Willie Clarke on the Rise of Deep City Records
Willie Clarke and Henry Stone at the Rock Your Baby documentary fundraiser.
Photo by Jacob Katel
In 1975, Willie Clarke won a Grammy for his work on Betty Wright's "Where Is The Love". It's one of many hits he wrote in the '70s for the biggest independent record company in the world, Henry Stone's TK Productions, out of Hialeah.
But Clarke's recording career began in the 1960s, when he and a college buddy named Johnny Pearsall started a label called Deep City, based out of Johnny's Records in Liberty City. Their goal was to be bigger than Motown.
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Clarke and Pearsall met at Florida A&M University where they both played in the school's nationally renowned Marching 100 band. Its aggressive rhythms would greatly influence their sound. Pearsall was from the Tallahassee area and Clarke from Miami. The two became fast friends.
"Me and Johnny Pearsall were in college and everything was a challenge ... All the different courses. I'd never heard of geometry, algebra, never thought I'd have to learn all that. Never thought I'd cross the burning sands and be in a Greek fraternity. But music came easy.
"We had an idea that we could be bigger than Motown. We were possessed by creativity. Creativity was an adventure to us, and our number-one thing was to create music, our own stuff, just to marvel at it. I said 'I can write songs. I write lyrics all day long. Let's put out our own music.'"
So soon enough, they both moved to Miami. Clarke became a middle-school art teacher, and Pearsall set up Johnny's Record Shop in the heart of Liberty City. It became their label's headquarters.
"The thing with Deep City was we were mostly, like, neophytes. We were in the beginning. It was all uncharted territory, like the deepest South anyone could be. That's why we named it Deep City."
They quickly learned that all the talent, musical ability, and wax recordings in the world were not enough to make it in the music business.
"Miami was the end of the world. There was no respect. The further you went in the South, the less attention you gonna get. For two black men in the record industry who wanted to be like Columbia and Atlantic? Nobody paid attention or took us serious."
But the two set to work recording and releasing records in limited runs of as few as 300 discs. "If you look at the old records you don't see anything really on the label. You don't even see my name as producer. At the start, we were just puttin' music on wax. On vinyl."
The pair knew they wanted to do more, and that they had to get their paperwork in order to be a major independent. However the intricacies of the music business were a mystery to them.
"Johnny Pearsall majored in business education, so he knew all about making a paper trail. We knew it was a business and we were orientated to get out paperwork in place. But whenever we tried get answers on how to do it, we would get the runaround," says Clarke. "Back then, if you called any of the publishing companies, they laughed at you.
"Black men, especially in the South, we were blocked out of that knowledge, that connection."
"I remember asking Henry Stone, before TK, when he was a distributor. I went to get some info from him because I knew he would know everything, and they sent me downtown to the courthouse to get a music publishing license.
"Now here I am goin' all the way downtown, finding parking, going to floor to floor, looking for an application for music publishing and they were lookin' at me like I was crazy.
"I went back to Henry and said, 'Hey, man, what the hell,' and they laughed at me. Henry and they group just laughed. They were able to pull that over as a result of I was just trying to get started in the business. I lost out. But by Johnny being the paperwork man, we slowly but surely knew we gotta get our publishing registered."
The dynamic duo forged ahead, making recordings at studios like saxophone player Bobby Dukoff's place in South Miami, with singers like Helene Smith, and nightclub musicians playing the sessions. They'd press the vinyl and get their sounds out locally, and sometimes throughout the state.
"Johnny and I both loved the it, and being able to say,'"Hey, we made this,' really motivated us. We had all that music with Little Beaver, Them Two, James Knight and the Butlers, and a whole lot of other people."
Their music was just as good, if not better than Motown's, more street, less sheen, but they suffered from lack of distribution and promotional spending power. Their label never broke state lines. In the end, though, it was a disagreement over women that heralded the label's dissolution.
Willie Clarke discovered a young girl by the name of Betty Wright singing in the doorway to Johnny's Record Shop. In her vocal ability, he saw the promise of mainstream success. Meanwhile, Pearsall wanted his wife Helene Smith to be the star of the label.
So Johnny took Helene Smith one way, and Willie Clarke took Betty Wright, Clarence Reid, and Willie "Little Beaver" Hale to Henry Stone's Tone Distribution and Alston label in Hialeah, where they all joined forces and recorded "Cleanup Woman."
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