August 21st, 2009 | Interviews

joe mcgarry

Stream: Chris Clark “Love’s Gone Bad”


(from Soul Sounds out now on Reel Sound)

A strikingly elegant pop-blues singer of Amazonian build, Chris Clark bade fair to be Motown’s premature answer to Dusty Springfield with release of Soul Sounds in 1967. A clutch of tunes mostly written by Motown prez Berry Gordy and the powerhouse triumvirate of Holland-Dozier-Holland provided context for this early venture into what would become “Northern Soul,” but the real attraction here is Ms. Clark’s limber and dazzling voice. Ms. Clark (who owns shyness the same way other performers revel in brass and P.R.) will be performing at Sunset Junction on Sunday, which is as good a pretext as any to talk to a new-minted legend. This interview by Ron Garmon.

Ms. Clark?
Chris will be fine. I have to say being interviewed is not my strong suit. I’m more than a little on the shy side.
The story in the liners about your abortive big break of meeting Jon Hall [ex-silver screen idol known for his Tarzan knockoffs] that turned into a domestic brawl is a riot!
I knew him from Romar of the Jungle. It was my first Hollywood experience and the first wife ever to throw me out of the house! It’s good to get these things out of the way early on.
The U.K. press dubbed you ‘the white Negress.’ What did you think of this proto un-PC tribute?
You know what? I never considered it backhanded as much as ‘What a British thing to say!’ I was doing a radio interview with a show in Birmingham, Alabama, and there were like two or three guys as well as the interviewer, all making comments. Everything was going fine until I mentioned the phrase ‘white Negress’ and everything went dead quiet and I couldn’t figure out what happened! If I’d been there, I’d have asked, ‘What’s up?’ But as it was, there was an uncomfortable silence and I couldn’t figure out why. Later on, one of the guys told me that my voice went down and they’d heard me say ‘the white N-word!’
Oh, no! Now suddenly they think you’re Norman Mailer!
‘OH MY GOD, WHAT?’ I thought! I heard a couple of months later that the FCC was called in!
I like how—when underage—you pretended to be older and were able to navigate that whole male-dominated sex-mad scene of the early and mid-1960s.
I was singing in nightclubs at fifteen! I was so glad I did it at that age. When I was so young, I wasn’t as susceptible to those things and I was out on the road in nightclubs and ladies of a certain age—say thirty-five or forty and working clubs—got passed around. It was really, really horrible. I was cheeky, too. I’d say things like, ‘Don’t shake the tree if you can’t handle my peaches!’ I hadn’t even been kissing boys or holding hands, so it was a joke. I jumped one whole stage of development and it didn’t make it all that much fun to the people I got closer to later!
And Berry Gordy didn’t want a white girl at Motown…
No. It was just a weird circumstance of personality, I think. Because I was very, very focused on a career, it happened. It was a case of holding on to his foot until he said, ‘Yes.’ I just wanted to sing so much, I would’ve sung anything to get on stage.
Hawaiian music?
Yeah! I’d have sung of my little grass skirt! I still can’t believe it. I mean—I just get up on any stage they’d let me on.
There was some backlash among R&B DJs over Soul Sounds.
I kinda later found that out later. I think the problem was when it was released, no one said I was white so the assumption was I wasn’t—which made them feel tricked. For whatever backlash there was. It’s very easy to say ‘backlash’ when your record doesn’t sell, so I try to avoid that.
You say in the notes you never had much rapport with other women. This extends to female performers as well, I take it?
Right. Well, Brenda Holloway and Gloria Jones—those are my girls. I just wasn’t around many others very much. Before I came to Motown, I was the girl singer in a band and none of the other girls wanted to be around me and the wives all hated me, which was understandable. I was a tomboy, y’know, and wasn’t raised around other girls.
Tell us about your second album, which is also a vinyl rarity.
For good reason! I think my mom papered her wall with it.
It was your rock album, right?
They were shooting for a kind of underground hippie thing. Deke Richardson produced it, who’s really a good producer. It’s weird. I’m going over to the U.K. later this year and this promoter wants me to sing ‘Spinning Wheel,’ which is on that album. I said, ‘What?’
Is that the old Blood, Sweat and Tears song?
I dunno. How does that one go?
‘Whut go-oes up/Mu-hust come down…’
That’s it! I kept saying, ‘Are they sure?’
You should totally do that song at Sunset Junction!
Oh! I have no real sense of what people like in the States. My sense is that they couldn’t give me away over here. I’ve never been to Sunset Junction and I don’t think I’ve seen in America five people in a room who know me.
The Junction is about the best audience I’ve ever seen for old-timey R&B.
I beg your goddamned pardon!
I saw the O’Jays lay ‘em in the street!
They’re better known than I am!
How did you wind up co-writing Lady Sings the Blues?
Berry had started working on it and I was taking a break up at Big Sur. He called me and said he was doing a movie about my girl—Billie Holiday. He let me read the script and I didn’t like it. I thought it might have embarrassed us out in the street and he said re-write it. I said that I’d never done that, so it was like a little game. I wrote the last scene the day they shot it. Midway through, the director Sidney J. Furie wanted to know the ending and Berry told him I didn’t have one!
Ha! You rattled a total pro like Furie, a man who’ll no doubt direct three movies after his own funeral! What was your later time at Motown like?
I cut a jazz thing and was working with Motown Productions and, while I was doing that, I met my husband and left in 1982. When he died, I came back into that realm of association.
As any shy person would do, you stuck with the tried and true. Are you still on fire to perform?
You know, I hadn’t realized I was until I was drug out. I found out about my anthology being released by accident! I was on the web looking for some artwork of mine and found it. About three weeks later I was called for a European tour for some gigs in the U.K. Suddenly I was back on the road opening for the Temptations and the Four Tops. It went great! We played the Albert Hall. I absolutely loved it! I am on such fire to do this!
What’s next after the Junction?
I’m going to the U.K. with the Funk Bros. and Brenda Holloway and Thelma Houston in November. I’m also going to do something in conjunction with my artwork. Berry taught me how to use a camera, so I went up to the woods and did a series of double exposures. Berry loved them, so he got me a computer and darkroom and sent me up in the hills for four years and he commissioned a whole thing on Motown artists and opened up the archives for me. If you join a younger picture of an artist and an older one, they seem to kind of speak to itself. You can see some of them at When there’s no more call for ninety-year-old white ladies on the road, I can always become an artist! People tell me I’ve had an interesting life. Well, I hope that’s not the end of it!