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Chris Clark: Motown's great white hope

Her singing career never quite gained traction with the label in 1963, but she's still got music in her soul.

August 21, 2009|Don Waller

Chris Clark was a 17-year-old, 6-foot platinum blond when she arrived at Motown's Detroit headquarters in 1963 -- demo in hand -- to audition for Berry Gordy.

"Berry kept me waiting in his office for three hours, covertly sizing me up, before he listened to the demo," recalls Clark. "Then he wanted to hear me sing something live, so I sat down at the piano and did Etta James' 'All I Could Do Was Cry.' I didn't know Berry had co-written that song!"

Impressed and somewhat amused, Gordy was nevertheless hesitant to sign a teenage white girl to the label that already was home to such hit-makers as Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and the Marvelettes.

When he returned from a Supremes tour three weeks later, Clark was still there. Taken by her perseverance and offbeat sense of humor, Gordy signed Clark -- they would later become romantically involved and are still good friends -- and began writing and producing her records.

Clark's 1965 debut, "Do Right Baby, Do Right," remains one of the most uncharacteristically funky records Motown ever made, and the wistful "I Want To Go Back There Again" -- co-written by Clark and Gordy -- was recently cited by U.K. music monthly Mojo as one of Motown's Top 100 singles of all time.

Neither of these, nor a rollicking version of Robinson's "From Head to Toe" or Holland-Dozier-Holland's hard-rocking "Love's Gone Bad" were hits (the latter peaked at No. 41 on the Billboard R&B charts), but Clark's '67 album debut, "Soul Sounds" -- reissued this year by Reel Music, complete with its original glamazon cover -- made her a cult heroine.

"I never tried to sound black," says Clark, who was born in Santa Cruz and raised in Northern California. "My soulfulness came from my tone."

Clark is often compared to Dusty Springfield. "That's flattering," she says. "But I think we both share the same influences. When I heard Etta James it made me change my style from Connie Francis to bluesier, jazzier approach.

"Motown certainly tried, but they just didn't know what to do with me," Clark continues. "I was just a kid -- I didn't have a persona locked in -- and I was a tomboy, walking around barefoot, wearing leather fringe outfits to the floor. But they were always trying to get me to glam up. I think they spent more money to photograph me than to record me!"

After "CC Rides Again" -- the sole release on Motown subsidiary Weed (the slogan was "All your favorite stars are on Weed") -- cratered, Clark segued into a behind-the-scenes role with Motown that included her receiving an Academy Award nomination for co-scripting the 1972 Diana Ross-starring Billie Holiday biopic "Lady Sings the Blues."

"I was up in Big Sur when Berry called, saying, 'We're gonna make a movie about your girl' -- 'cause he knew I was a big Billie Holiday fan -- 'and I want you to read it,' " says Clark. "So I did. And the vernacular was way off. So I wound up rewriting about 90% of the dialogue.

"Berry was always able to see talent in people that they didn't know they had," Clark continues. "And because he believed in you, you believed you could do it. He gave me my first camera -- and I wound up shooting pictures of everything. He put me in charge of Motown's video department, and I started taping not just our acts but every black act that was on TV to see how they performed" and whether they were interviewed on camera.

When Motown relocated its headquarters to Los Angeles in '72, Clark followed. "First I lived on Curson, next to Billy Travilla, who did costumes for Marilyn Monroe," Clark said. "Then I moved to Nichols Canyon, where my pet cougar -- I've always had a thing for animals, particularly big cats -- escaped. The neighbors sent me a telegram: 'Your cat's loose.' " She laughs. "So then I got a 2-acre place in Flintridge."

Clark left Motown in 1982 and married Ernest Tidyman -- writer of the original Shaft novels and "The French Connection" and "High Plains Drifter" screenplays -- who died, age 56, two years later.

"I tried to sell some scripts and did some rewrite work on low-budget films," says Clark. "In 1990, I went to Africa to photograph the animals, but fell in love with the people. I'd still be there if I could've found a Masai warrior to support me.

"When I got back, I was like a fish out of water. I wanted to make another album, but first I checked myself into Betty Ford."

Clark spent the next 15 years living in a cabin in Arizona, where she chopped her own wood and worked on her photography, specializing in multiple-exposure portraits of Motown stars. (Available via thechrisclark.com)

In 2005, inspired by the U.K. division of Universal having issued a two-CD anthology of her vintage Motown recordings (including 25 previously unreleased songs), Clark returned to performing -- as the opening act on a Temptations-Four Tops tour of England.

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