ALICE CLARK: ‘Alice Clark’ (We Want Sounds)

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No one would doubt that the 1970s was a rich and fertile time for soul music. In fact, there was so much talent on offer in terms of solo singers, both male and female, that it’s not surprising, perhaps, that some very gifted vocalists failed to make a name for themselves in such a competitive environment and fell by the wayside. Such was the fate of Alice Clark. Born in Brooklyn in 1947, she was a gospel-reared singer who at the age of 21 cut a single helmed by Billy Vera called ‘You Got A Deal’ for the small Rainy Day label before moving to Warner Bros/Seven Arts later the same year and cutting the George Kerr-produced Motown-style stomper,  ‘You Hit Me (Right Where You Hurt Me).’ Though the Warner deal didn’t last long – the single flopped but was later embraced by the UK’s Northern Soul scene –  Clark’s talent was appreciated by Bob Shad in 1972, a noted New York record producer who had just started his own label, Mainstream. A savvy operator, Shad put Clark in the Record Plant studio with some of the ace musicians that were then backing Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway (guitarist Cornell Dupree, pianist, Paul Griffin, and drummer, Bernard Purdie) along with a horn section under the direction of arranger, Ernie Wilkins. What resulted was the only LP of Clark’s career, an eponymous 10-track set that was a stunning showcase for the singer’s talent.

Despite its undoubted quality, ‘Alice Clark’ didn’t take off like the singer and her record company had hoped. There are a variety of reasons for this, of course, the main one being the fact that Mainstream was a small indie label without much clout in the marketplace and therefore couldn’t compete with the likes of Motown, Atlantic, and P.I.R.   Although after this, Alice Clark continued to perform, she never recorded again and because of this, her life is shrouded in mystery. Now, though, this new deluxe reissue of her Mainstream album (original 1972 pressings can fetch up to £200) sheds light on Alice’s life thanks to some wonderfully informative liner notes in the accompanying booklet, which include recollections from  her grandson, Anthony Clark, who reveals how his grandmother sacrificed her music career to raise her children and grandchildren. Reminiscences by the album’s original recording engineer, Carmine Rubino, illuminate the background to the recording session while a perspicuous liner note essay by Marcus J. Moore gives the music some valuable context. There’s also an introduction by Mia and Judd Apatow, Bob Shad’s grandchildren, who are also the current custodians of the Mainstream catalogue.

Listening to this reissue of her self-titled 1972 LP for Bob Shad’s Mainstream label, it’s immediately apparent that Alice Clark possessed a superb, gospel-reared voice and could probably have give Aretha Franklin or Gladys Knight a run for their money – if she’d had the chance and fate had been kinder. The opening cut is a gentle but soulful repurposing of Jimmy Webb’s ‘I Keep It Hid,’ originally recorded by country singer, Glen Campbell. It was released as the set’s only 45 by Mainstream but failed to get noticed. Nevertheless, it’s a great way to open the album, illustrating Clark’s gift at emotive vocals and bringing a lyric alive.

There’s a subtle jazz tinge to the Petula Clark-co-written ‘Looking At Life’ (recorded by the Surrey-born singer on her LP, ‘Petula ’71’) thanks to Joe Newman’s plaintive trumpet line on which both Clark (Alice, that is) and the well-oiled rhythm section shine.

The horn section is also impressive and make their indelible mark on the more strident ‘Don’t Wonder Why’ while the more meditative and poignant ‘Maybe This Time’ is a wistful reflection on the vicissitudes of love. The uptempo ‘Charms Of The Arms Of Love’ is the first of three strong tunes penned by soul man, Bobby Hebb (of ‘Sunny’ fame). The other two are the breezy but declamatory ‘Don’t You Care’ featuring some fine funkafied electric piano by Paul Griffin and slick, syncopated  drumming by Bernard Purdie, and ‘Hard Hard Promises.’  

Fans of Donny Hathaway will recognise ‘Hey Girl,’ an Earl DeRouen tune that appeared on his 1971 album ‘Live’ (interestingly, the song is listed as ‘Hey Girl’ on the credits to the ‘Alice Clark’ album despite the fact that  she actually sings it as ‘Hey Boy’).

Though ignored on its release in 1972, ‘Alice Clark’ accrued more fans as time went on. In fact, its popularity grew when it was revived as part of the UK’s Acid Jazz scene in the early ’90s. Ace Records made the album available in 2010 as part of a CD compilation, ‘The Studio Recordings 1968-1972,’ but now We Want Sounds are about to give soul fans the ultimate vinyl reissue of ‘Alice Clark,’ adorned in a replica of its original gatefold sleeve complete with a 20-page booklet filled with lots of rare photos gleaned from the Mainstream archives. A cult classic.

‘Alice Clark’ is released as a Record Store Day special and is available from April 13th.

(CW) 4/5