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DOWN BEAT 131; MAY, 1948

 
 

 

In 2013 the Oscar for Best Documentary went to a film about rock ‘n’ roll entitled Twenty Feet From Stardom which focused on some extremely talented female vocalists who made their living predominantly singing background for other artists. The names of Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, et. all should have already been universally known among rock fans but of course as we’ve said before what should be and what is are rarely the same thing and so for many this was the public’s introduction to them and their work.

Aside from the individual stories of these ladies being compelling enough to form the basis of a movie there is something poignant about the idea of anybody being considered among the very best at what they do, in a field that has no shortage of celebrity to go around, without ever quite getting the individual acclaim that their talents warrant.

Clarence Samuels wasn’t a background singer, nor for that matter was he as talented a vocalist as any of the women featured in the film, but more than most Samuels would’ve surely understood the feeling of coming so close to stardom as a singer without ever actually achieving it to the extent that all aspiring artists dream about.
 

 

When I First Came To The City
The last time we saw the enigmatic Clarence Samuels he was nearly the victim of an angry husband’s vengeance after he had been mistaken for another man who’d been sleeping with this guy’s wife.

That the other man in question was Roy Brown, the founder of rock ‘n’ roll with whom Samuels had briefly performed as a headlining duo at The Down Beat Club back in New Orleans at the same time Roy was presumably taking this lady for a whirl every night, makes the accusation leveled on him seem all the more unfair on the surface, especially since Roy and the lady in question probably hadn’t been including poor Clarence in any threesomes.

But in fact Samuels was hardly an innocent bystander in all of this since the reason he was targeted by the enraged husband was that Samuels was guilty of impersonating Brown after Roy had scored with Good Rocking Tonight and Aristocrat Records A&R chief Sammy Goldberg had signed Samuels to have him cover two of Brown’s songs and then sent him to California to appear AS Roy Brown to dupe unsuspecting customers. If he indeed was to meet an ignominious end because of this duplicity he’d have no one to blame but himself.

Luckily his life was spared when the woman intervened and said this wasn’t the Roy Brown with whom she’d gotten it on with back in The Crescent City, but needless to say Samuels might’ve thought twice about impersonating Roy Brown or anybody else for awhile after that close shave.

But it’s hard to envision him being exactly grateful for escaping without receiving a bellyful of lead, after all, pretending to be someone to make a few bucks by singing was hardly a capital offense. Making it even more galling for Samuels was the fact that he legitimately felt that he’d been the one to give Brown his first break by agreeing to pair up with him at this club when Brown was in need of work, who shared a room – and by some accounts shared clothes – with Roy when they lived together briefly.

C’mon, are we SURE that Brown and Samuels didn’t also share this young lady’s sexual favors?

When Brown got a recording deal with DeLuxe, Samuels got nothing, not even a sniff, something he couldn’t understand since it was he who was the headliner at the club, not Roy. But that would wind up being the story of Samuels’s entire life and career, always just out of reach of the brass ring, damned for eternity to remain twenty feet from stardom.

But while he may have just missed out on being the first of them to get a chance to make his mark on record, Samuels didn’t lack for opportunities after that, even if all of those opportunities came up short, at least commercially. Since his Aristocrat deal had only called for him doing one session he was already a free agent and when Sammy Goldberg, the perpetrator of all these shenanigans, left that label and joined a one of the many Los Angeles’s based indie companies as a talent scout not long after he naturally convinced Clarence Samuels to come with him. The label ironically enough was called Down Beat Records, the same name of the club he’d once reigned at, and it was here he first made an effort to stand out under his own name.
 

I Can’t Even Pay My Rent
There was a certain folly in Samuels trying to ride the coattails of Roy Brown to begin with, for while the type of music they sang – rock ‘n’ roll – was the same, the way they sang it was completely different.

Brown had a dynamic tenor voice, exquisite phrasing, lots of emotional shadings and a distinct style that drew heavily from gospel to put across what were decidedly sinful topics.

Samuels had the sinful topics part down pat, but he was baritone shouter not prone to relying on subtlety, nuance or even downshifting out of top gear when heading into the turns of a song.

Maybe the best way to put it is Roy Brown was more of an artist while Clarence Samuels was more of a laborer.

But there’s plenty of work to be had for laborers if they’re willing to take jobs that are rarely glamorous and require you to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty and luckily Clarence Samuels didn’t seem to have a problem doing that. What he’d tend to have issues with was usually everything else.

For someone who was at best just a reasonably effective singer Samuels would always be in need of more help than most if he wanted to succeed on the job. The fact he was a songwriter himself didn’t hurt, as that’d mean he’d be able to craft material to best suit his persona and stylistic approach, but he’d still need sympathetic producers/arrangers and a backing band that knew how to mask his weaknesses while bolstering his strengths. Considering he would bounce from one label to another, and thus one producer to another, one arranger to another and one group of musicians to another… well, I’m sure you can see how he’d be lacking consistency if nothing else.

But Down Beat, while never a huge operation, was a well run organization that prided itself on recruiting high quality musicians from the cream of the L.A. scene. This often included the incomparable Maxwell Davis on sax who doubled as the arranger and de facto producer before such titles were handed out freely. We don’t know for sure if Davis is involved with this but if not him then it’s someone with a firm command of the studio as Household Troubles is hardly lacking in any of the essential components it needs to get noticed.
 

Please Loan Me Fifty Cents
The horns that form the primary backing are strong and assured in what they play and they’re backed by drums which assert themselves with authority, something which bodes well for someone like Samuels who has a tendency to be a vocal wrecking ball at times with his boisterous full-bodied voice.

