blowfly n. Any of several flies of the family Calliphoridae that deposit their eggs in carcasses or carrion or in open sores and wounds.
The American Heritage Dictionary
After riding a Metrobus from his home just south of Joe Robbie Stadium to the North Miami Beach record company where he works, Clarence Reid, always one to pitch in, volunteers to help unload albums from a distribution truck. A couple of passersby, teen-agers, notice something familiar in the kind, round face of the 50-year-old man, as he hoists stacks of vinyl. Who is this guy?
The teens think they know, and they're a little excited. "You ain't him," says one. "You ain't Blowfly." Reid, playing along, begins singing. "No, you ain't him," the boys smirk. "I don't believe it," says one, all posed cynicism and giggles. "If you're really Blowfly, why are you unloading a truck?"
"Hey," Reid replies, "it's my company's truck. It needs to be done, and somebody's gotta do it." Although he feels no obligation to prove anything, once Reid's on, he's on. He lets loose the trademark booming laugh. Aahhhaooohhhahh!
The boys continue to insist they aren't convinced, until Reid finally extends the long middle finger of his right hand in an unmistakable gesture. "Damn!" the boys exclaim. "You are Blowfly!"
Actually he's not. Not right now. He's Clarence Reid, music-business veteran and million-selling songwriter, as comfortable taking out the trash or off-loading product as he is sitting behind a soundboard in a recording studio or writing funky, soulful tunes. The transformation into Blowfly, the naughty alter ego, is something else, the Clark Kent/Superman metamorphosis gone kinky. It begins with Clarence Reid stripped to his underwear. He tugs on sparkle-gold pants so tight he needs help pulling up the zipper along his hip. Over the pants goes a pair of sparkle-gold shorts. The matching sleeveless, sequined top has a stylized, pink BF insignia on the front. The cape is black on one side, bright green on the other. A tight black mask, which causes the emerging Blowfly's shaggy hair to poke out through the top, is worn underneath a loose mask, sparkle-gold with purple trim, complete with cowl. And then comes the laugh. Aahhhaooohhhahh! And the extended middle finger. And the act.
Typically, Blowfly is joined in performance by a band and by several women - dancers and backup singers - wearing pink, yellow, or green Afro wigs. The star of the show mixes stand-up comedy (for example, how to acquire anatomical information about a woman by listening to her at the rest-room door), singing and rapping of Blowfly party tunes, and graphic bastardizations of hits, such as Kenny Rogers's "Lady," in which the knight in shining armor becomes "your dick in shining rubber." That tune, Blowfly says, is the most frequently requested number in his entire repertoire. "It's X-rated," he says. "But it's sensitive."
Of course raunchy "party" tunes recorded by black artists are nothing new. Since the Twenties groups such as the Mississippi Mud Mashers ("Bring It on Home to Your Grandma"), Bo Carter ("Please Warm My Weiner" and "Let Me Roll Your Lemon"), and the Fred Wolff Combo ("Somebody Else Was Suckin' My Dick Last Night") provided explicit musical humor to appreciative audiences.
"Anybody can rap nasty," Blowfly is fond of saying. "But you have to be funny with it." Reid isn't staking any claim to "first rapper" status; he's happy to share credit with the disc jockeys he heard on Macon, Georgia, stations as a youth and with the black DJs he heard later, after he'd moved to Florida. The radio announcers, he says, were free to ramble, often talking straight through the records they spun. Their fast-paced delivery provided further inspiration, says Blowfly: "Rap is from `talk rapidly.'"
A loyal cult has followed Blowfly's hypergraphic antics for two decades - his extensive output of party albums, now virtually impossible to locate, recorded on South Florida's TK label, and his more recent efforts for locally based Pandisc. Though radio, music television, and the mainstream press are pretty much off-limits to the nicely nasty showman, his fans have an insatiable appetite for his recordings.
With more than 40 albums to his credit, Blowfly might be the most influential musical figure never to be listed in a reference book. Apparently the encyclopedists consider it irrelevant that Clarence Reid wrote songs key to the careers of Sam and Dave, Betty Wright, and KC and the Sunshine Band, among others. The historians find it appropriate to overlook Blowfly's contributions to the birth of explicit rap. "My strength was always songwriting," says Reid. "And I brought the little girl, Betty Wright, in 1967 or '68. I did The Weird World of Blowfly around then, but there was nothing big on Blowfly. Then `Doing My Thing with Nobody But You' was distributed by Atlantic [Records]. Still nothing on Blowfly...."
Writing down the songs he made up was a difficult process - Reid couldn't write. "Since I couldn't go to school," he says, "I had to memorize my songs." To this day, when mentioning one of the hundreds of ditties he's cerebrally spawned, Reid recites a few verses from memory. Interviews are broken by snippets of song delivered on cue and on key; a lengthy photo session in a Miami Beach studio turned into an impromptu Blowfly solo concert. He's a human jukebox, and though he eventually was able to absorb some fundamentals of primary formal education, he says, "I'm probably not on a high-school level, but I can hold my own." Regardless of diplomas, Reid's brain should be registered with BMI and ASCAP.
