The Tar Heel State has produced some of the world's greatest African-American musicians: Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, Etta Baker, Max Roach and ... Judy Clay?
If the name of this North Carolina native doesn't ring a bell, you've almost certainly heard her voice. That's Judy Clay singing backup on Van Morrison's "Moondance." And on John Prine's "Sweet Revenge." And on Aretha Franklin's "Until You Come Back to Me."
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" (1969).
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 always eluded her in life.