TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our rock historian, Ed Ward, is going to tell us a story of soul singer and songwriter Clarence Carter, who's best known for his 1970 hit "Patches," a sentimental account of a young boy's becoming the man of the house after his father's death. Ed says well before "Patches," Carter had proven himself over and over to pop and soul fans.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THREAD THE NEEDLE")
CLARENCE CARTER: (Singing) Aww, you got to let your hair down, baby. You got to let yourself unwound, mama, 'cause we're going get a thing going on. We're going to do it. We're going to do it. Now, when you feel the beat get on your feet. You've got to wig around, mama. And then we're going to thread the needle. Now you feel it. Can't you feel it now, baby? That's what I'm talking about, yeah.
ED WARD, BYLINE: Clarence Carter was born in Montgomery, Ala., in 1936 and was blind from birth. When he was 9, his grandmother gave him a guitar, and he'd had found his calling. In college, he hooked up with another blind student Calvin Scott, who played organ, and as Clarence & Calvin made a couple of records for a small Atlanta label.
Changing their name to the C&C Boys, they spent three years at a larger label Duke, which did nothing at all to promote them. Once they were out of their contract, they sought out Rick Hall's up-and-coming FAME label, which had a great reputation but no hits to show.
Hall snapped them up thinking they sounded like The Righteous Brothers. But after releasing one record by them, disaster struck. Calvin Scott was shot in the head by his wife. Hall wanted the duo, but Carter pleaded with him and was grudgingly given a session. Good thing he was.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL DADDY")
CARTER: (Singing) You thought you'd found a good man, one that'll love you and understand. Now you'll find that you've been misused. Talk to me, and I'll do what you choose. I want you to tell daddy all about it. Tell daddy what you need. Tell daddy what you want, and I'll make everything all right.
WARD: Not only did "Tell Daddy" do well for the FAME label, it also showed that Carter was a top-notch songwriter because Etta James later came to FAME to record and had a big hit with the song as "Tell Mama."
Carter followed it up with a dance novelty "Thread The Needle" and then another record that was most notable later for its B-side.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROAD OF LOVE")
CARTER: (Singing) Baby I ain't going down that road of love by myself. No, no, I ain't going down that road of love by myself. Now, if you won't go with me, baby, I guess I'll just have to get somebody else.
WARD: "Road Of Love" was a pretty standard blues tune, a chance for Carter to give some time to a young guitarist he'd been hanging out with at FAME.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROAD OF LOVE")
CARTER: (Singing) I like what I'm listening to right now. Yeah, oh baby...
WARD: Duane Allman had been looking for a chance to sign to show what he could do, and Carter gave him that chance. Listening in the background was Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, which was distributing FAME.
Wexler believed Carter was a major talent would get better exposure if Atlantic, a soul powerhouse, took over his records. Sure enough, his next single was his best-selling one yet.
(SOUNDBITE OF , "")
CARTER: (Singing) I'm all alone fancy free. But this ain't the way I want to be. Now, girls get your game uptight. We're going to have a wing-ding doodle tonight. All right now, looking for a fox. I'm looking for a fox, looking for a fox. Tonight the...
WARD: Introduced by Carter's soon-to-be trademarked lascivious laugh, "Looking For A Fox" crossed over on to the pop charts, and FAME hurried to get up follow-up. The word funk was in the air, and the FAME band worked with Carter for hours on a song called "Funky Fever."
Atlantic order 10,000 copies immediately only to have Wexler call Rick Hall and tell him he was promoting the wrong side of the record. Hall was shocked. That side was just a throwaway they'd knocked out in 15 minutes a couple of years back. But Wexler was right.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLIP AWAY")
CARTER: (Singing) What would I give for just a few moments. What would I give just to have you near. Tell me you will try to slip away somehow. Oh, I need you darling. I want to see right now. Can you slip away, slip away, slip away? Oh, I need you so.
WARD: The song went top 10 soul and pop and made Carter a lot of money but not as much as it might have. He'd co-credited three of his friends who were in bad financial shape, although they hadn't had a thing to do with the record.
So "Slip Away" not only established Carter as a hit-maker but turned their affairs around. Carter just kept going. His next release, "Too Weak To Fight," also charged into the soul top 10. And then he released a classic Christmas record.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK DOOR SANTA")
CARTER: (Singing) They call me backdoor Santa. I make my runs about the break of day. They call me backdoor Santa. I make my runs about the break of day. Ho, ho, ho, make all the little girls happy while the boys are out to play.
WARD: By 1970, Clarence Carter had done a lot to put FAME on the map. It helped give Duane Allman a contract with Atlantic and had married his longtime girlfriend and sometime co-writer Candi Staton, who also signed to FAME and started having hits. "Patches" was still in the future and Carter was already a star. He still is. He slowed down some, but he still tours occasionally and makes records for his own label. He still does that trademark chuckle, too.
GROSS: Ed Ward is the author of the forthcoming book "The History Of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new semi-satirical novel set in an area transformed by fracking. This is FRESH AIR.
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