Born in 1942 and raised in Brooklyn, Bruce Michael Clarke has had a career in music spanning a lifetime. Ever since he began singing harmonies with his childhood friends in the hallways of the Red Hook Housing Projects, music has been a driving force in his life. His first record in his own name was with “Bruce & the Q’s.” It was also his last. Shortly thereafter he decided to focus on producing for people like Marion Butler, The Electras, The Topics, The Ultimates, 1619 Bad Ass Band and touring in Africa with Erma Franklin among other people. Over the years Bruce has owned and been involved with several labels including BCP, CVS, Sirocco, Brothers 3, Zanzee and BR-Roma.
You came up in the 1950’s when Doo-Wop was really taking off. Tell me about that because it always seems to be romantized how groups were standing harmonizing on the street corners…
But that’s how it was. I grew up in the projects and on the corner you had the streetlight so that’s where you would stand and croon or whatever you want to call it. Then, if you wanted to get real sentimental and romantic, you would go into the hallways and sing. They had a perfect echo.
Subway stations also had perfect acoustics for singing and harmonizing. We used to have “battles of the groups” on Hoyt-Schermerhorn (subway station in Brooklyn) when I was attending East New York Vocational High School. Some days you would see artists like Anthony & the Imperials (who made up the group The Chesters at the time), the Velours, Shep & the Limelights and others. It was great fun!
At what age did your interest in singing start to form?
My interest began when I was 13 or 14. We had a little street corner group called The Teen Tones. It was Ronald Shomete, James Whitherspoon, Robert Easten, Jimmy Robinson and myself. Everything had to rhyme with the times, so we were the Teen Tones. We failed to actually put out a record under that name. We later became the Fidelachords. We signed up with George Goldner who owned several labels including End, Gone and Gee Records. We were just young kids. George Goldner had a superstar in Frankie Lymon so we were left by the way side. When we asked for our royalties, George Goldner was quick to remind us how much our uniforms costs.
It sounds like this was a pretty serious act if you had uniforms and everything?
Most acts wore uniforms at that time. You very rarely saw a guy coming out with a shirt hanging out or a guy wear a jacket that didn’t fit. Uniforms were important. Groups tried to outdress each other. Pants were always tight up here (around the waist); you would get the big sport socks and roll them up, put them in the front of your pants to make you look like a machoman.
Tell me about Bruce & the Q’s.
It was my first release. Ironically, it was never really completed. The Q’s were a band from the Red Hook Projects featuring a bunch of local guys: Ralph George, Otis Williams, Phil Chatman and Gabe Gil. When we recorded the demo, I had already started my own record label named BCP Records but I didn’t have the influence or the money to get it off the ground. I wanted to make a deal with B (Blanche) Casalin (of Hull Records) to give me a shot at what I was trying to do. When I played the demo for her she asked me to bring the guys (in the band) into a small studio and redo the whole song. In later years, I realized why she did that. Back then you didn’t get production credits. She managed the publishing rights and as a result, you ended up never getting paid. In December of 1962, she decided as a Christmas present she was going to put it out.
When I feel uncomfortable with a situation I move on. I felt very uncomfortable with Hull Records and with B. Some of the other things we had done were never released. Actually we had gone from the Q’s to the Fidallachords (at this point). After the Bruce & the Q’s record, I got more involved in producing (projects outside of Hull Records), Ralph started working for the transit authority (in New York), Otis joined a gospel group, Gabe passed away and Philip went back to Detroit and that broke the group apart. We had practically done an album worth of songs (with the Q’s) but that never came out.
At what point did you open up your recordshop Clarke’s Records in Red Hook?
I opened that store in 1965 – 66. It was right across the projects on Clinton Street. Red Hook Projects was huge and everybody in the projects knew me. I was going to sell records no matter what. Prior to selling the shop after about 4 or 5 years, a bunch of record shops had come together to form a consortium. It was hard for me (as a shop owner) to buy (from the major distributors) on my own. I can’t remember the name (of the consortium) but it was a group of black record shop owners throughout the 5 Boroughs that came together so that we could buy in bulk. We were able to go to Columbia (Records and others) and buy with real lines of credit. It fell apart because the other guys didn’t want to put their money into the company stock and take the interest. They wanted to take their money out in stock. So we failed with that. However, it was also a means to get on stations like WBLS, WWRL and WADO. They would call your shop and ask, “What’s happening? What’s hot?” and because you were a part of the consortium you would feed the guys information. I would tell them, “We’re getting some movement on the Enchanted Five and we’re getting movement on the Topics”. Other stores would give the same report because we gave them free a box of records to sell. That’s the way you played it.
Do you mind talking about payola?
No, I don’t mind but I didn’t like to pay it (Laughs). When you went it to a new market place you had to make yourself known and therefore it did cost you depending on who you knew. Getting airplay very rarely had to do with the quality of the music. It had to do with who was willing to pay the most dollars.
How much would you pay to get on the major stations in New York during in the 1960’s?
There was one particular station, well, it’s gone now but they had 6 disc jockey’s. There was a program director but he didn’t program the music so each disc jockey decided what he wanted to play. For a $100 you could get a guy to play your tune and maybe in two weeks you pay him another 100 bucks to make him keep playing it.
