By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
By Allie Conti
"You're the lowest form of human life, you ain't no better'n a blowfly." Those words were uttered by Lucinda Bryant, whose young grandson Clarence had developed the habit of making up dirty lyrics for popular songs. It's not clear who Grandma Bryant was dissing when she invented the Blowfly moniker - Reid says she spouted the words with such a wicked laugh that he was certain she was down with it.
In 1940, when Reid was born, Cochran, Georgia, was a sleepy Southern town, the only incorporated city in Bleckley County. The population of 3500 was roughly half white and half black. Cochran was in Georgia timber country; local farmers also grew cotton, soy, and winter wheat. There were two school systems, Reid remembers. One was black, the other white; Cochran's classrooms were not integrated until 1970. But that didn't matter much to young Clarence Reid, who had priorities more pressing than school.
Doc Reid disappeared when his son was a toddler, and for most of his life Clarence bitterly believed that "the bastard abandoned us - I wanted to find him so I could strangle him." Years later Reid learned from his mother that his father hadn't exactly abandoned the family. "I was very young," Annie Ree Collins explains. "My mother let me marry too young. I found I didn't like married life and what went with it. So we separated. I heard he was in the service, but I couldn't reach him. Later we found out he was missing in action, and after he was missing six years, he was declared dead."
As one of the older siblings in a family that would eventually grow to include eleven children, Clarence had to help out by working in the cotton fields. After a dawn-to-dusk workday, he came home to fetch wood, wash dishes, and tend to other chores. He says he bathed in a tin tub, and remembers always feeling unclean. "I caught the most hell," he says now, his brows arching and mouth curving in a strangely endearing, diamond-shaped symmetry. "What I really wanted to do, the thing I most wanted to do, was go to school. I wanted to be a doctor." When his mother moved to Miami in the mid-Forties, Reid stayed behind, living with his grandmother and a cousin.
No one else in the family expressed much interest in making music, Reid says, but he spent every spare moment listening to Macon radio stations. "You never heard a bad song on there," he recalls of the mostly hillbilly playlist. "Every song had a moral and a hook." One favorite, he says, was "The War Between the States" by Homer and Jethro, which Reid claims was the first rap song ever.
Reid also joined group excursions to Vidalia, a town about halfway to Savannah. Besides being the sweet-onion capital of the United States, Vidalia had a movie theater. Once, while the other kids were watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster, Reid says, he sneaked off to a nearby bar. The men there were big, bearded, and rough-hewn; beer went in, tobacco juice came out. "There was this one real mean-looking hillbilly white guy, with 'bacco in his beard," Reid says. "Blacks were scared of him, but they thought all whites were prejudiced. I was such a pain in the butt, this man was thinking how to get rid of this little black kid. You know, `What you want? What you want?' I loved Brach candy bars and they had them there. So he's going, `Is that it? You want a candy bar? Now get your ass out of here.' So I told him about how I wanted to know how to play a C on the piano. I knew my abc's, so if I knew which was C, then the next one has to be D, E, and so on. The black keys are sharps. I figured it out. You have two black keys, then three, then two, it's like that on every piano all the way down. That's how you tell. Piano teachers do it the hard way, teaching you the notes first. They take more time so they can make more money. I say put your finger next to the first black key, skip one, put the next finger on E, then after that move to C major. That makes you curious. If it doesn't sound right, you fool around to get it to sound right." After a brief piano lesson, the big white man reiterated his demand: "Now get your ass out of here."
At the age of nine Reid took the advice and ran away with it - walking and hitching his way south to Florida. No blacks offered him rides, he says, but rednecks did, and he managed to make it to West Palm Beach, where one of his aunts lived. Lying about his age, he later managed to land a job as a cafeteria dishwasher. One day the cook was absent, and Reid, already nicknamed Blue Flame for his speed at the stove, took over the short-order duties for good.
A jukebox distributor offered him a menial job sorting 45s, and Reid gave up the cafeteria gig. While working, he'd sing. "The boss heard me singing," Reid says. "He says, `What's the song?' I says, `That ain't no song. That's something I made up.' This went on for two or three months. I had this one - `Bom bom bom she-bomp wah, hold me darling, hold me tight' - it was a silly song. I said I could do better. He said it wasn't any worse than this new record that went, `Down, down, down, dooby-dooby.' Guess who that was? The Del-Vikings! Boss says, `This sounds just like the one you was singing.' Here's some little black kid with no shoes and no school and he sounds just like the Del-Vikings." A few years later, when Reid was about eighteen, his boss gave him Henry Stone's business card. "Henry said to me, `Clarence, you're going to be a big star,'" Reid recalls of their first meeting. "And then he put me to work in a warehouse for twenty dollars a week."