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Gwen McCrae
Interview Pt. 1 | Interview Pt. 2

Gwen McCrae (1996)If you're a serious Soul music aficionado, then you may just recall the very Soul record you heard, perhaps even the almost religious feeling it evoked in you. I know I do. Raised on Abba, like most Swedish girls of my generation, my first encounter with Soul came at the time when I was still more interested in my dolls than boys. I loved music, though, especially Disco, but the tiny pocket money I received weekly would not allow me to buy records. So when I discovered a huge bowl of cassettes that were on sale at the discount store where my parents bought groceries each Saturday, I was truly in heaven. So what if the tapes were dusty and several years old! The choice was not easy, but finally I settled for the cassette with the most appealing sleeve. Luscious palm trees and a paradise-like beach adorned the sleeve of "The Best of T.K. Records -The Sound Of Sunshine" and the artists were K.C. and The Sunshine Band, Betty Wright, Timmy Thomas, George McCrae, Benny Latimore.. I hadn't heard of any of these people, but when I got home and popped the tape in my deck, their music grooved me in a way I had never experienced before. The climax came when Gwen McCrae, in the finest Gospel-tradition, moaned and wailed her way through a song called "Move Me Baby". From that point on, I was hooked. The years went by and I grew out of playing with Barbie dolls, but I never stopped loving Gwen and the Sunshine sounds from Florida, the orange State.

Before Henry Stone's T.K. record empire went belly-up in the early eighties, Gwen had recorded some twenty+ singles for the label's Cat subsidiary, including masterpieces like "For Your Love", "Rockin' Chair", "90% Of Me Is You", "Love Insurance" and "All This Love That I'm Givin'", plus a couple of unforgettable duets with then husband George. In 1981, Gwen signed with Atlantic records, where she released two LP's. The self-titled Atlantic debut included "Poyson" and "Funky Sensation", without a doubt some of the best dance-friendly Soul ever made. "On My Way" followed in 1982 and contained the funky "Keep The Fire Burning" and "Doin' It". In 1984, Gwen cut a track called "Do You Know What I Mean" for the Florida-based Black Jack label, after which she left the entertainment business to pursue a nursing career. She returned in 1987 with a new version of "Funky Sensation", but kept a pretty low profile during the early nineties. Gwen bounced back with "Girlfriend's Boyfriend" on the U.K. indie Homegrown in 1996 and in the fall of that same year, her latest effort, the equally brilliant "Psychic Hot Line" was issued on GoldWax/Ichiban Records.

On November 14, 1996, I play "Move Me Baby" for what must be the one hundred thousandth time, before the phone rings and a representative from Ichiban Records in Atlanta lets me know that my request for an interview has been accepted and that she has Gwen McCrae waiting on the other line. To say I was thrilled to be talking to this lady whom I've admired for so long is an understatement. When Gwen greeted me ("how are ya' doin'?") in a friendly, Southern accent. I instantly felt that she was just as warm and witty as a person as she conveys on record."'Move Me Baby'.. Get outta here!", Gwen cried when I briefly told her the little story of how I became a fan."Aww, that's beautiful! Everybody loves that song, but I had forgotten all about it. But it's a good song, still. K.C wrote that for me."

Gwen McCrae (early promo shot)Gwen McCrae was born in Pensacola, Florida on December 21, 1943. The youngest of five children, her earliest influence was Gospel music and Gwen spent countless hours listening to The Mighty Clouds of Joy and James Cleveland. Later, she discovered Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin.
"I have three sisters and one brother. My brother, Herman, he could really sing. He sang just like Bill Withers and Sam Cooke, but he never put it to work. I have another sister named Delores and she also sings, but she lost it somewhere, she didn't take advantage of it. I was the only one that did. I was raised Pentecostal. My mother brought me up in church and I was in prayer meetings, BTU meetings, choir practice, I mean, I just stayed in the church and that's where I came out and that's how I was discovered. There, in West Palm Beach. But I was always born up in the church, going every Sunday and when I first got and had do something like this, I was kinda like scared that it was wrong of me to do this. That's how deeply I was in the church. Then I became a Pentecostal minister and I was ordained and since then I've, you know, I've laid that aside. But, I didn't like just straddle the fence, I didn't become a minister and preached in the pulpit and then went out and did the club dates. I like to take one thing at a time, 'cause whatever I'm doing at the moment, that's what I'm gonna be doing. Just like I'm planning on doing a Gospel album sometime real soon, that's my ultimate, anyway."

