It In, produced by Daryl Cooper. More on the uptempo side there are Work That Body and the catchy I’m Looking for a Woman, which is included also as a remix featuring Tucka.

Of the six ballads, the romantic and atmospheric Don’t Wanna Be Alone was released as the lead single earlier this year, and, as Willie already mentioned, the Sherman Marshall and Ted Wortham song, It Don’t Hurt Now, was originally cut by Teddy Pendergrass in 1978. Same Girl is a melodic, almost poppy song with a lot of potential, while How You Feel has that smooth Ron Isley touch to it. The concluding song, Coming Back to You, is an emotional and truly soulful delivery and also Willie’s own favourite on the set.

“I put more up- and medium-tempo songs on this CD. We have some ballads like I Can’t Keep Loving You, but it’s not a super-slow song, and then you got Same Girl and Coming Back to You, but anyway this album’s got a lot of energy and a lot of feel-good songs.”

Considering that with Soul Caesar the total number of Willie’s albums with fresh new material is closing in on forty, one wonders how do those discs sell these days. “You don’t sell as many hard copies as you used to, because you don’t have as many record outlets. You have very few stores. Majority of the big outlets like Walmart, Best Buy and places like that only put a few CDs on their racks and that’s mostly country and rock music. R&B music there’s not much.”

“Majority of the albums that you get now is online – digital or streaming – but, other than that, you don’t have an outlet. There are only a few stores that sell hard copies. But there are still some fans, who love CDs, like collectors. And now vinyl is strong. We’ve even received some fan mail from people, who want to know are we going to put this on vinyl. But by the time you get vinyl pressed up, the whole project will be super-old, because vinyl takes long to get pressed up.”

These days Willie is strongly promoting his new CD, which means touring and performing mainly on his home turf and surrounding areas. “I live in Georgia, and besides Georgia I perform quite a bit in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. Hopefully next year we’ll tour around more. Due to the Covid situation you have to choose pretty much which way you can go and see where it’s safe.” In terms of authenticity and energy, Willie’s shows come with a seal of guarantee. “I’m old-school, and although we do some tracks, for the most we play with live bands. I have five pieces and back-up singers.”

LEON WRIGHT’S MAGICIAN BAND

Indeed, Willie Clayton is an old-school artist, who maintains the art and style of some of those most impressive classic soul singers. He has a magnificent and soulful voice, and he’s a prolific songwriter, not to mention his frequent visits to the recording studio. Willie was born on March the 29th in 1956 in Indianola, Mississippi, which is located between Memphis, TN, and Jackson, MS, and close to Greenville, MS, and has a population of close to 10,000 people. Albert King was born there as well, and B.B. King grew up there.

Willie was born to mother Rosie and father L.C., and altogether there were eleven children in the family. To be exact, Willie was born in a small village just outside Indianola. “That was countryside. I was no different from any other child in that area. My older siblings realised that I had a voice and that I could sing and they started taking me around where I could sing. So I’ve been singing practically all my life.”

“I was singing gospel in church, but when I heard Tyrone Davis and Johnnie Taylor, I was like ‘wow’. I remember the days of listening to Ted Taylor, Jimmy Hughes and people like that, and I just had a strong feeling for that type of music. It was really great to hear those songs come on the radio. And then Stax came along... and here comes Aretha Franklin, and I was like ‘oh my god!’ Then later I was the labelmate of the great Al Green, so I got a chance to be around greatness.”

Willie started singing in his older brother’s band at the ripe age of seven, and in the latter part of the 1960s he was the vocalist in Leon Wright’s Magician Band out of Greenville, Ms. Willie plays drums and harmonica. “I can also strum a few chords with a guitar and a few decent chords on piano, but I can really play drums. I played behind Albert King and Ernie Johnson and on the tracks of a lot of artists that I have produced.”

THAT’S WHAT MY DADDY DID

Willie’s voice can be heard on a record for the first time in 1969, when the uptempo That’s What My Daddy Did (backed with Falling in Love) by Willie “Pee Wee” Clayton and The Soul Blenders was released on Duplex 1202. “I played with the Soul Blenders behind Ernie Johnson. Most of the players came from Texas, but the trombone player came out of Greenville. The trumpet player was originally from Galveston, Texas, I think, the bass player and the guitar player were out of Dallas, Texas. I don’t remember now, where the keyboard player was from, but I was the drummer out of Mississippi.”

