Happy Freaky Birthday and Valentine's Day, Blowfly, an American Original
Happy Blowfly Day.
75 years ago, in the backwoods of Vienna, Georgia, Clarence Henry Reid was born at the farm where his family sharecropped. The odds that scrawny, cantankerous, foul-mouthed "Junior" would escape those humble beginnings were staggering. The music world can thank his mother, Annie, for moving to Florida alone in the early '50s in search of a better life. She inspired her middle-school aged mama's boy to run away from grandma's house and KKK-enforced institutional poverty to join her in West Palm Beach and discover his natural gift for harmony while washing dishes after school at Morrison's Cafeteria.
Many thousands of words have been written about the dual personality of Clarence Reid and Blowfly in these digital pages, plenty of them by me in a cover story I wrote in 2003, that led to my ongoing partnership with him. A two volume tome could easily be filled about the details of his career, so I will just skim the history here for context. Clarence met Henry Stone of Tone Distribution around 1961. In the era of the independent labels, Tone was instrumental in breaking hits via their relationships with prominent DJ's like Carleton "King" Coleman and Milton "Butterball" Smith.
King, for instance, broke Jerry Butler's "Your Precious Love" by playing it for 12 hours in a row on WMBM and creating a sensation. In turn, thanks to a disagreement between James Brown and his label, King Records, Stone had a smash hit on his "Dade Records" imprint with "Do the Mashed Potatoes" with James Brown's Famous Flames backing up King Coleman under the name "Nat Kendrick & The Swans."
Stone had the connections and the clout to make hits. Young Clarence Reid was handsome, had the voice of an angel and an unparalleled gift for songwriting. It should have been the basis for an immediate string of smash hits. Alas, Stone was cheap, and only applied promotional heat to songs that passed his local release test. Reid's first single for Stone, "Like White On Rice," did not meet that criteria. Clarence grew impatient and frustrated by the lack of success of his local singles, and spent the middle part of the decade bouncing between New York where he cut the Northern Soul classic "I'm Your Yes Man" and Nashville, where he released a few singles for Dial Records that didn't do much better.
On his return to Miami, Reid found his most successful niche-writing hits for young women. He discovered a 12-year-old Betty Wright and signed her to his fledgling Deep City label that he founded with producer Willie Clarke. After a couple years at Deep City, brought her to Stone and had a smash hit in 1968 with "Girls Can't Do What The Guys Do." When he presented the follow-up "Don't Let the Good Girls Go Bad," Stone's partner Steve Alaimo wasn't impressed, so Reid used another local precocious school girl named Della Humphrey, took the tune to Philadelphia's Arctic Records and had a top 20 R&B hit. This managed to get Stone and Alaimo's attention and they did what they could to keep Reid in Miami, writing hits for them.
This strategy paid off big time in the form of two all time soul classics: Betty Wright's "Clean Up Woman" and Gwen McCrae's "Rocking Chair." Every single artist that made it big during the "Miami Sound" era had their first tune penned by Reid, including KC & the Sunshine Band who were introduced to Junkanoo music at Reid's wedding and first hit with Reid's "Sound Your Funky Horn." Clarence Reid is not a purveyor of the "Miami Sound." Clarence Reid IS the "Miami Sound."
In 1969, Clarence had his lone solo hit, "Nobody But You Babe" - which, in true Clarence/Stone fashion -- rotted on the shelf for a couple years until Stone heard the Isley Brothers' similar-sounding anthem "It's your Thing" and smelled a hit.
After "Nobody But You Babe" made the rounds and hit the pop charts, Reid couldn't get Stone to get another song off the ground with his name on it. So he used pseudonyms. Many great songs are on singles by with nom de guerres like "The Funky Party Band," but nothing broke out of South Florida with Reid's vocals on it until Stone overheard Reid's childhood penchant for writing dirty parodies in 1971 and ordered him into the studio. Stone did not "invent Blowfly." The Blowfly character had been established for decades. However, if he hadn't heard Clarence sing "Shittin Off The Dock Of The Bay," The Weird World of Blowfly LP wouldn't have come into the world. And for that, everyone with a funny bone owes Stone a debt of gratitude.
If ever there was a "Party Record" -- The Weird World of Blowfly is it. Juvenile, profanely hilarious and recorded in a time where you could go to jail for singing about what happens to your bodily fluids, the album is an all time classic. Despite being technically illegal due to both obscenity standards and parody laws, the Weird World of Blowfly sold by the truckload, and inspired 8 follow-up full lengths in 10 years. The records had a huge cross-section of fans. Thanks to the loosening of the moral code, sexual content was hip: the freakier, the better. And no one is as freaky as Blowfly.
With his dirty superhero alter-ego in place, Clarence began putting in elements of "Soul Talking" in his records, much to the chagrin of Stone. While "Rap Dirty" is Blowfly's standard, and his greatest contribution to rap music, Reid rapped on records as early as 1976 on Blowfly Disco's lead track "Shake Your Ass." This absolutely murders NY-centric hip-hop historical biases that insist that the direct lineage of hip hop is Jamaican Sound Systems-Bronx parks. Also murdering this assertion, is the Furious 5's acknowledgement of Blowfly's influence.
Despite the rise of Rap music in the '80s, a genre he helped bring about, Reid's fortune was tied to TK/Disco -- and they went belly up in 1982. With no support system in place, Reid wound up on booty label Pandisc and recorded 11 albums of wildly different production values, occasionally working in the warehouse stacking records to make ends meet, a return to his first job at Tone, 20 years previous.
It was at the tail end of this stage of his career, in 2003 -- 12 years removed from his last "comeback" - that I interviewed Clarence at a recording studio in Hialeah for this publication. He remembered me from a show in Chicago two years previous when I shouted a bunch of tunes Fishbone couldn't be bothered to learn/he was too lazy to teach them. Two hours later, I asked him why he hadn't played a show in Miami in 20 years.
"I don't have a band down here," he lamented
"Want one?" I asked.
Six months later, we played my bachelor party. Eighteen months later, we had an album in the can, Fahrenheit 69, the first Blowfly record containing new material in 17 years. Six months after that, we were on the road. Now we're 4 albums, 300 North American dates, 3 European tours, 2 Australian tours, and a movie (2010's The Weird World Of Blowfly) into our partnership.
Yesterday, I booked the first Blowfly show ever in Latin America and Blowfly made his debut on the Fusion network, giving Valentine's Day advice. It's been a very wild ride with more ups and downs than a broken roller coaster - and I wouldn't trade my time in Blowfly's Weird World for anything. He is an American original and one of the true greats of both the 20th and the 21st centuries.
Next Tuesday, Blowfly's 75th birthday will be celebrated at Blackbird Ordinary. Admission is free, as are drinks for ladies. A cake will be presented. Do the right thing, and show up to help him blow out the candles.
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