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.
Blowfly with Andre Williams and the Heatseekers
I/O Lounge, 30 NE 14th St., Miami
Perform on Friday, December 5. Admission is $12. Call 305-358-8007.
"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!"
Blowfly takes the mic as Chavez teaches Taylor's rhythm section a few tunes. "Good evening, cocksuckers and motherfuckers! You wanna know what kind of man I am? Well, baby - I'm a hole man." Chavez vamps the intro to Sam & Dave's hit "Soul Man," and Blowfly perverts it. "Got what I got/By fucking a nasty bitch/ Woulda been better off/Sticking my dick in a ditch."
The yuppies eat up "Hole Man" and "Shittin' on the Dock of the Bay." Taylor's bassist is laughing so hard he can barely hold his instrument. But the honeymoon is over the second Blowfly breaks into "Rap Dirty." The Blues Society folks shift uneasily in their seats. They didn't come here to hear the hip-hop garbage their kids listen to -- did they? By the time Blowfly is halfway though his "Welcome to Pussy Hell" intro for "Burnin' Pussy" (a parody of the Gap band's "Burn Rubber"), a middle-aged woman stomps up to the stage and yells: "I'm leavin'!"
Blowfly stops and sweetly begs: "Oh, please, miss. Don't leave. I promise not to play 'Burnin' Pussy' if you stay."
"I'm leavin'!" she yells, slamming the door behind her.
"OK, the bitch left," he deadpans. "Let's burn some pussy!" Every woman in the audience files out the door. It's as if they were at a school dance slurping punch only to find a turd at the bottom of the bowl. Blowfly wears a truly evil grin on his face. He has entertained and offended the crowd at the same time -- no mean feat. His mission accomplished, he hops into Chavez's beat-up Honda Civic. Chavez starts the car as the first woman to leave pulls up, rolls down the window, and wags her finger: "Naughty, naughty!"
Reid learned the value of naughty as a young child in the early 1950s. Forced to drop out of school in Vienna, Georgia, at the age of 7 to work in the cotton fields after his grandfather died, Reid began making up dirty songs to the melodies of country hits to pass the picking time. "There was an Ernest Tubb song 'I'm Walking the Floor Over You.' And I'd go: 'I'm jerking my dick over you,'" he recalls. "And the white girls loved it! They loved to be around me. My grandmomma heard me and said, 'I don't know why those little white girls like you! You ain't no better than a nasty ol' blowfly!' I laughed, stood up, and said, 'What the fuck is a blowfly?' She told me that a blowfly is a black, yellow, red, and green insect that lands on dead things, turns 'em into maggots, and screws 'em." Reid's ever-hoarse speaking voice boils over into laughter as a smile explodes across his face. "Yeah, that's me, all right."
Reid honed his talent hitchhiking from Georgia to West Palm Beach as a preteen in the late '50s. "I'd sing to the white people who picked me up, and they'd laugh and say 'Here's some bus fare' and drop me off at the bus station. I'd wait till they left, pocket the money, watch them leave, and get back on the highway." He spent his 13th year washing pots at Morrison's Cafeteria in West Palm Beach, which oddly enough kick-started his music career. "I didn't know I knew harmony." Reid explains. "Everyone in the kitchen would sing in unison. And I'd tell them: 'Something's wrong - try this.' I'd go 'Da De Do.' That's harmony. They were shocked! The manager asked me, 'How do you know that?' I didn't know what to tell him, so he told me to go see Henry Stone down in Miami and tell him that Mr. Hunter sent me."
At age 14, Reid found work at Henry Stone's Tone Distribution in downtown Miami, packing records for shipment in the warehouse. Stone sensed Reid's talent and sent him to Miami's Criteria Studios for seasoning. There developed a band of session players, Clarence Reid and the Delmiras, who released a string of singles in the mid-'60s. When Stone heard a song he particularly liked, he'd cherry-pick it for one of his many imprints. This strategy worked to perfection in 1969, when Reid had a number 7 Billboard R&B hit with "Nobody But You Babe" on his Alston label. Reid quit the warehouse and became a mainstay on the chitlin' circuit, opening for R&B greats James Brown, Johnny Taylor, and Sam & Dave.
With the success of "Nobody But You Babe," Reid began self-pressing Blowfly records on his own label, Clarence Reid Inc. To promote them, he'd drop off records at discos, including Joe Namath's Bachelors III Club in Sunrise. Reid laughs, making reference to the New York Jets quarterback's party boy rep: "I knew Joe from before in New York when I played gay clubs. I told him, 'I guess there's a reason they call you 'Broad.'"
He'd also delight the audience with a dirty parody or two between songs at his "clean" Clarence Reid gigs. "I would go on Rick Shaw's WFUN-AM Saturday record hop Florida Bandstand at Fort Lauderdale War Memorial Auditorium," Reid recalls. "Rick would tell me before the show, 'Clarence, I want you to ignore everything I say on the air. I have to tell you not to do the dirty stuff because I'm required to legally. But please, do it anyway.' So I'd do my songs, and then Rick would ask me, 'Clarence, do you know any Beatles?' So I'd sing 'Something in the Way She Smells.' He'd say: 'That's terrible! You should be ashamed of yourself! Do you know any Elvis?' And I'd sing 'I got the claps/I'm all fucked up.'"
