Clarence Carter challenged himself last year, and he hit the jackpot with the biggest album of his career.
The blues/soul singer, who makes a rare local appearance at the Music Machine tonight, is best known to pop fans for the old soul hits "Slip Away" and "Patches."
But "Strokin'," a ribald celebration of making love, turned into a slow-burning black chart hit last year that pushed sales of his "Dr. C.C." album into the 150,000 range, according to Carter. The album, on the small, Atlanta-based Ichiban label, spent nearly a year on Billboard's black LP chart.
The challenge that Carter set for himself was to record everything himself in the studio, employing multiple keyboards a la Stevie Wonder and Ray Parker Jr. The one-man-band approach was especially difficult, because Carter has been blind since he was 1.
"The most challenging thing was to learn how to program these keyboard computers because they don't write those things up in Braille," Carter, 51, explained during a phone interview from his Atlanta home. "I have to get somebody to read how you program them--I've got about eight different ones--and I've got to remember all that.
"I have my little set-up here in my house with my keyboards so I do all the trial-and-error work here. Putting the album on tape and mixing it down, I can walk in the studio now and be out with an album in about six hours. The 'Dr. C.C.' album cost $4,000 at most."
Carter's experiment may have a high-tech sheen, but his music remains rooted in the blues he first heard on the records his stepfather bought. The Montgomery, Ala., native learned guitar by playing along to Lightnin' Hopkins and Arthur Crudup records, and by the time he was 15 he knew music was going to be his vocation.
"There used to be a club about five blocks away from my home that had a patio and the music would travel," he recalled. "I would lie in my bed and hear those bands playing and say to myself, 'One of these days I'm going to play just like that.' Then there used to be a guy who walked down past where I lived strumming on a guitar and singing and that used to really enchant me."
Carter was graduated from Alabama State College in 1960 and spent four months teaching school before starting his musical career. He worked with singer Calvin Scott as a duo for a few years before Scott was seriously injured in an automobile accident. By then, Carter had hooked up with producer Rick Hall of Fame Records and was in the thick of things when the Muscle Shoals sound became prominent during the late-'60s soul boom.
He enjoyed steady R&B; chart success through the early early '70s and racked up three major pop hits with "Too Weak to Fight," "Slip Away," and "Patches." But Carter had to weather a rough stretch during the disco era when record companies wouldn't even listen to tapes of his new material.
"It's a hard adjustment to make, but you learn that you can't fight it," he reflected. "Nobody's gonna keep a hit record all the time. Music goes around and, if you're patient, the pendulum will swing back towards you."
The pendulum started swinging Carter's way again when he had a moderate hit, "Working on a Love Building," for Venture Records in 1981. He hooked up with Ichiban two years ago and returned to the relaxed atmosphere of Muscle Shoals to record "Dr. C.C."
"We had so much fun the engineer was dying laughing trying to get through the things I was saying, especially on 'Strokin',' " Carter said with a chuckle. "By the time I finished doing that song and walked back up to the control room, he was laughing so hard he hadn't even turned the tape machine off."
That pendulum may be swinging even farther in Carter's favor with the current mainstream success of such blues artists as Robert Cray. But Carter's not surprised by the upsurge in popularity.
"Blues is a traditional kind of music that will come up, go back down and then come up again," he said. "After people have listened to the same kind of music--like the urban contemporary now--you look for something that's telling some other kind of story.
"Blues started its comeback three or four years ago and I think it's going to be with us for a while. However, we still have some convincing to do with the young radio programmers that it is not a put-down to your station to play this kind of record."