by Amelia Feathers
Mighty Sam McClain has lived the blues he sings about, however he didn't let his past hard times eclipse his musical aspirations. He overcame the dark times of childhood abuse, adult alcoholism and homelessness without accepting hopelessness. He trusted in God, himself and his natural singing gift to protect him from sinking permanently into an eternal hellhole.
McClain's gospel blues singing style was his comforter in troubling times and is again showcased on his second CD with theTelarc label, 'Sweet Dreams'. This is reaching into his past for his 'first hit', the Patsy Cline 's classic. 'Here I Come Again ' is the first cut, and McClain is coming again with his music to deliver to listeners his trademark style of singing--the gospel truth. 'Sweet Dreams',scheduled for release in June will be a mixture of his preach teaching and soulful blues. The new CD is coming right off the successful year McClain had with his last collection, 'Blues For the Soul.' The new song collection will also piggyback on the success of the mainstream acceptance of his tune, 'New Man In Town,' which was featured last season on the popular television series 'Ally McBeal.
The song 'Here I Come Again,' could be McClain's epitaph. He didn't succumb to failure because each time life's experiences almost sucked him into the abyss; McClain proved through faith he is a soul survivor.
'I've had to sleep outdoors and eat out of garbage cans, but it took all of that to make me who I am and what I'm trying to be,' McClain said. He is God's servant. And since God's gift to McClain is a singing voice, he is serving the Lord through song.
Born in Winnsboro, La., 'right up the road from Monroe,' Mighty Sam was a boy when he joined a church gospel group. The group would sing soul-stirring gospel songs filled with so much of God's spirit until women in the church feinted.
Little Mighty Sam McClain was afraid of dead people. He thought those feinting women had died. His fear of the dead silenced his voice. Once the boy learned singing made him feel like he was somebody, which was contrary to what an abusive stepfather tried to make him believe.
Before he left home at age 13, McClain was told repeatedly he was nothing and wouldn't ever amount to anything by his stepfather.
McClain somehow put his faith in God, then he was able to declare himself independent and left home.
'I had to get away from that negative crap my stepfather was telling me before it destroyed me,' McClain said. 'Singing made me worth something so I left home at a very young age. That's when I started to realize my voice was God's gift. Since leaving home I've been music journey.'
McClain traveled the chitlin' circuit with musician Little Melvin Underwood, who became his music mentor. The young teenager was promoted from Underwood's valet to lead vocalist in the band. They traveled to Florida in 1963. Back then he was known as Good Rocking Sam. A promoter introduced McClain to a Pensacola audience and instead of calling him Good Rocking Sam, he said, Mighty Sam. A mistake probably made by the promoter after hearing the young man sing.
In 1966, during a performance in Pensacola, Florida producer and disc jockey 'Papa' Don Schroeder was in the audience, recognized his singing ability and got him into the studio initially to record a song called 'Georgia Pines' . While in the studio, an Amy Records representative, along with Spooner & Oldham, convinced him to record Patsy Cline's 'Sweet Dreams.'
Soon after, McClain had some successes after the first record. He then recorded at Muscle Shoals, which resulted in the 45s 'Fannie May' and 'In the Same Old Way.' He performed at the Apollo Theater, but those successes turned out to be premature. McClain somehow fell hard and fast and ended up living on park benches, digging for food in the garbage and selling plasma for money.
At this time, McClain said he didn't stop singing, but these were unpaid engagements in the streets of Nashville and New Orleans. Concerts on the street didn't garner him good reviews as he constantly gets now.
Nevertheless, he continued to sing. For 15 years McClain's professional career was transformed from riches to rags. There were times he was homeless, however he didn't become hopeless.
In 1989, McClain's faith remained intact so when The Neville Brothers befriended him and offered McClain some work he was ready to go. That year he was unexpectedly contacted for a tour to Japan which included a live recording. 'Live InJapan' featuring Wayne Bennett ( former guitar player for Bobby 'Blue' Bland) proved to be a jump start for his career.
