The Calamity Of The 'Clam,' Every Musician's Headache

As part of an All Things Considered series on trade lingo, music producer Don Was explains the word "clam" — a mistake made by a musical performer.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We wrap up this hour with a bit of musical Trade Lingo. We've been asking about words that are terms of the trade in a particular line of work - words that might stump anybody else. And today, our trade lingo is offered up by musician and producer Don Was. It's a word musicians use when they screw up.

DON WAS: If you play a mistake it's called a clam.

BLOCK: Why is it called a clam?

WAS: That's a good one. I don't know. (Laughter) I should know. It's probably rooted in something unsavory. I'm trying to think what the origin could be. You know, they're just sort of, like, floppy (Laughter) you know, like a clam.

BLOCK: So clams are wrong notes - something audibly wrong that makes you wince and maybe enrages a bandleader. Clams come up again and again in a legendary tirade by the jazz drummer Buddy Rich excoriating his band. Rich was recorded secretly on his tour bus in the early 1980s by his pianist Lee Musiker.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUDDY RICH: Look, I'm trying to play. What do you play - clams? You guys know where the [bleep] next set goes. If I hear one [bleep] clam from anybody, you've had it. One clam and this whole [bleep] band is through - tonight. Try me.

BLOCK: That's drummer Buddy Rich reeling about the clam. Now we're told that clam can be used as a noun or verb. Oh, that was a horrendous clam. Or let's do that again, I clammed a note. If there are any musicians out there with ideas of why it's called the clam, please let us know. We're on Facebook and Twitter - @npratc.

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