Clayton’s salute to Bell a birthday nod to friend
Special to The Commercial Appeal
Willie Clayton has known Memphis radio legend Stan Bell for more than 15 years, and tonight Clayton will help celebrate his friend’s birthday with a concert at Minglewood Hall.
“I can’t remember exactly how far we’ve gone back, but I’ve known him a long time,” says Clayton. “His support has been very important over the years, and it’s an honor to play for him on his birthday.”
The honor may well belong to Bell, a top deejay at local R&B stations WHRK K97.1 and, since 2001, V-101.1, who will be partying with
one of the last great, old-school soul men. The show will also include performances by Chicago newcomer Slique and Memphis’ own King Ellis.
In fact, while many of Clayton’s contemporaries have either faded into obscurity, retired, or passed away, Clayton, who marks his 40th anniversary in the business this year, is just hitting his stride. His latest record, Love, Romance & Respect, was released in November. The disc, which features a guest appearance by ex-BLACKstreet member Dave Hollister, finds Clayton striking a mature, ’80s-style soul mood.
“It’s not traditional blues. It’s not Southern soul. It’s straight-ahead R&B soul music,” says Clayton, who over the years has hit upon those styles and others. “If you’re familiar with what Luther Vandross and Gerald Levert were doing, that’s what this is. Those guys are no longer with us so somebody’s got to keep it going. Why not me?”
One reason Clayton has persevered is because he was so young when he started. Originally from Indianola, Miss., Clayton was in his early teens when he cut his first record there in 1969. The Claytons then spent a few years in Memphis, where young Willie gigged and hung out with the likes of Isaac Hayes and Luther Ingram.
When he was 15, however, the Claytons moved to Chicago.
“Chicago was a better place for me to go if I was going to branch out into the entertainment world,” says Clayton. “I could work more.”
Ironically, Clayton moved to Chicago only to wind up on a Memphis label for his first big record deal. In 1971, Willie Mitchell signed Clayton to Pawn Records, a subsidiary of the more celebrated Hi imprint. Clayton recorded a handful of sides for Pawn, including “It’s Time You Made Up Your Mind” and “I Must Be Losing You.” (Clayton’s recorded output for Pawn was collected on the 2003 UK release Pawn Stars! the Pawn Label Story 1974-78.) Though none of his recordings were hits, Clayton still describes his time with Mitchell as the turning point in his career.
“I honestly have to say the best schooling I got was from Willie Mitchell,’ he says. “Willie Mitchell would have you sing before he would feed you. He was the producer that would make sure all your pronunciation was right. I learned more from him than anyone.”
After leaving Pawn, Clayton recorded for a succession of labels, charting his first R&B hits in 1989 with “Tell Me” and “What A Way To Put It” on the Compleat label. Other efforts include his all-original 1993 album Let’s Get Together, whose title was a partial tribute to Willie Mitchell’s best known artist, Al Green, and 1998’s gospel outing God Has A Plan.
Through all the stylistic shifts, Clayton has developed a reputation as a singer’s singer, with a voice that has only ripened with age.
“The voice has gotten stronger more than anything,” he says. “I know exactly what I want to do with it now. Before, when I was first starting out, I was guessing.”
R&B star Willie Clayton will sing for old friend deejay Stan Bell at Bell’s birthday tribute, citing the deejay’s support of his music over the years.