The song was written and co-produced by Jimmy Liggins, who was also the co-owner of Duplex Records out of El Dorado, Arkansas, together with Clarence Samuels. The label existed since the late 1950s for about 15 years, and also Ernie Johnson and Joe Liggins recorded for it. Jimmy Liggins (1918-83) was a bandleader and a guitarist and his best-known singles – Cadillac Boogie and Drunk - were cut for Specialty Records in the late 40s and early 50s. Joe Liggins was his older brother (1916-87), who played piano and was the leader of His “Honeydrippers”, named after his biggest hit in 1945. Ernie Johnson (b. in 1948) is a soul blues vocalist and guitarist, who especially in the early days was strongly influenced by Bobby Bland. Still active today, since the late 1960s he has released records on numerous labels, including Movin’, Ride, Duplex, Steph and Lee, Ronn, Waldoxy, Phat Sound and Starway Ent. Records.

“Like most of my older colleagues – like Tyrone Davis and Little Milton – that were born in Mississippi, we migrated to Chicago. Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed came out of Mississippi and ended up in Chicago. Jerry Butler left Sunflower County, the same county I come from, and went to Chicago, so the majority of the soul and blues greats that were born in Mississippi ended up in Chicago... and so did I.

I MUST BE LOSIN’ YOU

Willie moved to Chicago in 1971, and with the help of his sisters he auditioned for the owner of a club called the Burning Spear... and got the singing job, at the age of fifteen. Pervis Spannwas the owner of the club and he owned many other South Side clubs in Chicago as well. Born in Mississippi in 1932, he was also a well-known promoter and manager. “He was a radio disc jockey at WVON. He was my manager then and he introduced me to the great Willie Mitchell, the producer of Al Green, Ann Peebles, O.V. Wright and many others. Willie became my mentor and started producing me.”

Willie and Pervis travelled down to Memphis, where Willie Mitchell recorded ten songs on Willie Clayton and released six singles on him on Pawn, a subsidiary of Hi, between 1974 and ’76. You can find those recordings on two compilations: Pawn Stars! The Pawn Label Story (U.K., Hi; HILO 193; in 2003) and Hi Records Present Bobby McClure & Willie Clayton (HIUKCD 134; in 1992). Among funkier dancers there are a few fascinating mid-tempo songs – Hello How Have you been and Baby, You’re Ready – and beautiful, soulful ballads, such as Say Yes to Love, When I’m Gone and I Must Be Losin’ You. However, they didn’t appear on national charts. “Part of it could have been, because Al Green was the big artist and the main focus at Hi Records. He was the one, who was keeping the doors open. That’s where all the attention was placed.”

Willie became good friends especially with O.V. Wright and Otis Clay. “O.V. Wright was, in my opinion, if not the greatest singer, at least one of the greatest. He was definitely in the top five. He had so much soul. And Otis Clay was a great singer. As a matter of fact, I had the pleasure of working with them both quite a bit. I was on the road with Otis quite a bit, worked side by side. I can humbly say that it was great being around guys like that – that had all that soul.”

After the Memphis experience Willie returned to Chicago. “I was working, touring and studying, getting my craft together. Then I began recording myself. I produced and arranged music, and I always wanted to know what was going behind the scene as well as out front.” In the 1970s in Chicago Willie was working with such bands as the Unlimited first and then the Midnight Sun Band, and in the 80s still with the KAB’S.

ROCK YOU

Willie’s next record in Chicago in 1980 was a funky disco dancer called Rock You, which was released on Good Luck Records (GL-401). “The owner’s name was Lucky Cordell. He used to be a radio personality at WVON back in the day. He was a big boss there, so he formed a label.” Lucky Cordell (1928-2015) was also known as “The Prince of Bounce.” Did the single make any waves? “It was okay. It got played on some radio stations around Chicago and in clubs, but it didn’t make the phone ring for work” (laughing).

