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'Fly Unzipped

The sun is setting on the 17th-annual Fort Lauderdale Blues Festival, and funk legend/rap innovator Clarence Reid, a.k.a. Blowfly, is pacing backstage. The lithe, six-foot-one, 58-year-old Reid has spent the afternoon waiting for Solomon Burke, the 400-pound, 62-year-old "King of Rock and Soul." Burke is headlining the festival and allegedly interested in recording one of Reid's songs. At 6:15, Burke pulls up in a Lincoln Town Car. After holding court from the passenger seat for a few minutes, the bluesman bellows, "Where's Blowfly?!"

Reid ambles over to Burke's car in a hip-swinging stride that defines the term pimp walk. The two men shake hands through the car window.

"You got a song for me?" Burke inquires.

"Nah, man, I'm just here to..."

"Blowfly!" Chris Chavez, Reid's short, slender, 30-ish guitarist, pokes him in the ribs. "Sing the song you wrote for Solomon!"

"Oh, right!" Reid closes his eyes and belts out a gorgeous tune about computer love. Burke's eyes grow large as Reid's sweet tenor makes downloading "your sexy software" seem pure as driven snow.

"Shut up!" Burke yells. His eyes dart back and forth, fearful of eavesdroppers and would-be musical thieves. "Who's your publisher? We're gonna be partners!"

Reid stammers. His eyes glaze. His Cat in the Hat rubber face reads at once flattered and astonished. He and Burke are on a trip back in time to a place where hits were traded like baseball cards. Back in the polyester days, Reid and his partner, Willie Clarke, created the disco/soul "Miami Sound" by writing gold and platinum hits, most notably Betty Wright's "Clean Up Woman" and Gwen McRae's "Rocking Chair."

As Reid mumbles a "thank you," the skies open up. A brutal rainstorm with 30-mph winds sends the backstage throng of musicians, roadies, and groupies scurrying for cover. Burke rolls up the car window. Reid sits underneath a raised tarp, which offers little protection. Twenty minutes later, the wind dies down enough for Burke to take the stage and Reid to get his swagger back. Backstage, he bobs his head approvingly during Burke's performance -- until Burke warbles the first verse of Ray Charles' "Georgia on My Mind."

"He's flat! That's not his key!" Reid declares, as he breaks into the chorus, hitting the high notes with ease. "That's how you sing it!" Just as Burke's set ends, the rain stops. Reid ambles across the puddled fairgrounds toward the parking lot with Chavez in his wake, passing out fliers for Blowfly's upcoming comeback show.

"He's the original dirty rapper?" three teenage Barbies chime in disbelief, pointing at Reid.

"You bet your ass!" Chavez retorts. "Blowfly! Break them off something!"

Reid faces the teenyboppers and bursts into rhyme while walking alongside them. By the third stanza of "Talking Turd," the girls are lemmings to his cliff. "Is he freestyling?" the lead Barbie asks, jaw dropped. "We're there!"

Reid stops at the gate and sighs. He's soaked and ready to go home to Carol City. But Chavez is deep in conversation with Carl "Kilmo" Pacillo, the dark-bearded hippie who owns Alligator Alley, a tiny blues bar on Commercial Boulevard. Kilmo nearly wet his pants when Chavez handed him the flier. "Clarence Reid?!" he sputters. "I'm a huge fan! We're having a jam down the street with some of the musicians from the festival! I'd do anything if you'd sit in! The Blues Society might not like it, but fuck them!"

Thirty minutes later, Reid and Chavez are sitting at Alligator Alley, preparing to sing for their supper. "What can I getcha?" asks a perky blond waitress with a Southern accent.

"Do you have any rhinoceros ass?" Reid replies with a straight face. Her eyes cross; she's paralyzed by weirdness.

"I think that translates to 'cheeseburger, well-done,' " Chavez says as she scurries off. As Otis Taylor's rhythm section takes the stage and pumps out a serviceable 12-bar blues, Reid munches on his burger and waits to go on. This will be Blowfly's first South Florida appearance in more than 20 years. Tonight, Reid is wearing an "Eat Me" Alligator Alley T-shirt instead of his trademark gold mask and purple cape. Only about 50 half-interested Blues Society baby boomers are scattered through the bar. They have no idea what's about to hit them.

"We have two legends with us tonight," a mop-topped, 40-ish MC intones. "Thirty years ago, there was a thing called the Miami Sound. It was named after great soul hits like 'Clean Up Woman' and 'Rocking Chair.' Those songs and dozens of others were written by a man named Clarence Reid -- and he is with us tonight." The Alley breaks out in polite applause. The MC smirks. "And also, there's a thing called Blowfly with us. Ladies and gentleman, I give you -- Blowfly!"

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Tom Bowker

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