The Ballad of Clifford Curry
“Much has been written and published about me on the Internet. Some of it is inaccurate. Here’s hopin’ I remembered it right.”
~ Clifford Curry
Born into Gospel, raised on Rhythm & Blues, and singing and writing Rock & Roll until he was crowned “The King of Beach Music”, Clifford Curry’s musical contributions have touched the hearts and souls of millions of fans throughout the world.
Clifford Curry grew up in rural East Tennessee in the 1940’s. During his boyhood he listened to his father’s collection of 78 records on an old RCA Victrola in their rustic home, along with his father, Clifford (Senior), his mother, Anna Mae Johnson Curry and younger brother, Floyd “Bud” Curry.
After grade school at Lyon’s Elementary, Curry attended Austin High School in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he was well known for three things: playing baseball, caddying at the exclusive Cherokee Country Club, and being an outstanding singer.
Curry wanted to be a professional baseball player but at that time no formal African American leagues had been established. For pocket change he caddied at the Cherokee Country Club. After hauling golf clubs all week long for the white clientele, caddies, who were of mixed race, played on Mondays. That’s when Curry, a guy who would become well known for his slick moves on stage, played as a scratch golfer and won amateur tournaments. “To this day I still enjoy golf.”
Early musical inspiration from records and radio motivated Curry to do more than just listen. “The songs and artist’s performances had a profound effect upon me that I couldn’t describe then and I can’t now…a feeling I’d never experienced before. I played those records until I wore them out.” Curry counts Louis Jordan, Mahalia Jackson, Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, Clara Ward, The Davis Sisters, Brother Joe May, Sam Cooke & The Soul Stirrers, and his favorite, Dorothy Love and The Gospel Harmonettes, as his major musical influences.
In 1949, the first black radio Disc Jockey in Knoxville, “Acey Boy” Wilson, hosted a rhythm and blues show on Friday and Saturday nights. Another black radio personality, Walt Kennedy, aired a Gospel Hour weekly. A few years later, 1953-55, a country radio DJ on WKXV, Claude Tomkinson, changed his name to “Claude The Cat” and played an hour of R&B on Saturdays. “He had a great show and I listened to him faithfully. When R&B shows would perform in Chilhowee Park across town in East Knoxville, Claude would give away free tickets to the shows for the fans who could write the most “Hip” letter. I would win almost every time. I was too young to go to the shows so I would go downtown to Knoxville, stand on the corner of Vine and Central and sell my tickets. I really wanted to see those shows but my father forbade me because I was still in high school. Once I even won a ticket to see Lloyd Price and he still wouldn’t let me go. I was heartbroken. Lloyd Price remains one of my many great musical heroes.”
Little did Curry know how important the fine art of listening would become to his singing and songwriting. “I sang along with the radio and began collecting records that included, ‘The Dominoes’, ‘The Clovers’, ‘The Swallows’, ‘The Orioles’, ‘The Ravens’, ‘Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters’, ‘The Moonglows’, ‘Hank Ballard & The Midnighters’ and ‘The 5 Royales’. I bought records from Sam Jacobs who owned the Knox Record Store in downtown Knoxville. Jacobs brought the R&B acts to Knoxville who performed at Chilhowee Park. The Gem Theater was another great venue to see R&B performers. Later on, my friend, Tucker Robertson, bought the Knox Record Store and renamed it, “Tucker’s Record Shop”. Lucky for me Tucker knew my favorite artists and gave me promotional records for my collection.” Although he didn’t play an instrument Curry composed poems and melodies in his head and sang them over and over. “When my father realized that I was serious about music he bought me a Wollensack quarter inch reel-to-reel tape recorder.”
Curry attended Austin High School, 1951-55 during a time when the lines between races were clearly drawn and respected. By 1953 Curry garnered a reputation in his school as an outstanding singer. Benjamin Washington was a classmate at Austin High who introduced Curry to his singing group, The Echoes. They included the Myers brothers, Herbert, and twins, John and James, Charles Holloway (bass singer), and Benny Washington (lead singer).
“Back then Bearden High School, (all white) was about three miles from my home whereas Austin High School, (all black) was well across town. On Friday nights Bearden allowed me and some friends to watch Bearden High play football. One Friday while watching a game, five Bearden guys, who’d been told I sang, invited me to join them. I said I’d get back to them.” Back home, Curry’s grandmother, Katie, convinced him to follow his passion. “She weighed the issues and encouraged me to accept their offer. I told the band ‘yes’. Word spread. We played and were very popular in my hometown.” Known as “The Fabulous Six”, Curry at sixteen became the lead singer for twins, Lewey (rhythm guitar) and Dewey Guy (sax), Jerry Johnson (lead guitar), Wayne Cronan (drums) and Bob Adams (bass singer). “We performed radio hits, R&B and sang harmonies like The Everly Brothers as Knoxville’s first racially integrated band.”