“But Living with You, but My Heart Is Somewhere Else did very well for me. It made the phone ring. It made promoters want to book me.” Living... is a passionately slow and a bit bluesy song, which Willie wrote and released on his own Sky Hero label (SHLP 41480) also in 1980 (b/w Dance and Shake Your Body).

Another of Willie’s own labels in the 1980s was called Kirstee. “Kirstee was my manager’s, the late Luther Terry’s, and my label and we did some wonderful things there. It was based out of Atlanta, Georgia.” The first single on that label in 1983 was called Where Has Love Gone (CH 1005; b/w Love Ya One More Time). This self-penned, slow and poignant song was produced by Clarence Ludd and arranged by Willie himself.

Between 1983 and ’87 Willie released altogether nine singles on Kirstee. Among them there was a wistful and memorable ballad called Running in and out of My Life, written by Andre Miller, Cornell Ward and Harold Currington and produced by General Crook. Other noteworthy songs include a dynamic beat-ballad named Your Sweetness, later covered by the Dells, and dancers like Love Pain and Turn you on. On Kirstee Willie also covered many well-known hits, too, such as Al Wilson’s Show and Tell, Gwen McCrae’s Rocking Chair, Johnnie Taylor’s We’re Getting Careless with Our Love, Z.Z. Hill’s How Do You Love Two and Tyrone DavisCan I Change My Mind. “We were basically trying to find our way.” Many of those Kirstee sides ended up also on Willie’s future albums.


TELL ME

In-between his Kirstee releases, Willie and his manager made a deal with Compleat Records out of Nashville, Tennessee. The first single was an intense soul ballad called Tell Me (CP-120), written and produced by General Crook. “It was a huge record.” Tell Me was the first nationally charted single for Willie (Billboard: #78-soul in early 1984), and later Willie has re-recorded the song more than once.

The second Compleat single was as impressive as the debut one. Again, produced by General Crook, both ballad sides – What a Way to Put It and So Tied Up (CP-124) – were co-written by Sam Dees, and in the summer of 1984 the single peaked at #84-soul in Billboard. Sam had released So Tied up on his debut album called The Show Must Go on nine years earlier, and Willie’s version was still re-released on Ichiban in 1996. What a Way to Put It had also appeared on the Temptations’ Surface Thrills album in 1983. “I’ve never met Sam Dees, but I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with him several times. Last that I heard was that he was living overseas.”

Another off-Kirstee project was a slow swayer called Happy in 1985. It was first released on Big City (B.C. 2424) and later on Nuance (NU-753) out of Chicago, under the title of Happy Time. “Big City was my label and I wrote I’m So Happy. Nuance was the distributor, and that didn’t last long. I took it back. Malaco later leased it on Johnnie Taylor.” The song appeared on Johnnie’s Lover Boy album in 1987.

Willie’s first ever album titled Forever was released in the U.K. in 1988 and it consisted of some of his earlier Kirstee tracks – Your Sweetness, Can I Change My Mind, Rocking Chair – as well as new Kirstee recordings cut at River North and Tanglewood Studios in Chicago. Produced by Willie and Jimmy Sims, Rock and Hold You Baby is Willie’s own busy and soulful ballad, whereas the smooth Special Lady was written by Andre Miller and Cornell Ward, as well as the slow Make Me Yours Forever. The two toe-tappers are covers of Josie Armstead’s Stone Good Lover (1968) and Al Green’s One Night Stand (1974). “I came to do a promotion tour. I did several cities in England, Wales and Scotland. I came there for two weeks and I ended up being there for eight weeks. Thanks to Timeless for that.”  Willie has toured also some other European countries, but unfortunately his Japan tour was cancelled.


NEVER TOO LATE

In the United States, Willie’s first album titled Never Too Late – by Will (!) Clayton - was released one year later on Polydor. “Polydor had a different setof producers out of New York and they acquired quite a bit of uptempo music for me. That album was geared more towards straight R&B uptempo, not soul and blues.” Recorded in New York and produced by Lionel Job and Claytoven, there were four slow songs and six mid-tempo beaters and uptempo dancers on the set. The mid-tempo title tune hit Billboard’s “Hot Black Singles” charts in early 1989 and reached # 52, whereas the similar Tell Me peaked at #74 in the fall of ’89. This Tell Me song was written by Claytoven and Jon Bendich, so it’s a different song from Willie’s Compleat single five years earlier. The cream cut, a soulful duet with Audrey Wheeler on a majestic ballad named I Wanna Be Where You Are, climbed up to #62 at the end of the year. “That’s a great song.”

