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Willie Clarke, Miami Independent Music Pioneer, Talks Growing Up in Overtown

Willie Clarke (second from right) and some fellow SoFla legends: Willie "Little Beaver" Hale, Jimmie "Bo" Horne, Timmy Thomas, and Henry Stone.
Willie Clarke (second from right) and some fellow SoFla legends: Willie "Little Beaver" Hale, Jimmie "Bo" Horne, Timmy Thomas, and Henry Stone.
Jacob Katel

Miami independent music pioneer Willie Clarke is a Grammy winner whose music has been sampled by Beyonce.

In the mid 1960s, he and a college buddy named Johnny Pearsall started a label called Deep City, based out of Johnny's Records in Liberty City. It was the first independent, black-owned record label in Florida, and today, its output is revered by both vinyl record collectors and digital re-issue soul heads.

Clarke grew up in Overtown, surrounded by nightclubs and jukeboxes in a golden era of entertainment and entrepreneurialism. His lyrical style was shaped by years of radio cartoons, rhythm and blues, and Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five's "Saturday Night Fish Fry."

Here are some of his memories of growing up in Overtown.

See Also:

-"Deep City Records Documentary: A Behind the Scenes Look"

"I never can actually remember when I first heard music. It's been with me from the very first day, when I was actually born.

"And to this day, good music will always make me stop in my tracks and make me get all into my mind and my body and interpret it. Songs are like stories, complete stories that you can hear in three or four minutes with a beginning, middle, and end.

"As a kid, I'd listen to a song and see who was telling the story, and how well, and I'd just start singing these songs, and TV wasn't kicking in when I was growing up. We had to really depend on radio.

"Radio was Superman, Batman, and the Lone Ranger. I memorized a lot of that dialogue. I would be fascinated by the 'get back at ya' cliches and they would all stick in my head.

"They'd open with the theme song and then you'd hear 'The Lone Ranger, in early Western America, a masked man with a faithful Indian companion who led the fight for law and order in those days of yesterday, the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver, The Lone Ranger!'

"Those shows were a major influence to my songwriting. Then of course, there was the music."

 

Willie Clarke, Miami Independent Music Pioneer, Talks Growing Up in Overtown
via Miami Times Newspaper, 1958

"Back in those days," Willie recalls, "the guys on the radio were not called DJs. We didn't know what to call them. The radio station that was best was WMBM, that was the only Miami station that actually played black music. There was Butterball, and King Coleman, and Fred Hannah and a few other jocks.

"The first one I remember was Butterball, and the Blind Gospel DJ who used to come on in the morning."

Willie Clarke, Miami Independent Music Pioneer, Talks Growing Up in Overtown
via Miami Times Newspaper, 1958

"In the morning, we would wake up to Sam Cooke and the Blind Boys, and Reverend C. L. Franklin [Aretha Franklin's father]. Then after gospel came Butterball with that 'Saturday Night Fish Fry,' Louis Jordan kind of music."

Willie Clarke, Miami Independent Music Pioneer, Talks Growing Up in Overtown
via Miami Times Newspaper, 1958

"Butterball was amazing. He would say stuff like, 'It's the Ball, y'all,' and talk trash and ad lib all through the record, talk all the way through it, then back it up and play it again. It was very entertaining.

'But, and this sounds crazy now, as soon as the sun went down, they had to sign off. That was it, they would just stop broadcasting till the next day. We would hear that last goodbye, and they'd play 'Goodnight Sweetheart,' and say, 'Well, it's time to go, I really hate to leave you, but I really must say goodnight sweetheart.'

"That song to this day is a very popular doo-wop. Just click in 'Goodnight Sweetheart' on YouTube and you'll find it. Those songs back then was all really descriptive, and lyrically, they told a great story. Those were the real love songs."

Willie Clarke, Miami Independent Music Pioneer, Talks Growing Up in Overtown
via Miami Times Newspaper, 1958

In the old days, "no gangsta music," Willie insists, "woulda ever made it in the door.

"The songs and DJs had a lot of moral values going for them, and the DJ was very respected in the community.

"Butterball I liked 'cause he had that real rough-and-ready sound. He used to host the dance on the weekend and it was the DJs mostly that gave the big dances. The other way we got our music was on the jukebox."

 

Willie Clarke, Miami Independent Music Pioneer, Talks Growing Up in Overtown
via Miami Times Newspaper, 1958

"I grew up in Overtown, on Seventh Street, between Third and Fourth Avenue. Later, I moved up to 12th street, in the area of the Harlem Square club.

"WMBM was based on Miami Beach, but they also had a little broadcast studio in the heart of Overtown. Had a radio station right on the corner. They built a big glass booth, and on my way to school, Butterball would be in the window playing records.

"Between 6 and 8 o'clock, Butterball would be on the air in that window. He would make passes at the cute women. He would make comments about people walking by. That was what I call the golden days. No drivebys.

"I played in the band at Booker T. Washington High School. I played drums. It was a whole culture centered around entertainment. There was a nightclub every three or four doors.

"On Sixth Street, they had the Lord Calvert, one of the swankest uptown hotel nightclubs. It was the centerpiece of black Miami. 'Cause we was totally segregated on up to the '70s.

"Segregation was really dominant. But to black people growing up in those days, we had our own world with everything right there in it. We were the definition of a prosperous, energetic, motivated race of people.

"So from that atmosphere is what motivated and molded my style of writing.

"My heroes were Roy Rogers, Lash LaRue, Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy. Those were my heroes, and the music they sang was my music, like, "Don't Fence Me In," let me roam, let me be free. Those titles they came up with, those catchy titles really influenced me. Oh, man, as a kid, I was a story teller.

"We had a gang called the 7th Street Gang too. I was the leader. We didn't shoot people, we just whooped ass.

"We had Goodbread Alley by 14th Street. And we had Bucket of Blood. These were little areas in Overtown. Those was the close-knit houses built all together. If you walked between two back doors, you could put your arms out to either side and touch both at once.

"That was the nearest alleys in the world. You could touch both houses. They were very close together. I guess they did that for the hurricanes or whatever, which they withstood time and time again.

"Bucket of Blood and Goodbread Alley, boy......

"The 20th Street gang was just about the only people we were really kind of scared of. They was known for whoopin' ass from sunrise to sundown.

"When you grow up in the middle of the city, it's natural. Natural as eating bacon and eggs.

"I used to leave home on the weekend and hit the town. I was too young to get in the club, so I would just stand outside and listen. On Seventh Street and Third Avenue, they had what they called a juke joint and they'd be in there dancin' their ass off to "Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well.'

"I was crazy about that song. So funny.

"It was a beautiful time to be alive, man, and that's what inspired so much of my music."

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