From that tour McClain networked his way to New England with his association with the Hubert Sumlin Blues Party project. That project was produced by Hammond Scott with Black Top records. McClain met producer Joe Harley, record producer with Audio Quest Music label, during this time. A mutual friend, pianist, Bruce Katz, suggested that McClain send a demo tape to Joe. They have since recorded three albums on the Audio Quest label with Harley's production. The albums are titled, 'Give It Up To Love' 'Blues Master' and 'Keep On Movin'.'
McClain was living his musical dream now. More recordings were released, 'Sledgehammer Soul,' 'Down Home Blues,' and 'Journey.' 'Joy and Pain - Live in Europe,' was a Cross Cut label release in 1998. His final recording with Audio Quest was 'Soul Survivor - The Best of Mighty Sam McClain.'
In between recording McClain also started his own management and publishing companies. McClain Management and Emily's Son Publishing 'is dedicated to maintaining the integrity and individuality of artist on its roster.'
McClain became tired of booking agents, managers and being surrounded by people telling him he couldn't do something.
'I didn't take that from my stepfather too long. I took it far too long from the people that were supposedly managing my affairs. So, when I fired all of those people I know they thought I was crazy. They only thought of me as a blues singer,' McClain said. 'Years ago I never talked to a record company president, but I do now. It's good to be in control as much as God allows me control.' Wife, Sandra and daughter, Jennifer, head McClain Management.
About the same time he was taking more control of his management, he also hired a seven-piece band with a funky horn section to spice the live and recorded performances even more.
Just as his career was getting really hot a call from David E. Kelley made McClain's music an even hotter property.
Kelley called McClain to request the use of his song, 'New Man In Town.' McClain negotiated the deal himself. The song was used in 11 episodes. 'The 'Ally McBeal' television show put some nice change in my pocket, although I was surprised they chose the song, 'New Man In Town. That particular song is about Jesus - Jesus is the new man in town I'm talking about,' he said.
Not only is he receiving financial rewards McClain has gotten critical acclaim. He has been nominated for Grammy and W.C. Handy awards, winning the latter honor.
McClain thinks his songwriting and singing has become better with time. He is anxious for listeners to hear what he's feeling about his music. His new CD will have some songs he's wanted to record that he didn't write himself.
He did a new updated version of 'Sweet Dreams,' the first song he recorded in 1966. He also recorded 'Respect Yourself,' a hit song for the Staples Singers.
'After I came home from recording 'Respect Yourself' I heard Pop Staples had died. I was touched that God put it in my heart to record that song,' McClain explained. 'I think the way that recording coming about was a way for God to tell me to continue to pay attention.'
He is paying attention to God and other artists also. McClain wants to collaborate with other artists in the near future. He was recently told Stevie Wonder is an admirer of his talents. For McClain the admiration is mutual. One song he wrote in 1978 he composed thinking he would want Wonder to sing..
'It is quite gratifying I will have a chance to meet this brother and I am terribly excited about it,' McClain said about Wonder. Another project McClain is calling a 'dream come true' is the possibility he will do some work with Bobby Blue Bland.
McClain who will be 58, April 15, said though he is his own man in the music business, he isn't in his personal life. 'God is the director of my life and I'm his number one fan. I follow God's orders,' McClain said.
For the upcoming release McClain said it's some of his best work. However he believes his songs are like his children. He admits at one time under different management his songs weren't going to the 'right schools.'
However, since God has become 'The Other Man in The Band,' one of McClain's
new compositions, his songs are on the right track. Sure he thinks about the past pain. As a young boy he felt unloved, nevertheless, he has songs on the latest CD it took him 20 years to write.
He writes songs to help right the wrongs.
McClain is no longer without a home. He is modest about the resurgence in his career but is very appreciative he is able to sing and serve God with the gift he was given.
'I don't have a lot of money, but I'm as rich as a man can be because God in my life makes me a millionaire,' he said. 'I've had it bad, but now I'm good and I wake up every morning thanking God for my life.'