Gwen's singing career began in local groups, such as The Lafayettes and The Independents. The transition from Gospel to secular music and performing in clubs went surprisingly smooth, despite her strict Pentecostal upbringing.
"I was approached to sing with this group, in West Palm and I was hesitating at first. But I noticed one thing, See, people got the wrong understanding. It has to be a blessing from the Lord to make me sing this way and (to be able to) influence people when I sing. I touch a lot of souls and speak of love when I sing, so it has to be from the Lord. Peacefully, that's what God is all about. God is about love and peace and understanding. There is nothing wrong with working for the Lord in any good way you can, so I did this and people fell in love with me. It wasn't hard, it was really exciting to me. But if I had known then what I know today, it would have been a lot easier for me. I was married, there was no help there, my man didn't stand by me. I could have been bigger than what I was and wouldn't have had to fight as bad, if the man I was married to had been a man to stand up for me and fight for us, instead of his own, personal self. He got very selfish."

George and GwenThe man Gwen refers to is of course her former husband and T.K. recording artist George McCrae. The George and Gwen saga started when George, who was doing his military service in the navy, spotted Gwen on a shore pass in a Pensacola restaurant. The story goes that the tipsy George approached Gwen and was told to get lost. Later, they met again and this time, Gwen let George walk her home.A week later, they got married. The year was 1963. "Aww, girl, yeah!" Gwen said. "I met George in Pensacola, he was in the navy here. He wasn't drunk, he was just really bugging' me. He thought he was so all of this and all of that. He was like 'you like me, you know you like me' and I said 'I don't even know you. You better leave me alone. I'll have someone come and kick yo' behind if you don't leave me alone.' That didn't bother him, he kept on messing with me and finally he got me, he married me. And then he became a sperm donor of two children," Gwen concluded with a laughter.

Once George had left the army, the couple began singing semi-professionally as "George & Gwen". In 1967, they were discovered at a club by singer Betty Wright and her producer Willie Clarke. George and Gwen were given a phone number to call if they were interested in recording, but didn't do anything with it. Later, producer Brad Shapiro, approached the duo. "Betty Wright met us both and she went back and told Brad Shapiro: 'Oooh, I met this lady, her name is Gwen. This was a husband and wife team and we met them at a show up in Rivera and ooh, she can sing. They are really good together,'" Gwen recalled. "And then how we met Brad Shapiro, we was down at the Flying Machine, down in Fort Lauderdale. That was about a year later. So he saw me and said 'Ohh, girl you sho are bad, how would you like to record?' I didn't know no better so I said 'Sure, why not?' That's how that came about." Brad Shapiro, who would go on to create magic with Millie Jackson in the seventies, was at the time working under contract for Henry Stone. Stone, a white entrepreneur, had been involved in basically every facet of the music industry, starting as a trumpeter in the forties. In Hialeah, Florida, Stone had built up Tone Distributors, which was the most important distributor of black records in Florida and the American Southeast. Stone was busy putting the pieces together of what would become T.K. and had a couple of small labels. One was Alston, (distributed by Atlantic) owned by Stone and his right-hand man Steve Alaimo. That's where George and Gwen's Shapiro/Alaimo produced debut, "Three Hearts In A Tangle", was released in 1969.

Gwen McCrae (1976)The follow-up "Like Yesterday Our Love Is Gone" was penned by Clarence Reid and Willie Clarke, who had brought Betty Wright to the Alston label and were responsible for writing most of her songs. Moreover, the Reid/Clarke team worked with an abundance of T.K. artists. Reid, in particular, would play an important role in Gwen's career, as the contributor of top-quality material that perfectly matched her gritty voice. Like its predecessors, "No One Left To Come Home" was a big local hit, but none of the three singles managed to make it to the national charts. George and Gwen continued to work with Alaimo and supplied background vocals for his other projects as well. The shrewd Henry Stone knew the record business like his own back pocket, so when Columbia showed interested in a Bobby "Blue" Bland track Steve Alaimo had recorded with Gwen called "Lead Me On", Stone was quick to lend Gwen to that label. Columbia issued "Lead Me On" in the fall of 1970.
"'Lead Me On' was a number one record and it almost crossed over. But the reason why it didn't cross over was that Columbia didn't have any black promoters during that time. They were like boycotting or whatever."

In addition to "Lead Me On", Steve Alaimo produced Gwen's further Columbia singles, which all sold well. "Ain't Nothing You Can Do" (another Bobby "Blue" Bland classic) was followed by two, other funky numbers; "Been So Long" and "Leave The Driving To Us" (written by Clarence Reid, Steve Alaimo, Benny Latimore and Harry Wayne "K.C." Casey). While Gwen's recordings came out on Columbia, Henry Stone leased George to United Artists. But who's idea was it to have George and Gwen record separately, I wondered? "That was probably Columbia," Gwen said and laughed. "'Cause George really couldn't sing. And I was really the show monkey. If there was any bookings going on, they didn't want to book George, unless I came along."