Willie’s next album in 1992 appeared on Kirstee and out of the twelve songs Willie wrote or co-wrote as many as seven. His co-producers on this project titled Feels Like Love were Paul Richmond and Jim Sims. The title tune inevitably brings Tyrone Davis’ music to your mind, and actually Willie does a creditable cover of Tyrone’s In the Mood hit, and equally creditable and deep reading of A Woman Needs to Be Loved, which Tyrone cut in 1969. “Tyrone was like a big brother to me. It was great working with him. I also produced him. I wrote for him, and before he passed we did an album, which was called The Legendary Hall of Famer. It never really got out, and then Tyrone got sick. He was signed to my label. You idolize this guy and then you end up producing him.” The Legendary CD was released on EndZone in 2004, and Tyrone passed in February 2005.

Bobby Bland is another inspiration on this album, as Willie sings a devoted version of I’ll Take Care of You, and also the slow How Do You Love Two has a lot of the “Blue” feeling to it. A nice dancer named Dear Lover and three intense ballads – Show Me, Do to you and Leavin’ Me (the Independents in 1973) – round up this high-class album.

Interestingly, Ichiban Records released the same year a similarly titled album but with only nine tracks on it and with only two songs that appeared on both CDs, Feels Like Loveand Dear Lover. “Ichiban was just the distributor. They never owned those masters.” Among those tracks that were compiled from the Kirstee catalogue there were some goodies, such as Willie’s versions of David Ruffin’s number one hit, Walk away from Love, and Bobby Womack’s #2 soul hit, That’s the Way I Feel about You and the smooth Missing U.

Similarly in the U.K., About Time Records released in 1992 a 14-track compilation titled Open the Door, also drawn from the Kirstee material. Half of those tracks appear also on the Feels like Love album on Kirstee.

However, many classic soul music lovers consider that Willie’s peak period was still ahead. Next he hooked up with Johnny Vincent of Ace Records out of Jackson, Mississippi.

www.willieclayton.net

Interview conducted on October 14 in 2021;

Sources: Juke Blues #38 (1997), In the Basement #10 (Dave Thomas in 1998) and David Whiteis’ book Southern Soul-Blues (2013)

ALBUM DISCOGRAPHY


FOREVER (Timeless, U.K., TRPL 127) 1988

Your Sweetness / Rock And Hold You Baby / Special Lady / Stone Good Lover // Can I Change My Mind / Make Me Yours Forever / Rocking Chair / One Night Stand

NEVER TOO LATE (Polydor 422 839 935-1) 1989

Tell Me / Baby Don’t You Know / I Wanna Be Where You Are / I Won’t Dis Your Love / Did You Ever Love Somebody // Overdosed (On Love) / Never Too Late / Say You Love Me Still / Try Me / You And Me Girl

FEELS LIKE LOVE (Kirstee, KR 102) 1992

Let Me Love You / Feels Like Love / In The Mood / Leavin’ Me / I’ll Take Care Of You / Happy / Dear Lover / Show Me / A Woman Needs To Be Loved / Stone Good Lover / Do To You / How Do You Love Two

FEELS LIKE LOVE (Ichiban, ICH 1155) 1992

Walk Away From Love / Missing U / Make Me Yours / Suspended Animation / That’s The Way I Feel About You / Feels Like Love / Special Lady / Dear Lover / Your Sweetness

OPEN THE DOOR (About Time, U.K., AT CD-020) 1992

Open The Door / What A Way To Put It / Show Me / Where Has Love Gone / Love Pains / In The Mood / Dear Lover / Tell Me / A Woman Needs To Be Loved / Best Years Of My Life / Show & Tell / Do To You / Leavin’ Me / So Tied Up

© Heikki Suosalo


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