You would have new labels coming out every other week. I remember when Rocky G who was the music director at WWRL used to tell me, “I get 400 or 500 records a week in here. I can’t listen to ‘em all”. The disc jockey’s would listen to the ones that put the biggest roll (of cash) in your hand. They simply couldn’t listen to it all.
One of the most successful groups you worked with was The Ultimates. They came out of the Enchanted Five and were released on your CVS label. Tell me about that.
The CVS label comes from Clarke, Venieriee & Smith. Arthur Venieriee was one of the original managers for Ohio Players and Joseph Peppy Smith was a buyer and marketing person at J & R Music World. There had been another partner but he left before we decided to start the label.
When I hooked up with the Enchanted Five that’s when I hooked up with Arthur Venieriee. The Enchanted Five were out of Columbus, Ohio and Arthur had gone to school in Cincinatti or Dayton, one or the other. When I was with Erma (Franklin), we were looking for an opening act to go on tour with us. We had gone to the Ohio Players and at that time Dutch Robinson was the lead singer. They were making new plans to go with Johnny Brantley, a real music industry mover shaker. Arthur didn’t like the transitions his partners were making. He said to me, “If you’re going to do anything, I’ll go with you”. The three of us sat down, layed out a plan and pooled our money together.
Who were in the Enchanted Five?
They were made up of Donnie Scales, brothers Earl and Ray Riley, Jimmy Radford and I can’t remember Freeman’s full name. The Enchanted Five went on the road with us as the opening act for Erma Franklin. We went to Montreal and ended up in prison because they spent all their money and couldn’t pay their hotel bill. I didn’t want to be the rat that abadoned the sinking ship so I stayed with them. We ended up in Bordeaux. That’s the worst prison in Montreal. You got to come in throwing punches.
Why did the Enchanted Five change name to the Ultimates?
People who were in the group died and they decided to change the name of the group. Ray had died, Freeman had died and they replaced them with Nathanial Hayden and another guy. When they came back to me as The Ultimates, it was Earl Riley, Jimmy Radford, Nate Hayden and a fourth member. I recorded them here in New York. They stayed in town for three or four days, we did the session and when that was over they left again. I didn’t have any control of the group or what they did workwise except for that recording. They were always based in Columbus. Jimmy is still in Columbus now.
The Enchanted Five recorded on CVS and the Ultimates recorded on BR-Roma. I know the Ultimates did one other recording after we lost touch but I don’t know what name they did it under.
Where does the BR-Roma moniker come from?
BR is for Bruce, Ro is for Robert, two of my sons and Ma is for Mark who’s my nephew. It’s an anagram. I took the first two letters of each one to make the name.
What can you tell me about the Topics?
Ronnie McCoy was the leader of the Topics, I met him in 1969. Ronnie had heard of me as a producer and he had a group he wanted me to hear. He came up from Georgia specificllly to meet me. The audition took place at Sylvia Robinson’s club the Blue Morroco in the Bronx. It was like a local neighbourhood nightclub. I was invited there to the talent shows that they used to have back then and it was also during one of those I was introduced to the Topics.
Besides Ronnie McCoy, the Topics were made up of Vaughn Curtis, Wesley Adams and Bobby Radcliffe. They were the Topics. I had a recording contract with them and I managed them too. I never had a management contract. We just had a handshake and until Ronnie passed away we were still working off that handshake. Ronnie has passed, Vaughn passed and Wesley got killed in nightclub. Every member and every replacement member of the Topics is dead maybe except Bobby Radcliffe, he might still be alive. It’s interesting because Charles Stacy was with the Topics for a short while but he left to go with the Persuaders. He didn’t last in that group for too long though.
The Topics also had a release on Heavy Duty Records. What was that about?
I couldn’t get them into the Apollo (Theater in Harlem) without a record. I had to have something. I made a deal with Michael Gussik of Noodle Records to put out a throw-away and Harvey Averne of Heavy Duty Records to release “All Good Things” which has always been my favourite. That’s how that happened but there was only that one release on that label.
Can you talk about the Topics’s performance at the Apollo?
They played at the Apollo with Chairman of the Board, Wilson Pickett among other people. They were the opening act. They played for 10 days straight. They were up there when they shot that movie “Across 110th Street”. If you watch it then when the good guy stops outside of the Apollo marquee and you look over his right shoulder there is the Topics’s name. After the group started out they just fell apart. Yvonne passed away. They all just passed away. None of them died from drugs or any kind of alcohol related diseases. After a certain time Ronnie just didn’t want to bring in new people to keep the group going.
You have also been battling cancer for many years. How does that affect your ability to make music?
Music keeps me active and alive. I have been battling cancer for 29 years on and off now. It was in my stomach, then prostate and now it’s in my bones for 5 or 6 years. It’s back in my prostate but music keeps me fired up and alive.
Clarke also produced The Topics’s album “Giving Up” on the infamous tax scam label TSG. It was intended for release as “All Good Things”. Also, on TSG “You’re My Lady” by The Ultimates was produced by Clarke. It was originally intended to be released as the Enchanted 5, “From The Beginning”.
Bruce M. Clarke is currently working on new music to be released in the very near future.