-- Amelia Feathers
Blues for the Soul - Telarc CD-83487
This album is a bit different than his previous work that I have been exposed to. However it sounds a lot more like what Mighty Sam sounded like when I saw him LIVE earlier this year…
It's more diverse than the other albums I have heard by Mighty Sam McClain and if all was right in the world, you would be hearing these songs on both your local Soul and Jazz radio stations, and you wouldn't be surprised one bit if it showed up on a Gospel radio show.
I also realize than many of you have never heard the music of Mighty Sam McClain and are at a disadvantage, to therefore I will help you out by including the names of some artists that a particular song will remind you of.
This is almost unfair to both Mighty Sam and the artists whose names I might drop here.
A better solution would be to go to Sam's web site where you can sample some of these tracks for yourself
Here are the tracks……
1. All We Need is Love
This song starts out with horns blaring and we know this is going to be different. What we have here is Mighty Sam bringing his fabulous band out of the shadows to accompany his soulful voice and the result is something that reminds you a great deal more than Al Green, than Otis Redding
2. Dark Side of the Street
Mighty Sam's band which consists of: Mighty Sam McClain, vocals, Kevin Belz - guitar, Bruce Katz - piano/hammond B-3, Barry Seleen, Hammond B-3, Tim Ingles - bass, Jim Arnold - drums - The Mighty Horns: Walter Platt - trumpet and horn arrangements, Chuck Langford - tenor sax, Kenny Wenzel - trombone, Joe Casano - trumpet will remind you a bit of Booker T and the MG's. And on this song about illicit love, they don't disappoint!
3. Love One Another
On this song Sam is pleading for the cause of universal love for one another, "even when we got the blues". When he sings these words you know damn well that they are coming at you in a serious way, perhaps too serious for some people. In my mind, these are the kind of lyrics that we don't hear enough of.
4. Going Back to New Orleans
Think about the Neville Brothers or Dr. John on this cut. It's just as FUNKY as it wants to be and Louisiana native, Mighty Sam is doing some serious Gospel type shouting as he pays homage to a city that he is obviously in love with.
5. No One Can Take Your Place
If you closed your eyes and listed to this song you would think that Al Green's band from the 1970's was playing behind Sam on this cut. Much of Mighty Sam's music is autobiographical and here Sam is singing the praises of his wife in a way that all husbands should
6. Jesus Got the Blues
This is one INCREDIBLE song, not only for it's title, but also for it's accompanying words. The band sounds like they are playing some DEEP Cold Blooded Slow Urban Blues, while Sam is singing a pretty heavy spiritual message. This is one BADD cut, perhaps my favorite on the album!
7. Sweet Lady
Do yall remember a Jazz/Blues singer named Joe Williams? This song will make you recall his music
8. Battlefield of Love
Last year there was a "revival" of "swing music". If you like that style of music, look no further because Mighty Sam has got the REAL THANG right here. Oh I know that some of you might be tempted to call this song "boggie woggie" of some such term, but this music sounds like something that "jitterbuggers" from the 30's or 40's might enjoy.
9. Mighty's Prayer
It's just what the title suggests. It's a prayer, but just to keep you on edge, this song also features a Pat Metheny style guitar solo right smack in the middle
10. Sing Me Some Blues
This song is pure "uptown urban blues", just like you might have heard at the Apollo during the 1950's. Think about the music of Johnny Otis here and you have got the picture!
11. Can't Stand It
Mix together the soulful sounds of Mighty Sam with some Hendrix style wah wah and some Blood Sweat and Tears style horns and you get this tasty morsal of a song.
12. Not I
It almost sounds like Aretha Franklin is playing the piano solo at the beginning of this song. "I once was BLIND, but now I see…"
Diverse as it is, the central theme of Mighty Sam's music remains intact, "we got to love one another, even when we got the blues". Mighty Sam is not your typical artist. His music is soulful, funky, jazzy, bluesy and yet his words challenge the listener to confront their own lives and hold themselves accountable for their actions. Supposedly "message music" went out in the 1970's, but Mighty Sam doesn't give a damn about what is trendy, he cares much more about telling the truth, and telling it straight from his heart.