The transformation from Clarence Reid into Blowfly is the Clark Kent/Superman metamorphosis gone kinky. First there's the costume. Then comes the laugh. Aahhhaooohhhahh! And the extended middle finger. And the act.
"He'd sit at the piano and write his songs and do what he did," recalls erstwhile TK owner and music-business legend Henry Stone. "We were sitting around, and I heard him playing a song called `(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay.' Except he was singing, `Shittin' on the dock of the bay.' I said, `Go upstairs and put that on tape.' That's how Blowfly started."
That's how Blowfly's first album may have come about, but the character had been in the cocoon for years. "In 1963 I created a swing-beat shuffle called `Odd Balls,' with a rap," says Reid. "One of Henry Stone's producers heard it and told me, `I thought you could sing. What's all that talking?' They didn't know what to do with it." Four or five years later, when Blowfly was cutting his first album, there was some extra time at the end of the record, so he added "Odd Balls," the story of a couple of beatniks doing the nasty in the woods and how difficult it was to tell the man from the woman. "We did it to fill space," Reid remembers. "And it was the song that became a 45, and it was a big jukebox hit."
In 1968 Reid wrote a song for a little girl he occasionally baby-sat. Her name was Betty Wright; the song, titled "Girls Can't Do What the Guys Do," concerned dualistic perceptions of gender relations, how a promiscuous man is considered macho and a promiscuous woman is considered a slut. It went to the Top 40 on the pop charts. In 1971 Reid wrote a song for one of his sisters. Wright recorded the tune instead, and "Clean Up Woman" soared to the Top 10.
While Reid the songwriter is completely original in his work, many of Blowfly's tunes were like "Dock of the Bay" and "Lady" - pop hits whose lyrics were twisted into hilarious, bawdy scenarios. ("I wrote a Christmas song," says Blowfly. "`The Little Drummer Boy': `I'm going to fuck you in your rump-pa-pum-pum.'") Not everyone found the bastardizations amusing. When a popular song called "What a Difference a Day Makes" was transformed into "What a Difference a Lay Makes," someone at TK was excited about the track and mailed a copy to Larry Flynt, who featured it in Hustler. A man named Stanley Adams failed to see the humor. Adams had written the original "Day" version. The way Reid tells the story, Adams went to a party where a guest mentioned Blowfly's take on his tune, which had been obtained since the Hustler article. "Someone said that I'd covered his song," says Reid. "He said, `Let's hear it.' All these old ladies in mink coats there and Blowfly stuff comes on. Somebody said I nearly killed the guy."
Adams happened to be president of ASCAP at the time. Reid says that Adams took legal action for copyright infringement, and, after a brief hearing, a judge decided Adams was owed an apology and the court was owed costs. Henry Stone pulled the record off the market. "Adams was a pretty powerful man," recalls Stone. "We settled."
But one less Blowfly tune on the market didn't mean the ride had ended. Reid's abundant talents - songwriting, producing, singing, playing piano - kept the material coming at a steady clip. Through it all, he had a special financial relationship with Stone, which Reid says was almost communistic. "Everything that came in went into a TK account. Then whenever I needed anything, TK paid for it," says Reid.
"He always needed advances, and he lived on that," Henry Stone recalls of his arrangement with Reid. "So if he earned $50,000 in royalties, and had drawn $60,000, he would be ten grand in the hole. Or the other way around. It was a good way of someone not getting a big chunk of money at once and blowing it. It's the same at every record company. If someone got in tax trouble or something, we'd give them the big money to pay for it."
Reid didn't think much about tax trouble or other financial matters. He saw the formula for success as simple - when the company needed money, someone would write a hit song. But as the Seventies ended, TK was in need of more money than one or two hits could generate. Disco's success had provoked many labels to overship records, sending out a million units, believing they had a platinum hit. When retailers shipped back 990,000 unsold copies, the label was left with a huge debt and piles of useless vinyl. Bankruptcy loomed. In a belated effort to jump on the disco bandwagon, CBS Records almost purchased TK for $17.5 million. But in the summer of 1979, before the deal was closed, someone at the company suddenly realized disco was dead. TK finally went to Morris Levy, who specialized in buying troubled companies with strong catalogues. The death of TK, Reid says, left him with one pair of shoes and not much else.
"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."