By 1954 he was a senior in high school. Curry sang with The Echoes for black audiences in churches and at clubs, and with The Fabulous Six at the University of Tennessee fraternity parties, debutant balls, and white night clubs. When The Echoes quit high school to go on tour Curry’s father refused to allow him to go until he got his diploma. With The Echoes away, Curry continued with The Fabulous Six who grew more willing and eager to play his songs. “Back then, I earned about $125.00 a night performing, which was great money for anyone, and unheard of for a kid musician.”
While The Echoes toured during high school, Curry’s four other friends formed a group called The Bingos. That group included, Willie Earl Drummond, Veste Huddleston, Clayton Whittington and Leon “Mickey” Prater. Curry wrote his own songs and sang into his small reel-to-reel tape recorder until the group saved enough money to drive to Nashville to record one 45 on Nashboro Records. Curry was the lead singer on both; “Don’t Say Tomorrow” and “You For Me” the later, a song Curry co-wrote with Mickey Prater. “Then the owner of Nashboro Records, Ernie Young, changed our name to The Hollyhocks. The man loved flowers. At that time, 1954-55, we didn’t even know that a Hollyhock was a flower!”
Curry graduated from Austin High School in 1955. The Echoes returned from their tour and during the next two years Curry honed his craft beside them. “About that time, I’d written a song, “Mr. Moon” and sang it for The Echoes. 1955-56 we drove to New York to audition for Atlantic Records. We stopped in Newark, New Jersey on a whim to see Savoy and ended up auditioning. We sang, “Mr. Moon” and Savoy signed us on the spot. They changed our name to The Five Pennies and the band was given the opportunity to record three 45’s on the Savoy record label. Curry wrote three of the six sides, “Mr. Moon”, “(Mine) For A Lifetime” and “Money”, which he co-wrote with the Myers brothers.
Curry toured with The Five Pennies extensively, performing in black dance halls throughout the Southeastern United States and the band opened for a major Savoy artist, Nappy Brown. Brown was well known for his blues hits, “Don’t Be Angry” and “Night Time Is The Right Time”.
While performing with The Echoes/The Five Pennies and The Bingos/The Hollyhocks, Curry studied Lloyd Price, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Big Joe Turner, Jesse Belvin, Johnny Ace, B.B. King, Bobby (Blue) Bland, Larry Williams, and Jackie Wilson. Each of these artists and many more like Wilson Pickett, and Junior Parker, strengthened his understanding of singing and songwriting. During the 1960’s Curry was further inspired by Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Jerry Butler, William Bell, and later on “I dug the Delta Blues and singers like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolfe, and Sonny Boy Williamson.” Curry paid strict attention to the songwriters of these artist’s hits and applied what he learned to his own craft, believing it important and honorable to acknowledge these roots.
“While singing with The Fabulous Six, I read Billboard Magazine like the bible. I’d follow the path of producers and record labels. One day I submitted some songs to Ralph Stevens, a radio promoter who’d just left RCA in Los Angeles to run his own label, Ridge Crest Records, out of La Grange, Georgia. He liked our style and signed us for management. The Fabulous Six’s announcement ran in the December 1, 1958 issue of Billboard Magazine. Those first singles recorded on Ridge Crest included, “Rock Awhile” “Crazy For You”, and “Kiss, Kiss, Kiss” backed by “Can’t Stand To Be Alone” which Lewey and Dewey sang.”
Impressed with The Fabulous Six, Stevens talked them up to his brother, Hugh, who lived in Miami and had connections with local clubs. Stevens pushed the band to drive down to Florida to build their name and expand their reputation. The band had worked and traveled together for all their gigs. Driving south from Tennessee they picked up Stevens. Until then, Curry, with or without a band, had never experienced an antagonistic racial incident, but around midnight at the Georgia/Florida state line, the car stopped for gas and a bathroom break. Curry didn’t think twice when he followed his band mates into the bathroom until he walked back out into the angry face of the white gas station attendant. The guy threatened them with a baseball bat. Stevens sweet-talked the owner to calm down and the band sped on towards Florida unharmed.
“The Fabulous Six records sold well. Hugh booked us at several clubs in Miami Beach where fans loved us. Once in Florida, we met Earl Durance owner of Blue Sky Records in St. Cloud Florida. He loved our music and changed our name from The Fabulous Six to The Continders. We recorded one single (45) with two songs I’d written, “Please Mr. D.J.” and “Yes I Do”.”
