Q&A with Clarence Spady, the Pennsylvania guitarist has followed the footsteps of the soul-blues pioneer

"People who know how it feels to run the other way when they see the cops or risk discriminatory behavior; and that whole feeling of panic when you see the red and blue lights turn on behind you. The music itself is a part of the blues, but blues is also a feeling and an experience that’s expressed through music. Some express it through dance. Others through poetry."

Clarence Spady: The Soul of The Blues

Clarence Spady is thoroughly motivated when it comes to his career. Excellent news for contemporary blues fans who are well aware of Spady’s acclaimed 1996 album Nature of the Beast and his equally impressive 2008 follow up Just Between Us. By any standard, Clarence embarked on his musical odyssey at an uncommonly tender age. Born in Paterson, New Jersey, Spady began playing guitar when he was only five years old due to encouragement from two guitarists in his immediate family, his father (also named Clarence) and his Uncle Fletchey. The family blues band jammed every weekend at his uncle’s pad in New Jersey. For his stage debut (also at age five), he played Tommy Tucker’s “Hi-Heel Sneakers” with the band at the local Elks Club, for a special close to the evening’s show. During the early ‘80s, Clarence joined a touring R&B band, A Touch of Class. Working with John Pougiese, the musical director, was like going to Berklee for two years, because he learned horn arrangements, harmony, rhythm and the chord progressions he still uses today. From there, he joined Pennsylvania-based singer Greg Palmer’s band, and spent six years touring with that Top 40 R&B band.  The dawn of the ‘90s brought a return to his roots, and he put together the West Third Street Blues Band in the unlikely town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, the place he still calls home to this day. A union excavator by day, Spady played music at night and began writing his own originals.

(Clarence Spady / Photo by Rob Lettieri)

By the mid-‘90s, the success of Nature of the Beast  helped influence his nomination for a 1997 W.C. Handy Award for Best New Blues Artist.  The record had legs, and Clarence toured for six years behind that release. During that time, he also picked up what has become a standard monthly rotation at Terra Blues in New York City’s iconic Greenwich Village, exposing countless tourists from all over the world in search of an authentic blues experience to Spady’s sound. His sophomore release, Just Between Us, garnered a 2009 Blues Music Award nomination for Soul Blues Album of the year.  It is perfectly poignant that veteran bluesman Clarence Spady chose to include his version of Z.Z. Hill’s hit song “Down Home Blues,” on his new album Surrender (2021 / Nola Blue Records), as the Pennsylvania guitarist has followed the footsteps of the soul-blues pioneer, who created a combination of blues and contemporary soul styling that helped to restore the blues to modern black consciousness.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Soul music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Blues and soul has pretty much always been around, and I think it’s speaking even louder today. Just like it was speaking loud in the 60’s (Marvin Gaye – “What’s Going On”) and it was speaking loud in the slavery and sharecropping days. Seems like the hatred in the world is back and stronger than ever. With my music, I stick to my own personal issues and don’t add to the other noise.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

I have a definite gospel background. My mom listed to Mahalia Jackson and my dad listened to Bobby Blue Bland. When you combine the two, it pretty much defines my sound. My creativity comes from living and breathing each day: waking up, and seeing what the day brings. I try to create from life experiences. Every time I try to do abstract writing, it doesn’t work out. Just doesn’t seem pure.  Writing from experience is like quoting lines from a favorite movie – I remember it all verbatim. It’s definitely all God-driven.                                            (Clarence Spady / Photo by Rob Lettieri)

"Blues and soul has pretty much always been around, and I think it’s speaking even louder today."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

A backstage conversation with Junior Wells after we opened for him in Ithaca, NY always stays with me. We sat and talked after my set while his band was playing the start of his show. He said, “I’m supposed to go out there on this song, but I’m enjoying sitting here talking to you.” He was wearing a necklace with the Star of David around his neck. He asked me if I knew what it was, and I said that I did.  He said, “Always love and respect the Jewish people. They’re just like us.” And then he got up and walked onto the stage. I have a bunch of close friends from my childhood who are Jewish, including my manager Scotty who has been my friend since 2nd grade. We all grew up in the Hill Section of Scranton together.  His words apply to any race, religion or nationality. People are people.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I did a session with Lucky Peterson in Hartford, CT. Our session was booked right after his, and he ended up hanging around. He played with me on two of the tracks that I never released, and now that I think about it, I need to dig those up!  Lucky asked if I was staying at the same hotel he was, and if I knew anything about Hartford. The answer to both was yes, and he gave me his room number.  That was it – we partied the rest of the time!