Bo Crane moved to South Florida in 1969 to study at the University of Miami, and he also took a job at WEDR-FM. When the station changed formats, every DJ was fired except Crane, who ended up as morning man and music director. (The disco era would be good to Crane, whose record report - a tip sheet listing hot releases - was the South Florida bible as far as spotting hit songs.) Among the tunes he programmed were several from a Miami label called TK. Getting airplay is perhaps the most essential aspect in the success of a record company, and Henry Stone had always displayed an amazing knack for getting his releases played on radio stations across the nation. Still, Stone was stunned by how much TK material made it to Bo Crane's show. "He sent word," Crane recalls. "He said, `Bring me Bo Crane.'"
Although he was never an employee, Crane spent a lot of time at TK, and he came to know the songwriters there, including Clarence Reid. It was only natural that Crane - who had taken his master's degree in theory composition and started on his Ph.D. - move into independent promotion, a controversial field in which record companies hire private individuals to solicit airplay for their records. "I left school because rock and roll called," he quips. In the early Eighties, Crane took the next step, forming his own record company, Pandisc.
A local representative of Warner Bros. recommended Reid to Crane. "I knew Clarence - it wasn't like we had to be introduced," Crane says. "I went to a studio where he was cutting a song called `Business Deal,' which was a pro-women's rights song backed with a dirty side. I told him, `C'mon, don't just put out a single. Let's do an album.' That was Fresh Juice, and, if I do say so, it's become a classic."
Reid - who is signed to Pandisc as an artist but isn't paid to work at the company's North Miami Beach headquarters - credits Crane with snatching him from the jaws of despair, perhaps even poverty. (Reid says royalties from his hits would continue to provide some income, were it not for the fact that the IRS has staked a claim to a tax debt.) Crane is reluctant to accept the mantle of savior. "Look, he's been a personal friend for twenty years. When TK fell apart, people like Clarence had done nothing but make records their whole lives, and he had precious little skills outside of that. So he was kind of orphaned. But he's a talented guy, and I was lucky to have signed him."
Pandisc has released a half-dozen Blowfly albums on the OOPS custom label (the name comes from a nickname given Reid by a TK engineer), and Crane says they've all been "moneymakers," if not chartbusters. "They don't go gold," Crane says, "and none of them have been as big as some he did for TK. But he has a loyal following, a real cult. Word gets around when you put out a release, and it gets sold. Our main interest here is to get a song on the radio, and get it on there as soon as possible. Since he doesn't get radio play, we rely on word of mouth and underground disco play and hope the freaks come out at night and go to the record stores. It's amazing how loyal his fans are."
Crane restricts Blowfly releases to one per year, because, he says, "That's all the market can bear." He's not making a marketing statement, he's joking, standard practice with regards to Blowfly. For the "Shake Your Ass!" twelve-inch, Crane bowed to retailers and incorporated the industry-approved Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics sticker, although all Blowfly album covers make clear that they are "XXX-rated." (In an April interview with Billboard, Crane explained his decision to use the standard sticker: "We'll do anything for a buck.") An additional sticker was placed on the record jacket: "Warning! This recording contains material which almost everyone finds objectionable and/or obscene. If your sensibilities or any other part of your anatomy are easily disturbed, then this recording is definitely not suitable for you. Additional disclaimer: Do not play this thang for your wife, girlfriend, mother, sister, daughter, niece, aunt, grandmother, female cousins, etc. If you do so, it will be at your own risk!"
"You better not print this," says Jimmy Maslon, one of Blowfly's biggest fans. "I know all the stuff he's done for Bo's label, but the truth is I like Blowfly's party records, his early-Seventies stuff. A lot of people missed out on that." Maslon, who lives in Los Angeles, has been listening to Blowfly records since he was sixteen years old. Three years ago he was overcome with an urge to see a Blowfly concert, and he soon got his wish.
After tracking down the original rapper in Miami, Maslon hooked up with Brendan Mullen, who books talent for Club Lingerie in Hollywood, California. The venue proved fortuitous because Maslon and Mullen were able to recruit members of the club's old house band, who used to perform there when the place was known as the Soul'd Out. They were also able to enlist a member of Red Hot Chili Peppers, a highly regarded neofunk outfit that had appeared there early in their career. A member of Fishbone, another punk/funk outfit responsible for the revitalization of the genre, also joined in, and Blowfly ended up with an all-star backing group.
Although Fishbone and the Chili Peppers have followings too large for the 300-capacity Lingerie, the young stars couldn't pass up the chance to perform alongside their hero. Mullen decided to not hype their presence so as not to detract from Blowfly's status as the star of the show. But under those terms, publicizing the concert was a nightmare.
For one thing, Mullen could not obtain a black-and-white promotional photograph of Blowfly. "We shot an old album cover," Mullen says. "The stat, with him in his mask, was the most bizarre-looking photo when it appeared in the ads. I was really upset, but Jimmy thought it was great. He said it enhanced the mystique - a `what the hell is this?' sort of thing." Maslon was right. Several hundred customers were turned away at the door. "It was a complete blockbuster," Mullen recalls. "Quite an event." Blowfly is expected to return to the Lingerie for a show this month, when he also plans to appear in Las Vegas.
