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Raw materials: Mighty Sam McClain
 
Sam McClain has had an incredibly hard life, including more than two decades of poverty and occasional homelessness. Here, he recounts some of the hardest times -- his years in Nashville in the late 1970s and early 80s.
 

Was some serious times in Nashville. Very serious times. That's when I started to write. And I started learnin' some serious lessons about the music business, and also about life and love and the whole trip. 

I beat the corners in Nashville for a lot of days. I knocked on every door in Nashville trying to make somethin' happen. Wasn't supposed to happen. 

 

I wound up sleepin' outdoors in Nashville a lot, and lookin' for food in garbage cans, and sellin' my plasma. You familiar with that? They draw your blood out, take the plasma out, and put your blood back in. Did that for a while, just to get smokin' money, bus fare money to go look for a job. Stuff like that. It was some pretty strange times. 

That's the first time I really felt alone in the world, was in Nashville. I really felt alone. I was standin' on the corner of Broadway and Sixth, I believe it was, and snow on the ground, deep, and I had nowhere to go. And it was like I could see every human being on the face of the earth. Like God allowed me to see all these people. And I didn't have one that I saw, that I could call. 

That was a dark moment for me. First thing I thought about was takin' a right, and go about two blocks to the river. That was a black, black, black moment. That was a lonely black moment. A lonely black moment. But I moved on. God moved me on. 

 

And I thought about this place, This guy had told me, 'If you ever need a place, come on up to my place. I got somebody stayin' there with me, but we'll make room for you." This guy, he and I used to work together in this restaurant. And he had a room. He already had a guy stayin' with him. And that's where I went. His name was Michael, I went up to Michael's. And his roommate was Chris. 

I went up to Michael. Chris has got one mattress over there on the floor. Michael in his bed with the mattress on top. So he took the mattress off of that, gave me the mattress to put on the floor, and he slept on the box spring on the bed. That's when I started comin' back. 

And it was amazin', out of all the places I looked for a job, couldn't find one. Got up, think it was two, three days later, or somethin'. Chris came in, said, 'Man, I heard they were lookin' for somebody up the street at the IHOP.'  About a block and a half from where I was crashin' on the floor. 

I went up there, and the man said to me, 'Man, we need you now! You hungry? You want somethin' to eat?'

I said, 'Oh, man, please! I know I'd died and gone to heaven!' [big, big laugh] 'I know this must  be heaven here, Jack!' 

That was my first encounter with the International House of Pancakes. And I worked there for, off and on, two or three times while I was in Nashville. 'Cause they knew, I went in there and learned the ropes, and they knew I could do it. So whenever I quit, I could go back and get it, 'cause there was always a turnover anyway. I could always go back there and get a job. 

 

(You were trying to do music, but you just weren't getting anywhere with it?)

Yes, so I had to do other things just to survive. Like I say, it was a learning experience, 'cause I did stuff that I just never dreamed

One thing, eatin' out of a garbage can. I could never understand how could somebody do that? How can you eat out of a garbage can? Well, God took me and showed me.  This is how: you get hungry! [laugh] You get hungry! You eat out of a baboon's ass if you get hungry enough, you know? [big laugh]  
 
 
In this excerpt, he tells of a 1973 encounter with racism in the deep south.   
 

I was out of work at the time, and so was my wife. Rent behind, no gigs comin' in. I was doin' a little construction work with a friend of mine, but that was slow, nothin' happenin' there. 

But I got a call from this old bookin' agency I used to work with down in Panama City. I was livin' in Pensacola, Florida at the time. And he called and said, "I've got an offer for a little gig for you up in Gadsden, Alabama. But you need to get there by the weekend 'cause the singer just quit." 

 

So we got on the bus, went up to Gadsden, Alabama, checked into the motel, they had a room waitin' for me. Here's the motel, and the club's in the middle. So we spent the night, got up the next mornin', went to the store to get some cold cuts and stuff to eat. And I noticed traffic was stoppin' along the road. Four-lane highway! 

Now, me and the woman been married for a while, and we've been walkin' down the streets in Mississippi, Alabama, we'd got used to it. But this was bigger, this was somethin' else here. Traffic was stoppin' on a four-lane highway! And I thought, "Uh-oh. This is serious, man. This is serious."

My first thought was, to try to get friendly with some black people over here to my left. So I start trying to speak and be friendly, and most of the people were afraid to wave. They were afraid to speak. 

And we went on to the store. Got back to the motel, went over to the restaurant to meet with the people to talk, et cetera. I was in there talkin', and my wife came in and sat at the table with us. And when she did, the woman said, "Yes, honey, can I help you?"

And my wife said, "I'm with him."

And John, the countenance on her face. She couldn't hide it. She just fuckin' freaked

She cut the conversation short, and she asked her husband to finish showing us around. And her husband played the role pretty good. And we went back to the room, but before we could walk in the door, the phone rang, and they said, "Sam, we need you to come back over here, we've got to talk." So I went back over there, and she said, "We cannot let you sing here with that gal with you." I said, "Mrs. Johnson, that gal just happens to be my wife!" She said, "Well, that's okay, but I still can't let you sing here. If I do, they're goin' to burn my damn place. They just killed one of you all just the other day, 'bout this same stuff."

Just a week or two before I got there, they'd just tried to kill this singer, Willie Hightower, this black R&B singer. They killed his father. They were trying to kill him because he had a Caucasian for a wife. They shot through the door, and they killed his father.  

After moving to New Hampshire in the mid-1990s, McClain began working to restart his musical career. He's had ups and downs, and it remains a struggle financially -- but still, he is a man of remarkable optimism and faith. Here, he talks about the vagaries of the music industry, and how he doesn't fit any of its categories. 
 

 Well, it's just Sam McClain. I don't put myself in no category. And I won't allow the industry to put me in a category. They tried. They called me blues, they don't know what to call me! (Laugh) And I like it like that! 

Just call it music, man. I think that's another form of keeping prejudice alive, when we categorize. It's another form of keeping us separated. My music is just music: it's music from my heart, and music about my life. 

 

Is it tough to get your music out, so people can hear it?  

Oh, God, extremely. Extremely. It takes every dime I make right now, we take every dime we make and put it right back into our career. It's extremely tough. Hard to get it played, and the few stations that are playing the songs, they've got a couple hours a day. It's just like my whole life has been. That's why I tell you, I still feel like I'm homeless. 

 

Quite a few jazz and blues artists are more famous in Europe than in America.  

Oh, most definitely. I mean, I'm in Europe four or five times a year. And that's amazing. And [in  America] I have to almost cry and scream and beg. As a matter of fact, I do cry, I have cried on many a day, because it's hard to find work here. 

I just got inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in Louisiana, and I turned it down. Because I didn't want to go down there and get abused. I felt like I'd been begging those people to let me in. And I just can't beg anymore. That's the way I feel sometimes about the United States, it's just so hard being recognized. But I accept that, because it was the faith of my father in Jesus Christ, because they didn't accept him until he left home. So I had to leave home to prove myself. And now that I'm leavin' home and getting a little attention, and by God, we're finally getting some attention here. 

I'm not making as much money here as I make in Europe; they pay me very well in Europe. I take my whole band, I've got an eight-piece band, I've got a big band. So you know they must pay me pretty good to take that kind of people. They fly us over there, they pay for everything. They treat me very well over there. 

But we're finally getting some recognition at home. It's finally coming around, man. But it's been tough. And it still is. 'Cause I'm still trying to prove myself, you know. Have to prove myself. Because that's the way it is. And I'm okay with that.  



E-mail me at john (at) johnswalters (dot) com