There’s a necessary simplicity to the arrangement, a sign that someone involved understood that what Samuels required was a driving track shorn of needless flourishes that could trip him up. That’s the rather basic game plan with Household Troubles: keep things moving, cut out anything not contributing to that very specific goal and then step out of the way and let Samuels try and steer this song the best he can without giving him too much freedom where can easily lose control.

They manage to accomplish that, their playing churning effortlessly behind him, then pausing, almost as if suspending themselves in the air before coming back down to earth and starting each refrain over again.

That pause is really the trick which keeps it all together, giving Samuels a chance to catch his breath rather than race to keep up and get them all tangled in knots if he falls behind or steps on the gas too much in order to try and get back in sync. It also provides momentary respite for the listener who can get their bearings before jumping back in on the next line, a judicious hesitation move that gives you just enough space not to be overwhelmed with too much piling up around you.

If there’s one complaint to be found in the playing it occurs when Samuels steps out of the picture altogether and the musicians, perhaps feeling this is their chance to flex their creative muscles just a bit, wind up clashing ever so slightly by playing dueling lines with the lead sax playing one thing while the others keep grooving in another pattern. Each pulls it in a different direction and rather than compliment each other, as it might’ve if the sax was to take on a rougher tone and cut short its lines, they allow your attention to wander by not staying focused enough.

But thankfully there’s Clarence Samuels to pull your focus back on him.
 

Gimmie My Keys
Yeah, you read that right. The strongest cards in this hand undoubtedly belong to Clarence Samuels… in two ways actually since he is responsible for both of the best aspects of Household Troubles the song as written and his singing of it, each of which show him to have a good grasp on what he needs to do.

The song’s theme is fairly obvious and also fairly universal for a lot of the slightly older listeners in the rock audience (and remember, at the time rock acts were not entirely sure of who out there was listening, as their own experiences in clubs would suggest they were adults already married and working a job or two trying to make ends meet rather than the slightly younger listeners that was fueling rock’s rise).

Samuels’ troubles are financial in nature, and in fact it’s the ONLY trouble that he speaks of, there’s no female companionship issues, or drinking problems, or bitching about too many early morning wake-up calls for work after too much late night revelry. Nope, he’s got just one complaint and that’s a lack of rent money which finds him about to be thrown out in the street.

In another apt metaphor for his life it seems he’s just fifty cents short. (FWIW the rent is just $7.75 a month and while I understand we have inflation to consider that still seems like a reasonable amount for someone to ask for a room, so maybe those other “unspoken” travails are what’s keeping our friend Clarence from ever having that last half dollar to pony up). In any event the landlord is not having any of his excuses and is demanding payment.

The premise itself is very straightforward and though there’s absolutely no twists and turns in the plot – we never do find out whether he’ll get to stay or not – the picture he paints is very vibrant nonetheless. He’s trying to bum the fifty cents off his buddy whom he’d helped to get situated when he got to town (hmm, could this be autobiographical and the “buddy” is a stand-in for Roy Brown, whom Samuels felt resentment over for helping out and then… well, you know the rest) and of course the buddy is probably either claiming poverty himself or pretending not to know poor Clarence. The landlord is no more sympathetic than his friend was and by the end of the song he’s surely on his hands and knees looking in the couch cushions and under the radiator for some loose change to get him over the hump and stave off the eviction another month.

As always Samuels sings this with all he’s got and for once his robust voice is perfectly judged, not too rambunctious for the backing music or for the story he’s entrusted to convey. He’ll never be mistaken for a more nuanced stylist, but on Household Troubles his powerful pipes are exactly what are called for and he never tries to do too much with them just to show off. His best passage has him rising up and up before dropping back down quite unexpectedly to deliver a line that mixes indignation with resignation, something which indicates he wasn’t simply the bull in the china shop vocalist he sometimes seemed to be in lesser songs. When he closes the whole thing out by letting his voice echo down the hallway, pleading with his pal Charlie to loan him the last fifty cents, you can actually envision him standing there in frustration as the landlord closes his apartment door behind him, locking him out, not even giving him a toothbrush or change of clothes to take with him.
 

Paid Up
Solid though this may be it’s a song with limited prospects from the get-go. Records like this could conceivably become minor hits in one or two areas of the country where the label’s distribution was strong and the singer forged some sort of connection with local audiences by playing regularly at nearby clubs, but it just didn’t have the kind of uniqueness, or the kind of top flight talents stretching out, to stop you in your tracks and make you seek out the artist and buy the record for yourself.

This was just a meat and potatoes type of effort, something that makes for a filling meal but nothing to charge top dollar for at a restaurant (not that he could afford to eat there anyway by the sounds of it).

Though Household Troubles might not have what it took to be a hit it definitely put Samuels back on the right track and gave him an identity of his own to build upon in the future. Unfortunately the type of singer he was meant there wasn’t a lot of places to take this without shaking up the arrangements… like say with some female backing singers, but since that development was still for the most part a few years away from becoming established in rock, Samuels would always be reliant on finding competent support in the control room and on the studio floor at his next stop… and the next one after that… just to break even.

Such is the life of a transient singer, never a star, maybe a heckuva lot further than just twenty feet away from ever becoming a star to tell the truth, but someone who gamely stuck it out for decades and for whom releasing an average record for its day was about the biggest compliment they were likely to receive.

But a compliment, no matter how modest it may be, is still a compliment, so in that spirit, well done, Clarence.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Clarence Samuels for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)