Soon, Stone hired him to be a full-time songwriter for his production company. Then in 1973, Stone happened upon Reid plunking out "Shittin' on the Dock of the Bay" on an out-of-tune piano in Reid's office. "I heard that and told Clarence to go upstairs and into the studio immediately," Stone chuckles.
One four-hour, live-to-tape session later, Blowfly's debut, The Weird World of Blowfly, was completed, including "It's a Faggot's World" (a parody of Brown's "It's a Man's World'). The cover art featured Reid standing on a trash can and holding a rubber chicken while wearing a ghetto Halloween costume consisting of a yellow rubber mask with antennae, yellow wings, tightie-whities, black pantyhose, knee-high white stockings, and a black superhero jersey emblazoned with a gold lamé "BF."
The Weird World of Blowfly was an underground sensation. Along with Rudy Ray Moore and Red Foxx, Blowfly became synonymous with the term party record. By the time sessions commenced for Blowfly on TV, his second album, Reid had more help than he needed. "The word got out, and every nasty motherfucker around started showing up for the sessions. I'd have nine guitar players!" Reid says. Only two axemen are credited on the session, but '70s rock gods Three Dog Night anonymously provided the backing track for Blowfly's hysterical parody of their hit "Momma Told Me Not to Come." ("Son, by morning you better heave/Before your ass gets as raggedy as a mango seed.")
Blowfly on TV's cover art featured three topless Nubian queens. The one sitting in the middle -- on top of a TV with "Blowfly" covering the screen -- had her legs spread wide, revealing pink panties stamped with "Adult Only" and a downward arrow. This started the Blowfly tradition of displaying naked women on his album covers, a ritual former promotion ace Bob Perry remembers well. "The photo sessions would always happen in Henry's office," Perry recalls over the counter at Blue Note Records, his record store in North Miami Beach. "Butterball [famed disc jockey for WMBM-AM (1490)] and Blowfly would go back there with these chicks who would do anything to get on the record cover."
Besides Blowfly's affinity for photo-shoot orgies, Perry recollects Reid in his heyday as an eccentric who traveled to and from work via "taxi, bus, or horse" due to his horrendous driving record. "He'd walk everywhere. He'd get stuck on a verse, go outside and walk a couple miles in the rain, come back, and an hour later, he'd have a hit record in the can. "
In 1978, Blowfly released Porno Freak. The title track is arguably the first modern rap song. Reid kicks off the song rapping over a solitary thumping bass drum: "While sittin' home playing with my prick/I decided to take in a flick /Only dirty movies turn me on/Like Deep Throat and The Devil In Miss Jones/I've been called a genius/I've been called a bastard/But I'm known around the world as the nasty rapper... "
Porno Freak started a brouhaha in Pineville, Louisiana, where it became the first record in American history to be banned for graphic language -- resulting in the arrest of a record clerk a full 11 years before the infamous constitutional flap over 2 Live Crew's As Nasty as They Wanna Be.
In 1981, he returned home from touring to discover that he was out of both a day job and a record label. "I was the last one to find out," Reid recalls.
A few months later, South Florida record promoter Bo Crane signed Blowfly to his young Pandisc label, starting a relationship that has spanned eight albums and 22 years. In 1988, Pandisc released Blowfly for President, a hilarious concept album that follows President Blowfly and his sexually devoted secretary, Miss Clit, as they rap about the challenges facing the "first black president" -- four years before President Clinton followed in his footsteps. "I did it first!" Reid declares. "But President Blowfly had a secretary instead of an intern."
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In 1990, Blowfly's semiregular gig at Club Lingerie in Hollywood, California, resulted in The Twisted World of Blowfly, a documentary and soundtrack album featuring his Club Lingerie band, which included Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and half of Fishbone. "This little freaky ass came up to me and said, 'Hi, I'm Flea, nice to meet ya,' " Reid reminisces. "I'd never heard of him or Fishbone." Twisted upped Blowfly's hipness factor tenfold. "Flea's friends like Henry Rollins and the Butthole Surfers would show up to the Lingerie gigs," Crane relates. "And they'd be in the audience with Blowfly's hard-core funk fans."
Suddenly, Blowfly was no longer a party-record anachronism. "As rap music got nastier, there was less of a demand for Clarence's type of stuff," Crane explains. "His stuff is filthy but tongue-in-cheek. His swearing was novel back in the day, but it became more and more commonplace and without Clarence's sense of humor."
Not surprisingly, Reid has a different take. "Back in the Weird World days, I always had a live band behind me. That's what my fans expect. But Bo wanted me to sing with synthesizers and shit, and that's not what my people want." With guitarist Chavez at his side, Reid has reverted to his funky Weird World form and recruited a band of Blowfly fans half his age to back him up at his upcoming December 5 show at I/O Lounge. It will be his first South Florida gig since Reagan's inauguration. Why hasn't he played his hometown, where he achieved all his fame and notoriety, in more than two decades?
"I didn't have a band before," he explains. "But now I do, so I can put a curse on you and every guy who's gonna read this article." His voice drops to a loud whisper as he warns: "If, after reading this story, you don't immediately buy a ticket and come to my show... the only way you'll ever be able to get hard is by looking at a picture of Michael Jackson's nurse!"