Clarence Reid, one of the seminal figures in the evolution of the “Miami Sound” with his sweet soul hits in the ’70s for Betty Wright and Gwen McCrae and his own 1969 Top 40 hit, Nobody But You Babe, shared a commonality with another iconic chameleon in popular music who also lost his battle with cancer last week.
Like David Bowie, Reid, born on Valentine’s Day 1939 in Georgia, was a musical chameleon in the image makeover department. But Reid, who died of liver cancer in a Miami hospice on Sunday at age 76, stopped at just two personas: There was the kindly, gentle songwriter who gave Wright her enduring 1971 smash, Clean Up Woman, and McCrae her Rockin’ Chair in 1975, and who proved instrumental in starting the early career of songwriter/musician Harry Wayne Casey, aka the KC of the Sunshine Band.
Then there was the decidedly filthier alter ego, Blowfly, the cult star who released a series of scatological, X-rated party records with parodies of popular songs that led to lawsuits and helped spawn rap.
Among the most infamous was his spin on Otis Redding’s Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay, which, with an added ‘h’ to the verb, led Redding’s widow to try and sue him for copyright infringement until the good-natured Reid flashed a picture taken of himself, in his garish Blowfly garb, with Redding. Redding, Reid claimed, loved the blue version of his tune.
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In Blowfly style, the oft-recorded What a Diff’rence a Day Makes, popularized by jazz singer Dinah Washington, turned into What a Difference a Lay Makes. Larry Flynt, of Hustler magazine fame, was a fan and thrust Blowfly into the pages of his porn mag. But the original English lyrics composer, Stanley Adams, then president of the ASCAP publishing giant, wasn’t so amused. He sued for copyright infringement and it cost Reid about $40,000.
Reid’s own catalog wasn’t immune from Blowfly’s naughty tweaking when, on the 1980 Blowfly’s Party LP, his 1969 hit became Nobody’s Butt but Yours Babe.
“Without Blowfly, there would be no Luther Campbell,” Campbell, founder of Miami’s 2 Live Crew (As Nasty As They Wanna Be), said in a 2004 Miami Herald story.
And without Reid, there would be no TK Records, the former made-in-Miami label powerhouse that gave the American Bicentennial much of its soundtrack thanks to smash pop and R&B hits from KC and the Sunshine Band, George and Gwen McCrae, Timmy Thomas and Wright, says TK co-founder (with the late Henry Stone) and its vice president, music producer Steve Alaimo.
“He brought in half the artists: George, Gwen, Betty, KC. I never thought he got the credit he should have,” Alaimo said. “Forget the Blowfly. That was an interesting part of his life but he was a hell of a songwriter, a hell of a guy. He never drank. He never smoked. He was a rogue, a rebel, but he was the best. Betty, Casey and myself, we’re all shook up.”
Indeed, Casey said last week when Reid entered hospice. “It was Clarence who gave me that chance to be a writer and he wrote the first single I ever recorded. It was the B-side to my very first record, Blow Your Whistle, then he co-wrote Sound Your Funky Horn with me. He was one of my biggest supporters at TK. He is the kindest person you will ever meet.”
Reid was the second born of a family that grew to 14. By the time he was 10, in Vienna, Georgia, he was being raised by his grandparents on “soul food and hillbilly music.” He was a fan of country singer Tex Ritter. When his grandfather died, he quit school to work on the family’s cotton farm. There, while tending to the cows, mules and horses, he began twisting the country songs he heard into pre-Blowfly creations.
“I would take clean songs and make them dirty. The white girls would love it,” he told the Herald in 2004. Hip-hop and rock stars like Snoop Dogg and Flea, from Red Hot Chili Peppers, cite him as an influence.
“He was always a joker, and he would always say nasty little things,” his mother Annie Lee Collins said in a 1999 Herald profile. “He was saying bad things by the time he was 4. That’s why, to this day, I am always praying for that boy of mine.”
His grandmother, Lucinda Bryant, unwittingly gave the child the name he would use for most of his adult career when he tried some of his early creations on her. “You are so nasty. You are no better than a blowfly,” she charged.
“It wasn’t until later on that I found out a blowfly is a nasty, stinky thing that lays eggs on dead things,” Reid, a Christian who could easily recite most of the 150 Psalms from the Bible, told the Herald.
At about 12, Reid moved to West Palm Beach. He found schooling, for a while, about 60 miles south in Miami: Booker T. Washington High School. Later, he became staff songwriter for Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall’s Deep City Records in Liberty City and, with Clarke, co-wrote Wright’s first hit, Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do, in 1968. Beyoncé and Jay-Z sampled the tune for her Upgrade U track in 2006.
At Booker T., he made one of his first best friends, Sam Moore, the Soul Man from the legendary R&B duo Sam & Dave.
“When I was living on 15th Street and Third Avenue in Overtown Clarence and I went to school together and Clarence got into writing songs at that time,” Moore said Monday from Liberty City where he was to participate in the Martin Luther King Jr. parade on a Florida International University float with his wife, Joyce.
“I never knew his family because Clarence was always by himself. In the morning time Clarence would be out on my front porch, lying on the couch, asleep and my mother would say, ‘Clarence is out there.’ He would get up, wash his face, maybe, put water in his hair and we would go to school, that’s how close we were,” Moore said. “He was the sweetest, so nice, he wouldn’t harm a soul, wouldn’t hurt a fly. I’m so sad because my peers are gone. I’m here and now Clarence is gone. I’m the last. You know what? I ain’t going to forget him.”
He was the sweetest.…I’m so sad because my peers are gone. I’m here and now Clarence is gone. I’m the last. You know what? I ain’t going to forget him.
Singer Sam Moore on Clarence Reid.
Joyce Moore’s nonprofit, The Soul, Arts and Music Foundation, which promotes music education and history among inner city youths, will honor her husband later this year with a benefit concert in Miami but Reid’s memory may also figure in the program, she said. “We’re losing our culture, we’re losing the legacy, we’re losing the things that hold us all together.”
Reid is survived by four children, two sisters, six brothers and four grandchildren.