Maslon used to be a musician himself, specializing in rockabilly, before shifting careers by purchasing the rights to Herschell Gordon Lewis's Blood Feast and other chop-and-slop horror movies. Placing the films in theaters as midnight-movie features wasn't particularly lucrative, but when the pictures were converted to videocassette and released to the rental market, they returned some profits. As a cinema writer-producer, Maslon chose the natural path when his concert dream came true - he filmed the action. After that, Maslon says, "it was one thing after another. We shot some wraparounds and vignettes and that led to a full feature." Using his own money and a two-man crew, Maslon spent his weekends putting the film together. "That's why it's taking so long," he notes. The Twisted World of Blowfly, shot on both tape and film, has been in the works for a couple of years, and several earlier release dates were announced, but now Maslon says the movie will be out this summer.
"I'm booking the theaters myself," he adds. "It'll be a midnight-type thing, or art house. I'm not even going to bother to get it rated. The only thing X-rated is the language." At the mention of his fledgling movie career, Blowfly simply laughs. "When they say there ain't no business like show business," he offers, "they ain't bullshittin'."
The Chili Peppers and Fishbone aren't the only cool bands hip to Blowfly. In March, when Sonic Youth opened for Neil Young at the Miami Arena, Youth singer-guitarist Thurston Moore dedicated a song to the masked Miamian. More significantly, the Pixies were so enamored of Blowfly they tracked down Maslon in Germany to find out if the raunch rapper was available to open their big show at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles. He was, and despite positive reviews, Blowfly suffered some loss. "I brought a bunch of my records, I was going to sell there. You know what, I hate to mention it, 'cause I could've made $500 there. But the Pixies wanted this one and that one. It's hard - I'd never heard of the Pixies, but they're real big on the college market. They could sing all my old tunes, which is why they wanted copies of the records. So I gave 'em this and gave them that. Then I went downstairs to talk to some people, and when I came back, the records were all gone. It's funny, I work at all the nigger nightclubs and nothing happens. Then I work there at the Universal, and all my records get stolen. Aahhhaooohhhahh!"
Blowfly's first New York City appearance in five years happened January 30 at S.O.B.'s in the West Village. That show was proudly presented by an outfit called the Groove Academy, also responsible for bringing New Yorkers shows by Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker, and Gil Scott-Heron. The show was strongly recommended by the alternative press, and the Village Voice's Michael Musto reviewed it, mentioning that "all expectations were shot to hell like rejected spermatozoa. The guy eats women alive with his words."
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As Maslon's movie lingers in cinema limbo, an offshoot of the project is hitting the streets and inaugurating the imminent Summer of Blowfly. "Some Fishbone and Chili Peppers members were begging to be in the band," Maslon says. "These guys used to sneak his records into the basement and play them when they were kids. I was a musician. So I figured we might as well do a Blowfly record with all these guys." Pandisc released the soundtrack to the movie last week. That was preceded a few weeks ago by a twelve-inch single that features mixes of the lead cut, "Shake Your Ass!"/"Shake Your Thang!"
Using tapes of the first Lingerie live show as well as studio sessions, Maslon produced what might be the finest Blowfly album yet. "Shake Your Ass!" is as infectious as herpes, a popping party tune that encourages listeners to "do it like a dog" in various settings - on your knees, in the trees, in Miami, et cetera. The trademark laugh - Aahhhaooohhhahh! - makes appearances in just the right places, and Blowfly really sings, too, most notably in the grooving R&B entry "Please Let Me Cum in Your Mouth."
If it weren't for the scandalous lyrics, "Cum" could pass for a vintage R&B hit. "I like to sing love songs," Reid comments, and this rapper can sing. His range peaks at a dog-calling falsetto, bends to a gritty growl, explodes into a roaring wave of power and beauty. It's melodic, infectious, charismatic, varied, often spectacular - and obscure. Weird worlds apart from his predecessors and those who followed him, Blowfly is the original superfreak. And the man in the glitter-gold tights can be twice as nasty as the 2 Live Crew (or anyone else) without ever being remotely mean or negative. As Reid likes to say, "I don't drink, smoke, use drugs, or curse. None of that shit."
Occasionally Blowfly has protruded far enough above the underground to be criticized by moralists. But Reid argues that Prince's "Kiss," which isn't full of obscenity and profanity but is said to be an ode to oral sex, is just as "bad" as any Blowfly creation. "When Frank Sinatra sings, `When you love somebody/It's no good unless he loves you/All the way,' what's he really saying?" Reid asks. "It's about sex. And sex is fucking. So I sing, `When somebody fucks you/It's no good unless he fucks you/All the way.'