"I was captain of the tenor drum section," he recalls, describing some of the mallet routines he performed in the marching band. "When I went to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, we had to compete against Southern and the other big schools, and the competitive thing has always been in my mind." Although he played drums in the marching band both in high school and college, he is not best known for drills and rolls on that instrument, but for being the Grammy-winning engineer behind the boards for Henry Stone's Alston, Cat, and Glades labels throughout the Seventies, when the bright and summery sound of Miami funk and soul had its extended stay in the sun at the top of the pop charts, anticipating that disco wave and then riding it all the way into the Eighties. Betty Wright, Clarence Reid, Little Beaver, Frank Williams and the Rocketeers, James Knight and the Butlers all had their hits with Willie Clarke's deft hands at the knobs in the booth, capturing and preserving on tape what is internationally recognized as "the Miami Sound." Yet the story extends back to the days of a little-known label called Deep City.
Even the tiniest of labels, all microscopic variants on Motown's machinery and blueprints, are getting their due as well. Tastemakers like DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist, along with magazines like Wax Poetics, root deep into the dusty boxes of record shops for such gold nuggets, revealing multiple worlds that existed in the shadows of Motown's monolith.
One label at the forefront of excavating and bringing to the public light such lost soul scenes is the Numero Group. Searching Columbus, Ohio, and South Side Chicago on down to Belize, the group's efforts focus on labels that flourished briefly before wilting, never to be heard from again. Numero's most recent project, however, documents the tiny Lloyd, Reid, and Deep City imprints Clarke and his partner Johnny Pearsall produced and poured their young efforts into, capturing the soul sound that radiated from Miami in the Sixties.
The Deep City aesthetic was created by Willie Clarke and his partner Johnny Pearsall at the corner of NW 60th Street and 22nd Avenue, in a building Pearsall's family still owns (though it's now a barbecue stand). They were an odd couple from the beginning: "[Johnny] was a dapper-type guy, and I came from the pork 'n' beans in Liberty City, and over time we blended together really well," Clarke says. "We were kinda rude. [If] people messed with us, they'd be in trouble. Even though we were schoolteachers ... we knew how to be real Tallahassee Miami thugs."
It's no surprise, then, they thought they could take on the world with their music, despite having little money or distribution for their cuts. "[We were] ready to take on Motown, Atlantic, or anybody. That was our challenge," Clarke boasts. "There was no R&B music in Tallahassee. The only way you could hear it would be on the jukebox ... that's where we would hear soul." Moving to teach art and painting in Dade County Public Schools after graduation revealed a larger world to the two friends. "We were overwhelmed ... at the talent that was here in Miami but not channeled into something productive," Clarke says. Their day jobs as schoolteachers no doubt helped keep the players in line when Clarke and Pearsall couldn't quite pay them: "From the misfit to the genius, we were able to get the best out of the worst." They met Clarence Reid on the street one day, and Clarke showed him a notebook full of songs. Later that week, they were literally banging out tunes, for Reid's monstrous paws detuned the piano keys each session. In short order, with the help of a few members of the FAMU marching band and arranger Arnold "Hoss" Albury, the core of Deep City was put in place.
That discipline shows itself in the sound of the Deep City compilation. Its roots are obviously in Motown and popular soul Paul Kelly's "It's My Baby" echoes "My Girl"; Helene Smith is sweet like Diana Ross; Frank Williams and the Rocketeers' "Good Thing Pt. 1" is fueled by James Brown's "I Feel Good" but the seeds for the original Miami sound are embedded as well. The horns roar and honk like bullfrogs in marshes, and in the breaks, the drone of cadences, the cracks of snares, and the furiously tapped triplets demonstrate why that powerful marching band sound continues to influence modern hip-hop and R&B.
It's not all sunshine though, as the haunting ooohs that swirl around Them Two's plaintive cries on "Am I a Good Man" pair heartbreak with crippling doubt. The set reveals Clarke's pen to be as prolific as that of frequent writing partner Reid. Their ears weren't too shabby either, spotting talents like guitarist William "Little Beaver" Hale, as well as the pipes of a twelve-year-old fan named Betty Wright. Appearing on the compilation are two of her earliest sides: "Good Lovin'" and "Paralyzed." After she jumped to Henry Stone's deeper-pocketed label Alston, Clarke soon followed, writing and managing her throughout the Seventies, and in 1975 winning a Grammy for Best R&B Song, "Where Is the Love You Promised Me."
Hearing again what he wrought at Deep City some 40 years ago, Clarke beams. The vinyl sides still shine for him. "No wonder Henry Stone wanted us to come over and start working with him. As a team, we had something going. I learned a long time ago ... that you don't substitute feel for perfection.... Perfection sometimes will kill feel ... [and] what we had at Deep City was mostly feel," he says. When asked his thoughts about the Numero Group bringing this music back and how it'll stand up, Clarke estimates, "It's gonna be around a long time. [Listening back] was almost like a buried treasure that you have in the basement. You don't know if you go down there and walk around a li'l bit; you might open a box and ... see a gold necklace just in time to pay the light bill."