Another time, back when I was with the Greg Palmer band in Hilton Head, SC, we were playing at the Marriott and Stevie Wonder and his entourage walked in.  They were looking for a place to eat, but the restaurant was closed. Greg gave them some suggestions and invited him to come back and join us afterwards, and they did!  In that band, we stayed current with over 300 songs on our song list (music from Neil Diamond, Lou Rawls, Prince, George Benson, etc.), so it was easy to launch a whole medley of Stevie Wonder songs that night. We ended up playing 8 or 9 of them – WITH HIM!  Imagine playing songs like “Part Time Lover” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You” with Stevie. I’ll never forget it. His manager and I talked about me going out to Phoenix to do some work with them, but I never made the trip.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss the double guitar solos, like you used to hear from The Eagles, Bad Company, The Allman Brothers… it’s a lost art. Everyone is out there trying to cut heads and and not taking the time to compose great solos like that. I hope that we can get more recognition for the giants and greats that are still living and were there when it all started, yet we don’t hear much about them. They’ve forgotten what the young 20-somethings know today, because they actually lived the blues and created it. And I hope we can keep a spotlight on today’s blues being made by people who have actually lived it. People who know how it feels to run the other way when they see the cops or risk discriminatory behavior; and that whole feeling of panic when you see the red and blue lights turn on behind you. The music itself is a part of the blues, but blues is also a feeling and an experience that’s expressed through music. Some express it through dance. Others through poetry.                         (Clarence Spady / Photo by Rob Lettieri)

"For me personally, I want my music to share messages of equality and messages of hope. Addiction is running rampant in this country, but there are resources and places for help and support. I even want to share common experiences, such as the loss of a child, like I did with my song “K-Man.” People come up to me crying after they hear that song, because they have a “K-Man” in their lives too. I guess it’s our shared human experience, and helping people know they’re not alone."

What would you say characterizes Pennsylvania blues scene in comparison to other local US scenes and circuits?

There really isn’t a big, regular blues scene in PA, but there are pockets of activity like the Philly area and Pittsburg. There are some popular blues festivals as well, including Billtown Blues Festival, Briggs Farm Blues Festival, Lancaster Roots and Blues, Reading Blues Festival, Pittsburgh Blues Fest and more. In the Scranton and NE Pennsylvania area, we definitely have a strong music scene in general. Back in ’89 I put together the West Third Street Blues Band to help fill that blues void, and man, people came out of the woodwork.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

To compliment and not compete. Camaraderie is a lost art. Hot, young and flashy artists aren’t doing anything new, but they’re young and good looking and capture lots of attention. They’re important for keeping the scene going, though, don’t get me wrong. But I go back to honoring and recognizing the roots and keeping that memory alive. I think back to the guys like Otis Rush and Hubert Sumlin who were absolute firecrackers, but no one paid attention to them until their music was covered by the white rock bands. In fact, Hubert Sumlin STILL hasn’t been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Why? I think about all the work Scott Rosenbaum did with the Sidemen: Long Road to Glory film, and his hopes that it would give Hubert's induction chances an extra nudge, and all I can do is shake my head.

What is the impact of Blues n' Soul on the sociocultural implications? How do you want to affect people?

For me personally, I want my music to share messages of equality and messages of hope. Addiction is running rampant in this country, but there are resources and places for help and support. I even want to share common experiences, such as the loss of a child, like I did with my song “K-Man.” People come up to me crying after they hear that song, because they have a “K-Man” in their lives too. I guess it’s our shared human experience, and helping people know they’re not alone.

"To compliment and not compete. Camaraderie is a lost art. Hot, young and flashy artists aren’t doing anything new, but they’re young and good looking and capture lots of attention. They’re important for keeping the scene going, though, don’t get me wrong. But I go back to honoring and recognizing the roots and keeping that memory alive." (Clarence Spady / Photo by Rob Lettieri)

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

A day wouldn’t be enough for this, but I would give anything to go back and have more time with my son, Khalique. My K-Man. Summer was our time to do things together, and I’m really missing him a lot right now.

Musically, I’d love to go back to the 20’s and 30’s with the big bands, cabarets, ballrooms and speakeasies and be part of that whole scene. Or back to the Civil Rights era, to have a chance to make music with a powerful impact, like Nina Simone.

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