While in Miami, the band played with a tremendous black duo, The Trenier Twins. “We got booked at The Fontainebleu for a private party. We also played the party with a killer sax man, Charlie McCoy, and his band. That’s when I first got to know Charlie who later moved to Nashville and became very famous. But I studied the musicianship of The Trenier Twins and learned how to incorporate their genius into my performances. They were great!” Five nights a week, Monday through Saturday “…we packed ‘em in.” The club manager was adamant that during breaks, Curry would stay on the stage or go to the dressing room. In essence he was not allowed to fraternize with the fans because of his skin color. Curry wasn’t offended. As long as he was singing he was in heaven.
One night during spring break, a bunch of Boston college students who’d come in nightly and grown friendly with Curry, invited him to sit at their table. The Club Manager gave Curry the o.k. and he talked with the fans who were mesmerized by his performance and songs. When it was time to return to the stage Curry stood up. Walking backwards he didn’t watch where he was going and kept his eyes on the table of students. The minute he turned around a sucker punch creased his face. A brawl broke out. In Curry’s defense one of the Boston fans got cut and Curry was rushed to the dressing room. He later discovered that a competing nightclub down the street sent someone to start trouble for stealing their audience. That incident scared The Fabulous Six. In light of young Emmett Till’s covered up murder (1955) during the dawn of the civil rights movement and heated racial demonstrations in the country, the band quit the club immediately and headed back to Knoxville. To save their lives, the band headed north in the wake of a lawsuit as the club owner tried to sue the band for breach of contract.
In 1959, back in Knoxville, Curry joined The Bubba Suggs Band for a tour of weekend one-nighters all over the south. Bubba Suggs was one of the best bands Curry recalls ever having toured with. Bubba Suggs played Hammond organ and kicked bass pedal with Charles Suggs, (alto sax), Paul Suggs, (baritone sax) Donny Turner, (tenor sax), Walter Hamilton (guitar) and Irving Lisenbee (drums). It was with this band that Paul Suggs christened their lead singer with the moniker, “Sweet Clifford” after the famous jazz trumpeter Sweet Clifford Brown. The Suggs band played together for four years backing up Little Willie John and Joe Tex singing R&B. “I learned a lot from Little Willie’s vocalization and I loved the showmanship of Joe Tex.” The Suggs Band was great but Curry had ambitions that exceeded their vision and he continued his songwriting.
(Curry with The Midnights)
“In 1963, I’d left The Bubba Suggs band and returned to Knoxville. By 1965 I recorded six original songs for Excello Records: which included “Just a Lonely Boy”, “Just What Is Wrong”, and “Things Gotta Get Better”. When the performance community discovered Curry was back home, another white band, The Midnights invited Curry to join. The band included, Rob Galbraith (piano and trumpet), Townley Johnson (tenor sax), Jim Whaley (lead guitar), Richard Wray (drums) and Wayne Marine (bass). The band played primarily at the Pump Room on the campus of the University of Tennessee where they had a standing Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night gig. The students packed the club which led to the band playing at lots of private parties at fraternity and sorority houses.
At that time Galbraith attended the University of Tennessee and worked nights as a disc jockey at WNOX, the biggest radio station in the area. Galbraith was on the air from 8 p.m. to midnight. After midnight, Curry went to the station and wrote songs Galbraith arranged. Curry composed poetry and melodies and recorded them on his personal tape recorder. From this they expanded their collaboration but Knoxville lacked a good quality recording studio so Galbraith and Curry drove to Nashville in search of one. After a few trips, the duo met producer/publisher/songwriter/ and a singer with The Crickets, Buzz Cason, who had just returned from working in Los Angeles. Curry dropped off a few of his songs. Cason left them with, “You’ll hear from me…” and Galbraith and Curry thought that was the end of it.
“I don’t think Buzz thought too much of my songs but he liked my voice.” Curry remembers. One night when Galbraith was on the air in Knoxville, Cason called and asked for Curry.
“We’re going to send him some songs on tape and we want him to come to Nashville to do a recording session.” Cason said. Two of the songs included, “She Shot A Hole In My Soul” which was written by Mac Gayden and Chuck Neese. The other was “We’re Gonna Hate Ourselves In The Morning” written by Arthur Alexander and Dale Ward who were local singer/songwriters.
Fast as he could get there Curry hopped a Greyhound to Nashville. Cason met him at the bus station and they drove to Wayne Moss’ Cinderella Studios in Madison, TN. Moss, famous for his guitar riff on Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman”, was the engineer. Backing Curry were, Mac Gayden (guitar), Kenny Buttrey (drums), Larry Butler (piano), Bergen White (trombone), Bob Phillips (trumpet) and Norbert Putnam (bass). Carol Montgomery, wife of the producer, Bob Montgomery and Buzz Cason crooned the background vocals.
