Friday, June 02, 2006

Billy Vera & Judy Clay - Tell It Like It Is

Billy Vera & Judy Clay
Greetings all. Friday is here, the weekend is upon us and the fine weather (at least for the time being) gives us all something to look forward to. The Funky16Corners 2006 Pledge Drive continues (link in the sidebar to the right), and I have to say thanks to those of you that have already been very generous. I really appreciate the vote of support. Stay tuned, because next week is Soul Girls week, with a couple of very nice Detroit soul sides and a new Funky16Corners Radio mix. I think (I hope) you’ll dig it. Today’s selection is a record that I was completely unaware of until recently. Those of you that hit this space with regularity know that I’ve covered the sounds of Billy Vera & Judy Clay before. Their 1968 ‘Storybook Children’ LP is a longtime fave, and I consider their smoking b-side ‘Really Together’ to be one of the great, lost classics of upbeat late 60’s soul. A few months ago, a friend sent me his sales list, and I while scanning the pages, making mental checkmarks here and there, I happened upon what appeared to be a Vera/Clay 45 that I’d never seen before. After a quick check I discovered that both sides of this 45 were non-LP. Billy Vera was already a working songwriter/performer when he penned the song ‘Storybook Children’. Vera tried recording it as a duet with Nona Hendryx (then part of Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles), and when that session didn’t work out – according to Vera the duo was put asunder when the Bluebelles manager feared that a hit would break up that group -, Jerry Wexler suggested that Judy Clay (then signed to Stax) would make a suitable replacement. Clay, who had been a member of the gospel group the Drinkard Singers (with Cissy Houston) had already recorded a number of singles under her own name for several labels (including Ember, Lavette and Scepter) before hooking up with Stax in 1967. Clay came in and the vocal on ‘Storybook Children’ was rerecorded (over the original backing track), and the single went on to hit the Top 40 (both sides charting) in several markets. Unfortunately, as the first interracial soul duo, Vera and Clay were subjected to all manner of predictable racist nonsense, which was compounded by the fact that many assumed (wrongly) that ‘Storybook Children’ was based in fact and that Vera and Clay were more than just singing partners. They recorded their LP for Atlantic, and when further success eluded them, they went their separate ways. Vera went on to record as a solo, and Clay returned to Memphis to duet with William Bell on the hit ‘Private Number’. As far as I knew, that was where the Vera/Clay partnership ended. Then I found the 45 of ‘Reaching for the Moon’ b/w ‘Tell It Like It Is’. So, I’m doing my research, and I discover that the catalogue number on the 45 was significantly higher than on ‘Storybook Children’, placing the release of the single in 1969 at the earliest, long after the duo had supposedly stopped working together. My curiosity was piqued. I started digging a little deeper. It turns out that the partnership of Billy Vera and Judy Clay got a second chance. Following her success with William Bell, and a 45 of her own on Stax, Clay was brought back to Atlantic and paired with Vera once again. The 1969 session yielded the two songs on this 45. Unfortunately, after ‘Reaching for the Moon’ looked like it was going to catch on, the duet went their separate ways - for many of the same reasons - once again. While ‘Reaching for the Moon’ is a nice tune, I’m here to hep you to the flip, a very nice version of the mighty ‘Tell It Like It Is’. Now, I won’t yank your chain and suggest that any version of the song surpasses the 1966 original by Aaron Neville. That recording was a big hit, and for good reason. If ever a song seemed custom designed for Neville’s sweet voice and wide open vibrato, this is it. Written by New Orleans musicians George Davis and Lee Diamond (one of Little Richard’s Upsetters); it was recorded by Neville in 1965. Davis and Diamond offered the recording to several local labels, but there were no takers. They formed the Parlo label to release the song, and of course had a huge hit with it. Despite the song’s success, and a couple of other excellent recordings by Neville (including ‘Tell It...’s b-side ‘Why Worry’ and the lost classic ‘A Hard Nut To Crack’) Parlo soon went under. Since then, the song has been covered countless times by artists including Freddy Fender, Percy Sledge, Heart and (believe it or not) Andy Williams. However, for all the covers I never heard the song performed as a duet until I came across the Vera/Clay version. Produced (like all of their Atlantic recordings) by Chip Taylor, and recorded in NYC, the record manages to have a nice “Southern” sound, with a great horn chart, some soulful electric piano, and of course some fantastic Vera/Clay vocal interaction. I know that there are those out there that have cast aspersions of Billy Vera’s vocal talents, but I’m here to tell you that while he may not have been putting the fear of God into the Otis Reddings of the world, he was a fine R&B singer with a real “feel” for the music. He managed to be soulful without resorting to the kind of histrionics that make the Michael Bolton’s of the world so objectionable. His slightly reedy timbre provides a nice counterpoint to Clay’s soaring, gospel-inflected voice. The sad thing is that this 45 was their final record together. I find my self wondering what they might have accomplished had they the opportunity to work together for a longer period of time in a more accepting world. The ‘Storybook Children’ LP is available as a reissue, paired with Vera’s solo LP ‘With Pen In Hand’. Unfortunately the two tracks from this 45 were not included, and as far as I can tell are not currently available in reissue.


Blogger Todd Lucas said...

Interesting, I saw a beat up stock copy of this at the flea market today.

6/04/2006 05:56:00 PM  

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