Sunday, April 11, 2021

Quinton Claunch RIP

Sad to hear of the passing of the great Quinton Claunch at the age of 99. Quinton grew up in Muscle Shoals where he joined a country band and he went on to help form both the Sun and Hi labels in Memphis. His own Goldwax label recorded some of the greatest southern soul of the 1960s, including James Carr, Spencer Wiggins and the Ovations. When Goldwax closed down in 1969 he concentrated on his hardware business, but went on to record two more albums with James Carr and set up his own Soultrax label, working well into his nineties. I had the great pleasure of interviewing him at his home in 2014. Here's the interview.
James Carr is often described as the greatest ever soul singer. Sadly James is dead and gone, but Quinton Claunch, the man who discovered him, wrote many of his songs and produced his classic recordings for his Goldwax label, is still very much with us.
Now approaching his 93rd birthday Quinton still lives in the same house on the outskirts of Memphis that he moved in to 53 years ago. I had the pleasure of visiting him there while I was in town recently and asking him about his long and varied life in the music business. This was the man, remember, who worked with Sam Phillips at Sun in the early days, set up Hi Records, which went on later to nurture the likes of Al Green and Ann Peebles, and founded Goldwax, which many people regard as the label that represents the pinnacle of sixties southern soul. All this time he was making a living working for a hardware company travelling around the south and regarded music as something to do in his spare time, but even today he is involved with music and is looking for a major label to distribute a blues and soul CD he has produced on his current Soultrax label by an artist called Alonzo Pennington.
Quinton’s story begins in Muscle Shoals in the mid 1940s where he joined a country band called the Blue Seal Pals (named after a locally produced flour). They were big names on radio and appeared at the Grand Ole Opry but didn’t make a record and after a couple of years he and fellow band member Bill Cantrell decided to move to Memphis, where his friend Sam Phillips had set up Sun Records.
‘I worked in pre-production and played guitar on a lot of sessions, including Carl Perkins and Charlie Feathers. Also the Miller Sisters, who should have been big,’ he recalled.  ‘Also tried my hand at songwriting . I wrote Sure To Fall In Love With You for Carl Perkins – worst song I ever wrote. But I found that the Beatles recorded it at the BBC so I got some royalties – they paid a few utility bills.’ While at Sun, Quinton got friendly with Elvis Presley and travelled with him to some live performances, including one at Helena, Arkansas. ‘I tape recorded a 30 minute show and it was a good tape, but I didn’t look after it like I should and it got lost along the way. Elvis was a super nice guy, and the girls loved him of course.’
He very nearly had one of his songs recorded by Elvis. ‘I made a demo of a song I had written which Elvis heard at Sun. He called my house and told my wife to get me to call round to his mansion. When I got there he said ‘I’m gonna cut your song’ and I replied ‘Have you got a soft place for me to fall!’ But this was just before Elvis joined the army and the song got lost in the shuffle.’ The song, The Voice Of A Fool, has now seen the light of day at last and is included on Alonzo Pennington’s Born With Nothin’ CD.
Quinton’s first songwriting success was a song called Daydreamin’, recorded at Meteor in Memphis by Bud Duckelman, which became a regional hit for Jimmy Newman and was also recorded by Wanda Jackson. He wanted Sam to record it at Sun, but he preferred to keep Quinton on pre-production work. He left Sun soon after and hints at problems with receiving royalties, which he said also led to other singers such as Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash moving on, although Quinton said that he got all his songs back in the end. Of Jerry Lee Lewis, Quinton said ‘He was alright, but an odd character. Crazy.’ He doesn’t see anything of Jerry Lee these days.
After Sun, Quinton, together with his old friend Bill Cantrell, Ray Harris and Joe Cuoghi, who owned Poplar Tunes in Memphis, set up Hi Records. They had big hopes with a record by Carl McVoy (You Are My Sunshine), a cousin of Jerry Lee, which was cut in Nashville and attracted interest in Philadelphia. But it wasn’t a hit and Quinton decided to leave Hi and concentrate on his hardware business. By the time Bill Black’s Combo gave Hi its first major hit with Smokie, Quinton was no longer a partner. ‘With a wife and two sons I couldn’t gamble on the music business,’ he recalled.
Despite these concerns he stayed connected to the local music scene and he ran into Doc Russell at a Charlie Feathers recording session. Russell wanted to start a record label and Quinton put up $600 and came up with the name Goldwax. They cut a record (Darling by the Lyrics) and got a distribution arrangement with Bell, but it wasn’t a hit. Quinton was unimpressed by Doc Russell. ‘He didn’t know a pair of shoes from a bass fiddle, plus he was a borderline alcoholic,’ he said.
Goldwax really took off when the doorbell rang at Quinton’s house at midnight one night and he found three guys standing there – O V Wright, James Carr and Roosevelt Jamison. OV and James had been members of the gospel group The Harmony Echoes and Roosevelt was keen to record them. He had just the song for O V with That’s How Strong My Love Is. ‘I made up my mind as soon as I heard their voices,’ Quinton said. ‘Roosevelt had written some good songs and we recorded That’s How Strong My Love Is.’  O V Wright’s Goldwax career was cut short when Don Robey claimed he had a prior contract with his Duke record label, but James Carr (pictured at Blackheath in 1996) was to prove a fantastic find.
Quinton went on to write many of his biggest hits, including Love Attack and I’m A Fool For You, and recorded two albums with him at Sun. But James had his problems. ‘He had some kind of mental problem. I took him to the doctor every two weeks for his shots and he thought the world of me. He couldn’t hardly write his name but he could memorise words and get the phrasing just right. James was very intense. I took him to New York where he was booked for three nights  but on the first night he couldn’t hardly talk and I had to cancel the other two nights.’
Other successes at Goldwax included the Ovations, whose first record It’s Wonderful To Be In Love, sounded uncannily like Sam Cooke, who had recently died. ‘I knew it wouldn’t hurt sales people thinking it was Sam Cooke,” Quinton admitted. A third success was Spencer Wiggins, (still sounding great today, as two appearances at the Porretta Soul Festival confirm). Many of the Goldwax hits for Spencer and the Ovations, as well as James Carr,  were written by Quinton, although Dan Penn’s masterpieces, such as James’s Dark End Of the Street, co-written with Chips Moman, also made a strong showing.
Quinton closed Goldwax in 1969, partly because he and Doc Russell were not getting on well, and he returned to the hardware business. But Goldwax was to reappear in the early nineties when a businessman named Elliott Clark revived the name and Quinton briefly became president of the new company. Two further James Carr albums were recorded – Take Me To The Limit and Soul Survivor – both produced by Quinton, cementing James’s reputation as one of the all time greats. ’Despite his mental problems James never lost his voice and I recorded him at a little studio down in Mississippi which looked like an outhouse.’ Quinton has a low opinion of Elliott Clark, however. ‘He was as bogus as a three dollar bill. He tried to use me and he was just a crook.’
Now living with his son Steve, who is planning a biography of his illustrious dad, Quinton clearly misses his wife of 69 years who died last year. He still has a record label, Soultrax, and has made records with Al Green (Precious Lord) and Toni Green. He has also worked with a blues singer named Joe Thomas and with Johnny Nash in Nashville (although that last venture looks like it won’t see the light of day).He is particularly enthused by his latest discovery Alonzo Pennington (pictured above), from Kentucky, and is looking for a major distributor to release Born With Nothin’, recorded at Wishbone Studio in Muscle Shoals. He is hoping to hear back from Ace soon! One more success for this great music man as he approaches his 93rd birthday would be quite something!
Nick Cobban


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