Cason had just joined forces with Bobby Russell to form their own label, Elf Records. Russell known for writing his hits “Honey” and “Little Green Apples” composed “Need A Little Help Girl” specifically for Curry. “She Shot A Hole In My Soul” backed by “We’re Gonna Hate Ourselves In The Morning” was released on Elf in 1967.
All the while, back in Knoxville, Rob Galbraith proved to be Curry’s most dedicated advocate. Galbraith played “She Shot A Hole In My Soul” on that AM Station with a 100,000-watt outreach. Luckily it had enough bandwidth to be picked up from Knoxville to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and thus began Curry’s giant step forward into Southeastern United States Beach Music.
As Galbraith aired “She Shot A Hole In My Soul” the song caught on like wildfire throughout the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Besides Galbraith, James Brown Enterprises, (WJBE) also aired Curry’s songs in Knoxville. “Among those who played my song were several Radio Stations beyond Knoxville who were directly responsible for breaking my record. Charlie Brown, Jack Kane and Dale Van Horn at WKIX in Raleigh, NC and Jack Gale at Big WAYS in Charlotte, NC were devoted DJs. Joe Sullivan aired it on WMAK in Nashville, TN and WKGN in Knoxville along with Woody and Leo Windham gave me extensive airplay at WCOS in Columbia South Carolina. Along with these great DJs, Deacon Dawson who hosted AM radio in Myrtle Beach on WTGR – Tiger Radio, John Singleton, the late Bill Smith, Bill Hennecy and Steve Mims played my record extensively during its ’67 release. Later on, WTGR became the FM station, WKZG and Deacon Dawson continued to play my record as a part of the music that filled the airwaves along the beach.”
While listening to Rob Galbraith on station WNOX in Knoxville, TN, a promoter, Robert Hunicutt called Galbraith at the station and confirmed a weekend booking in April, 1967 in Raleigh N.C. at his Williams Lake Beach and Swimming Club in Dunn, N.C. This was the first opportunity for Curry to perform in the Carolinas. The following weekend, Hunicutt called his friend, Cecil Corbett, who owned a beach club in Myrtle Beach, S.C. and booked Curry over Easter Break. Curry performed with The Tams, The Showmen, and The In-Men Band. “These two weeks jump-started my career and I was introduced to the genre of “beach music”.” Everything else is history. “She Shot A Hole In My Soul” shot to #1 and during its success the DJ’s played the ‘B’ side, “We’re Gonna Hate Ourselves In The Morning” which became another huge success on regional charts throughout the Southeast.
Curry always kept note of any recording studio that produced great records. He followed productions at Cosmos’ Studio in New Orleans, King Studios in Cincinnatti, Stax and Sun in Memphis, Malaco Studios in Jackson, Mississippi, Duke-Peacock Studios in Houston, Texas, Universal Studios in Chicago, Bell Sound Studio in New York, Studio East in Charlotte, North Carolina and the Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Curry’s conclusion: Great Studios produce great music and he’d used them in the future.
From 1967-69 Curry recorded seven more singles on Elf Records. None charted as high as his first success. Between 1970-73 he recorded three songs each on Abbott Records, Caprice and SSS but was most well known as one of thee voices of the Carolina Beach Music scene. In 1977, Curry recorded two singles on Buddah Records, “Body Shop” and “Moving In The Same Circles”. What made Curry’s music memorable was his cut in 1980, “Shag With Me” on Woodshed Records, followed by “Let’s Have A Party” (Archie Jordan).
Curry scored high with his double-sided hit in the beach music market. To this day, these two songs are just as popular among his audiences as they were then. Curry’s contribution to the music industry continues with his own recordings and re-releases as evidenced by Collectables Records 1995 twenty-song compilation, “The Best of Clifford Curry”, and a 1995 and 1997 European Tour with The Excello Legends, Maurice Williams (The Zodiacs) and Archie “Tighten Up” Bell. Some notable songs written for other artists include; “He’s Gonna Smile On Me”, 1973, with Thomas Cain which was a huge success for The Oak Ridge Boys and the hit “Just Drifting Along” co-written with Warren Moise for Bill Pinkney and The Original Drifters in1984.
Curry’s home is in Nashville, TN. Music has been his sole support since High School. He continues to write and record towards his next release. His latest CD, “The Soul Of Clifford Curry” came out in 2010. Curry gratefully acknowledges the help of producers, Bruce Dees, who played on many of Ronnie Milsap’s hits, and Clayton Ivey whose music is memorable on Muscle Shoals hits recorded at Malaco in Mississippi. Curry still tours and takes delight in the smiling faces of his ‘sing along’ audience. “The Lord has truly blessed me. I’m still able to do what I love.”