Go to Sam's website and sample these songs for yourself (you won't be sorry)
By Bob Davis
I didn't catch all of the song titles so please accept my apologies...
Mighty Sam McClain was in his usual soulful groove. The biggest surprise here was the FUNKINESS of his band, which at times sounded to me like Booker T. & the MG's and at other times like the JB's.
1. SUPER FONKY crotch grabbin song - that sounded like Al Green singing in front of Booker T. & the MG's
2. Where Have You been so Long" - SERIOUS grinding music of the type that you will actually see people grinding to at 2 in the afternoon in certain inner city bars!
3. Thank you Mister - a bouncy positive "boggie'
4. "To his Mother The Lord Will" - this was also a STANK funk jam, with Mighty Sam providing the soulful vocals.
5. A Reggae Tinged Jam - nice beat
6. You Got To Prove it to Me - Funky stax style number
7. "Stand by Me" - GREAT cover of the Ben E. King classic, with improvisation and style
8. "Baby I'm Yours" - (no not a cover of the Barbra Lewis classic) VERY phunky cut, kinda sounding like the JB's being fronted by King Floyd. Great horn work
9. "The Thrill is Gone" - Very nice cover of the BB King classic
10. "Long Train Runnin" - nice cover of the Doobie brothers classic (put a little dobbie in your FUNK?)
11. "Love Train" - Accapella version of the old O'Jay's classic, very inspiring, very much on the mark
I have listened to all of Mighty Sam's CD's and as good as they are, seeing him live is a truly uplifting experience. He improvises on all of these songs and adds his own flava to the covers, and makes the songs his own..
If you have never checked out his CD's you can listen to Real Audio cuts at his website:
The show was held at Chicago Blues, located on 8th Ave between 13th & 14th
Street in Manhattan.
Sam and his band played for about 1.5 hrs, I got there at 11 pm and headed straight for the dressing room to meet Mighty Sam, he greeted me with a hug and we talked for a few minutes before it was time to go on stage.
I ordered an "iced tea", and then parked myself against a railing that separated the seating area from the dance floor. A few moments later, Sandra McClain (Sam's wife) came over and introduced herself to me. When I asked her how she knew it was me, she just looked at me and smiled. Then I turned around real quick, then back towards her and said
"I guess it would be pretty easy to spot here in this joint..."
We talked for about 20 minutes about everything from the Soul Patrol Mailing List (yes she's a member), the internet, the club, the upcoming European tour, driving directions to Lancaster, PA, and oh yes.....the music :)
I have talked with Sandra McClain many times over the phone and I had a delightful time talking not only with her, but all of the other folks I met in the club that night
Ya know, sometimes I think that Black folks think that we are still living in an era of legalized segregation, afraid to venture into places where they think white people might be or into places that don't advertise on "Negro radio stations" or on video music channels where folks are performing damn near naked and can't put together a sentence.
Or perhaps "spooked" by the word ..."Blues"?
By the looks of the place, you would have thought it was Mississippi in 1924 as opposed to NYC in Y2k.
Black folks need to somehow get past this
People write to me EVERY DAY, asking me where they can find some good ol SOUL MUSIC...
Well the answer to that question is usually found in places that use the words BLUES somewhere in the title!
This show had the feeling of what it must have been like to go to a concert by Sam and Dave, King Floyd, Otis Reading, or Sam Cooke.
The band was COOKIN and the singing was, well...
Each one of us who calls ourselves a "soul music fan", should make a pledge to ourselves to check out a live music event at a "blues venue" (concert, festival or club) during the next year.
If you thought that OUR music was lost, I'm here to tell you that it's just been hiding out in a place where YOU don't expect to find it, but it's sitting right there in front of your noses, waiting for YOU to reclaim it :)
Mighty Sam has got a POWERFUL message that runs like a thread throughout all of the songs he sang during the set. It's a POSITIVE message about LOVE, SOUL and GOD.
It's a message that we ALL need to be paying attention to
(With apologies to Rickey Vincent for the format of this review :-))
-- Bob Davis