An Interview with Clara McDaniel
by Lea A. Gilmore
In one sense, Clara McDaniel has lived a charmed life. She grew up literally in the company of some of the blues' most-famous names, and with the release of her first album, Unwanted Child (HMG/Hightone), in the fall of 1997 and a couple of recent successful European tours, her own singing career is heading in some positive directions.
Born in Pontiac, Michigan, November 26, 1953, into a large musical family, McDaniel grew up playing the piano and singing in church, while being exposed to the blues from her father and his brothers. She moved to St. Louis as a teenager and immediately began hanging out and singing in the popular clubs, including Ned Love's, where she met Albert King. They developed a close relationship. She toured with him and at one time managed Albert's fleet of taxi cabs.
But it hasn't been easy for this mother and foster parent. Unwanted Child is dedicated to Abram "Falstaff" Foster, her husband and keyboard player, who died last year, and her father's recent illnesses take her back and forth to Chicago from St. Louis, while she balances two jobs and raises her family.
This big, beautiful woman has bounced on Muddy Waters' knee and styled Bobby Bland's coif. We sat down for some "girl talk," and McDaniel shared her life as a wife, mother, daughter and sure 'nuf blues belting singer.
When and how did you become interested in music?
I was always interested in music. I been singing with records and such ever since I could remember. My grandfather and my father and them, they used to play records all the time. When I was real small, I didn't even know how to read, but I remembered going to get the records. They would tell me what records they would want to hear, and I would remember them by color. I would go get them and put them on the record player. While they was dancing, I would sing along with the song. I would get the song real quick. By the time I sang a song a couple of times, I knew every word to it. I'm still like that.
I wish I had that gift. I seem to be "lyric-challenged."
Girl, just keep at it. You'd be surprised how many songs you know.
You have met some of the all-time blues legends. While in St. Louis, is that when you started to come in contact with all of the blues greats?
When I came to St. Louis, the first person that I met was Muddy Waters. I met him on Garrison and Franklin. I wasn't old enough to go in the place, but I would go on in there anyway. This club was once called the Early Bird, then they renamed it Club Caravan.
Muddy Waters. He is my favorite. He always seemed like a "real" man to me ...
Girl, I know what you mean. (laughs)
What was Muddy Waters like?
He was real nice. He put on a good show and stuff, and I liked a lot of his music.
Did you ever get the chance to sing with him?
I got the chance to sit in his lap and sing with him. (laughs) He called me up there and said, "Come on sing with me, little girl." That's what he called me: "little girl." He called himself liking me, but that was just a figment of his imagination. (laughs)
You had a special relationship with Albert King, right?
Very special. You know, my grandfather, well you might say he helped raise Albert. Albert always came around my grandfather's house all the time. I always kept in contact with him. You know, we was like family. I started working for a [cab company]. Albert had a fleet of cabs down there. I managed his cabs, and he knew I loved to sing.
Did you sing with him on live shows?
Yes, I would sing with him on live shows. I never recorded with him, but I would sing on the live shows.
Did you tour with Albert?
I went all down to Arizona and Mississippi. Even Hollywood, Mississippi. I didn't even know there was a Hollywood, Mississippi, 'til he carried me down there. I thought we was going to California, (laughs) and I end up in Mississippi way back out in some woods somewhere -- in a juke joint. Them people scared me so bad. Whew!
Were you very young then?
I was a teenager. I was scared, man. Back there in them woods with those strange-looking folks. Right off of Highway 61. Right out of Clarksdale.
Who else have you performed with?
Let's see, Big Bad Smitty, Big George and the House Rockers, Thomas "Tommy" Bankhead and some others.
Didn't you also perform with Bobby Bland?
Naw. I know Bobby Bland though. I've sang a couple of numbers with him on a show. But I have never performed a whole show with him. We're real pals. He is a real nice man. We use to hang out at the Diplomat Hotel on Interstate 94 in Detroit, Michigan. I would fix his hair.
No kidding? Didn't he wear one of those "pompadours" or "conks," or something like that?
Yeah, he used to have a permanent. I would curl it up all over and style it for him. He is really nice to work with.
Now Clara, you were out on the road with all of these guys. Tell me the truth, girlfriend, is it true that bluesmen are ladies' men?
(Laughs) I think so, but only because the ladies love them so much. All they have to do is open their mouth and sing or play an instrument. They just love 'em.
Why did you decide to sing the blues?
Well, that's what I grew up around. I grew up listening to the blues, but I played piano in the church when I was small at the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church under the leadership of the Rev. Walter Rowe. That was in Pontiac, Michigan. I played for the choir.
Have you ever sung anything else other than blues and gospel?
I sing rock'n'roll and a little country/western, you know, but blues is my favorite. I love the blues. It's just soul stirring. If you would listen to the lyrics, it's a part of everyday life. A lot of people, they hear the blues, and they say they don't like the blues. But if they sit down and listen to the lyrics and not just listen to the music, they will find out that they would learn a lot of things. You see, every day that you live, when you get out of your house or look at the news, it is something new that you are going to learn today that you didn't know yesterday. It's like Albert King said about the blues, he said that everybody's got 'em. Even the little baby in the cradle's got 'em, because if they want a bottle and they start crying and you don't hurry up to answer them to see what's wrong, then they got the blues. That's the blues.
This is an abridged version of the Clara McDaniel interview.
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