In Vinyl Retentive, A.V. Clubbers share what we find while crate-digging in our own houses.
Dancin' With Nobody But You Babe
Atco Records, 1969
File Under: Funky, funky foreplay
Key track: "Nobody But You Babe"
"Clarence Reid?!? BLOWFLY don't like CLARENCE REID!!!"
That was the response I got when I asked Clarence "Blowfly" Reid to autograph my copy of his 1969 debut album, Dancin' With Nobody But You Babe. Needless to say, I was a little confused. Then again, I probably shouldn't have been: Reid has inhabited two separate and very distinct identities since the '60s–one as the soul singer and disco architect Clarence Reid, and the other as Blowfly, the infamous masked purveyor of smutty, satirical funk. But even when I met Blowfly in person after a 2006 show in Denver, I didn't expect him to be so, you know, on. In the venue's green room an hour after his set, with his mask hanging like a sweaty, sequinned washcloth around his neck, he was still utterly in full Blowfly character.
Before I go any further, let me make a disclaimer: I am not an autograph hound. I rank autograph hounds right down there with all those "Would you like to save the environment" pricks carrying clipboards in malls as the most annoying form of life on earth. I have however, asked for autographs twice in my life. Once was when I was 13, and my mom waited tables in a hotel in Denver where all the WWF stars would stay when they were in town. Don't ask me how I ever became a fan of professional wrestling when I was a kid: I mean, I hated all sports of any kind, being the knock-kneed, five-thumbed, two-left-footed spazz that I am and have been since birth. But as soon as I hit 11 or so and realized wrestling was more like a comic book than a sport, I totally fell in love with it. This was the '80s, of course, so WWF reigned supreme–and when my mom told me that The Macho Man Randy Savage (and his lovely assistant, Elizabeth!) were staying at the hotel, I begged her to let me come down and ask for his autograph.
I'm not sure how my mom hooked it up, except for the fact that she's a gregarious lady who made casual friends with everyone from Lyle Alzado to Raymond Burr over her many years in the service industry. (Remind me later to tell about the time I babysat William "The Greatest American Hero" Katt's kids when I was 15.) In any case, I stood there waiting one evening, pen and paper in hand, as The Macho Man and Elizabeth stepped out of the elevator and into the lobby of the hotel. My pipsqueak 13-year-old-self–who maybe weighed 85 pounds soaking wet–timidly asked the larger-than-life duo for their John Hancocks. They graciously obliged, then turned and strode through a wall of smoke into some squared-circle Valhalla, never to be seen again. As for the autograph itself, it's lost to the mists of time (that is, some box in my mom's basement).
The second time in my life that I solicited an autograph was when I hit up Blowfly. I have Blowfly records, which obviously would've been way more apt for the occasion, but I thought the man might get a kick out of being handed an old Clarence Reid LP–on the cover of which the young Reid looks like the big-eared, gap-toothed lovechild of Will Smith and Alfred E. Neuman. It was supposed to come off like a fanboyish little joke between me and Blowfly. You know, like if you went up to Superman after one of his concerts and asked him to sign a Clark Kent record.
Instead, I got "BLOWFLY don't like CLARENCE REID!!!" I was heartbroken. Here's a man who's career is as long and legendary as it is practically off the map: After singing in go-nowhere groups in Miami in the '60s, the 24-year-old Reid finally landed a contract with Atlantic subsidiary Atco in '69, and soon dropped his debut (and best) LP, Dancin' With Nobody But You Babe. Led by a gritty yet silky R&B; chart hit, the lopingly funky "Nobody But You Baby," the album is a rarity for the time: an almost completely solid slab of lean, no-filler soul, back when even the greatest R&B; stars made stellar singles but middling albums. The clunky party vibe wasn't too far off from that of Reid's Texas labelmates, Archie Bell & The Drells–that is, if The Drells' "Tighten Up"-strength hyperkinesis had been rendered slower, somewhat sultry, and super fucking stoned.
Reid went on to record his own music sporadically throughout the '70s, but had his greatest success writing and producing hits for fellow Miami artists like Betty Wright, Gwen McCrae, and a young, unknown group called KC & The Sunshine Band; in fact, Reid's work with KC helped form the template for disco for the rest of the decade. His biggest innovation, though–and one that would change the course of his life–is the invention of Blowfly. His first recording as Blowfly, a 1965 song titled "Rap Dirty," is considered by some to be the first rap song. But it wasn't until 1971 that Reid got a band together, donned the mask, and laid down a whole album of the smutty stuff–which oftentimes would parody hits of the day, only slathered with XXX-rated puns. (He was infamously sued by ASCAP president Stanley Adams for rerecording the pop standard "What A Difference A Day Makes" as "What A Difference A Lay Makes." And who could forget the warm, stirring strains of "Shittin' On The Dock Of The Bay"? Beat that, Rudy Ray Moore.)
Blowfly's ass-cracked antics and cult following would eventually eclipse the career of Clarence Reid–with Reid himself hinting that he chose the masked persona not so much for its novelty but as a way to protect his legit (if mostly overlooked) career as a serious singer and songwriter. Which might help explain Blowfly's trepidation, even decades later, when asked by some smartass like me to autograph a Clarence Reid record.
Blown off by Blowfly. Oh, the ignominy.
Luckily, ol' Blowfly was just yankin' my chain. After leaving me hanging and gleefully soaking in the schadenfreude of the moment, he grabbed my Sharpie and the Reid LP and scribbled away. And I do mean scribbled: After asking my name, he wrote "From Clarence Reid To Mr. Jason" in a chicken-clawed scrawl that shows Mr. Reid might be the victim of arthritis–or maybe just 60-plus years of hard, dirty, funky livin'.
Current whereabouts: Interest in Blowfly was renewed in the new millennium when Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label signed him and released 2005's Fahrenheit 69–with Slug of Atmosphere guest-starring–and its follow-up, Blowfly's Punk Rock Party, the hands-down best punk tribute album since Alvin And The Chipmunks' Chipmunk Punk. Reid's music also lives on in dozens of samples; everyone from DMX to KRS-One has dug into the huge beats and tough horns of "Nobody But You Babe."
As for Reid himself, he's enjoyed a bit of a resurgence himself lately, thanks in part to the efforts of the fine folks at Wax Poetics. Despite all that, to this day no one has ever seen Blowfly and Clarence Reid together in the same room. Or have they….
Availability: Dancin' With Nobody But You Baby is available as a cheap used CD and as a download. Keep an ear out for a couple of surprisingly excellent covers: of Edwin Starr's "25 Miles" and (believe it or not) a cringe-free version of The Beatles' "Get Back." As for the original LP, there doesn't seem to be many floating around, but the last one I saw online was marked at $50. An autographed copy? Priceless.
And for your further reading pleasure: Below is a list of all The A.V. Club's Vinyl Retentive entries so far. Collect 'em all.