Cat logoColumbia didn't renew Gwen's contract and in 1973, she was signed to the T.K. subsidiary Cat Records, where her debut was "He Keeps Something Groovy Goin' On". It was a big hit in the South, but it wasn't until Gwen's version of Ed Townsend's "For Your Love" was released in the summer of '73 that she got back on the national charts. Her next Cat single came in April 1974 and "It's Worth The Hurt" reached R&B #66. In between club dates and recording sessions for the forthcoming album debut , Gwen had her hands full raising her and George's children, Wanda and Sophia. During this period, Gwen was more successful as an artist than her spouse and the way the official story goes, George was happy taking the position as her manager. However, Gwen tells a very different story.
"No, he wasn't. I wanna make that clear. When we lived in Delray, George was going to P.P.J.C. which was a Palm Beach Junior College for business and administration. But he was never no manager of mine. I want people to know that. I don't even discuss him even more. I truly don't. Because he dogged his whole family out, his children and me. He just left me out there to fend for myself, but yet he claimed that he loved me and that's not love. It was selfishness. And then I'm the one that gave him that record, 'Rock Your Baby', by the way."

Gwen McCrae (1975)Issued in May, 1974, "Rock Your Baby", turned George into a disco star and put T.K. records on the international music map. It was a worldwide smash and sold well over 16-million copies. The track had been written by K.C and his bass-playing partner Rick Finch with Gwen in mind. There are several versions of how come George McCrae ended up recording it. One is that Gwen turned it down, another that the track didn't fit her voice. "No, that's not what happened", Gwen explained. "I was working on the 'For Your Love' ('Rockin' Chair') album. See, George had been carrying me through a lot of changes,' cause he hadn't been recording and stuff like that when we were living in West Palm Beach, Rivera Beach. So I called Steve Alaimo. I said 'Steve, do me a favor, please. George is taking me through all these changes and he needs a record real bad. Give him a record, please.' So George and I came into Henry Stone's office and K.C. came into the office with a reel tape in his hands. K.C. knew I was recording and so he said ' Gwen, I want you to listen to this, I want you to record this' and he played the tape. Steve Alaimo, Henry Stone, George and myself were in the office. And as K.C. played it, by me calling Steve before we got there, telling to give George a record, Steve said 'I tell ya what, give it to George!'. I thought 'not that one, you dummy!', Gwen laughed.

Gwen followed "It's Worth The Hurt" with the Willie "Little Beaver" Hale-penned "He Don't Ever Lose His Groove". Despite Hale's smooth guitar work and Gwen's divine set of vocal chords, the single didn't enter the charts, but in March 1975, some ten months after "Rock Your Baby", it was Gwen's turn to enjoy her first #1 hit. The Grammy-nominated "Rockin' Chair" climbed to R&B #1 and Pop #9 and is still to this day one of Gwen's most loved songs. But Gwen saw very little of the money the record generated. "'Rockin' Chair' sold millions of copies and the only thing I got was a check one day for ten thousand dollars. And George only got fifty for 'Rock Your Baby'. Out of all these millions.."

Clarence Reid by his piano (1976)"Rockin' Chair", written by Clarence Reid and Willie Clarke, was included on Gwen's 1975 debut LP of the same name, as well as all the Cat singles that had preceded it. Steve Alaimo handled the production, in conjunction with K.C., Rick Finch, Willie Clarke and Clarence Reid. Gwen's next efforts; "Love Insurance" (issued September -75) and "Cradle Of Love" (March -76), were both R&B hits and were written and produced by Reid."He's a real nut case, " Gwen stated with a laughter. I asked if she was aware of, or participated in the making of the X-rated comedy albums Clarence Reid recorded under the pseudonym "Blowfly". "No. I think I did backgrounds on one or two songs, just to help them out, but the Blowfly albums... I don't think I had too much to do with that. It wasn't my cup of tea", an amused Gwen replied. "Clarence, that fool is sick! That man is crazy. He's still crazy. He's ready for the funny farm. But Clarence Reid could write! He used to walk in the rain, girl, and come up with a hit song. It'd be storming outside and he'd just go outside walking and come back and bring this record, saying 'Gwen, you like this?'. And I would say 'Oh, yeah. I like that, Clarence' and so he would just write for me. And we had fun together, he was very nice and all that stuff. Clarence always had a little twist to his songs and I guess he figured out that I was the only one that could deliver them. So there I was, chosen to do so and I was glad of it, you know?" Gwen laughed and added: "That Betty Wright snatched up everything came through there."

By studying especially the early 70's material that came out on T.K. and its subsidiaries Cat, Glades and Alston, you'll notice that the artists, songwriters and producers collaborated on almost everything that was issued. This was T.K.'s much publicized "family vibe". The atmosphere seemed to be relaxed and non-competitive and to some extent this was true. But according to Gwen, it wasn't as free of rivalry as it was said to be at the time. "I don't think that I got what I deserved down there. As a matter of fact, I know for a fact that I was just as good or better than the whole bunch of 'em, but I wasn't Betty Wright. As I said, she was in control of everything, so.. She was there before I was, she was in control. I guess T.K. and them just did it that way, because she was there first. And anybody that came after that, was just.. there."
  

 

   Go to part 2..

 
Related artist features on Miss Funkyflyy's web pages: Jimmie "Bo" Horne
     

Maria Granditsky January 1997.
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