In memoriam: Mighty Sam McClain (1943-2015)
“I came from eating out of garbage cans. So if I died tomorrow, I did good.”
Mighty Sam McClain wrote a song summing up his old friends’ feelings about hanging out with him after he gave up his bad habits: “Too Much Jesus (Not Enough Whiskey).”
Now I didn’t expect or want a shot of hard liquor when I met McClain at his rural New Hampshire home on a bright spring morning. But, oh man, Sam was laying way too much Jesus on me.
My visit started with a tour of the brown ranch house McClain shared with his wife, Sandra. Laughing loud and often, the barrel-chested, shaved-head McClain was a proud and enthusiastic guide to what a sign hanging outside called the McClain Ponderosa. Eventually we settled down in his home office, a large room decorated with an assortment of awards, plaques and posters. I wanted to hear about his life and music, but the voluble McClain was insistent on proclaiming his belief in the grace of God.
As he kept it up, I started worrying that my interview would have “too much Jesus” and not enough Mighty Sam. And then it hit me that this was what he and his music were all about. McClain had found a way to reconcile the conflict between godly and human concerns that had haunted so many church-reared singers before him. In “Journey,” his new release at the time, McClain told the story of his salvation through gutbucket rhythm and blues. It was who he was: a soul man saved by the Lord.
April 3, 1998
Epping, New Hampshire
It gets easier and easier. I’m feeling good, man. I’m starting to relax, but it’s hard to do. I’m learning now that God’s way is usually the way best way for me. In retrospect, I see that now. If it didn’t go my way a lot of times before now, it was because I wasn’t ready. I know I’m more ready than I was yesterday. It feels like I’ve got more control of my life than I’ve ever had. The confusion has started to go away, the fog has lifted. The dream I’ve been holding onto has become a reality. It starts to fill me with so much joy I can’t find enough time to talk about it, to share it. There’s so much I want to say. I’m so full of hope, of peace. If I died tomorrow, I’m proud. Because I know where I came from. I came from eating out of garbage cans. So if I died tomorrow, I did good.
I’ve had producers in my life who abused me, who stole from me, the whole trip. It’s a nice thing to get to this place in my life where I’m doing the kind of music I want to do. I’m fortunate enough to have a producer like Joe Harley who really respects me and loves me. He’s let me grow and develop. It’s just been wonderful to have this kind of success. I’m doing what I want to do musically now. I’m singing what I want to sing. Joe says, “What do you want to do? Let’s go!” and he turns on the machine. That’s almost unheard of. When people pay you money, they want to control something [laughs].
Do you think you’re getting closer to what you want to do with each of your four Audioquest albums?
Getting closer to Sam, absolutely, that’s why I’m thanking Joe Harley so much. When we first started working together, Joe didn’t even hear the songs. He didn’t know what we were going to record until we got to the studio. Unheard of, man. Sometimes I didn’t even know what we were going to do [laughs]. But by the grace of God, I came through. Because I never considered myself a songwriter. I write strictly on emotions. Something got to move me. I can’t just sit down and think about something. I can, but usually it don’t come out too good….I can’t make that happen. I realize that.
There’s been a lot of talk about the spiritual side [of “Journey.”]. It was not a planned thing. It was coming out that way. Praise be. There’s nothing else I can think of better to say than “Thank you God.” Because that’s what has sustained me. He gave me this voice that He knew I would pursue. And thank God, because it’s kept me alive. I promised God so many times what I would do if I was given this chance. If I was afforded this opportunity to sing what I want that I would praise His name. I would sing about the good things that I’ve learned. I’ve had that opportunity.
Take a song on the CD called “Thank You.” I really didn’t plan on any of this. One morning I went out on my deck right over there and was sitting looking out at the sun coming up over the woods. It just engulfed me, how much God has given me. Not just material things, but the knowledge that God is real. That was the biggest gift I’ve ever had. That was what I meant by “you’ve given me so much more than I could ever dream.” I came in here and tried to sing it to my wife and I couldn’t. I started crying. I couldn’t even finish it. That’s where that song comes from. It’s a real delight for me to be able to do that. So many r&b singers say one day they will record a gospel album to praise God, but it’s something apart from their normal output.
But not you. You want to praise God while singing soul and r&b.
I didn’t plan it. I grew into it. Because there was a time when I was deceived and led astray. When God first manifested Himself to me, became real to me, I knew I had to change my lifestyle. So I looked for a church. I lived in a church for a while, but through that I became more confused because I didn’t know where I was in my belief and my faith at the time. I didn’t know how to be as good a person as I could be. But that experience taught me to be strong within myself. And it taught me that I could talk to God, that I don’t need to go to no preacher or nobody to talk to God.
That’s when I knew I was being tested, that I had to make a stand for myself, that I had to decide myself. That’s when I started taking responsibility for my life. Because it was scary. I wanted to please God, but I went to people who I thought would tell me the truth and found out they were deceiving me. That was confusing to me. But at the same time I grew. I was willing to take a chance. That’s when I left that church. I left and started standing on my own.
Where was this church you’re talking about?
The church was in Nashville. I got me a job in Caraway Campgrounds up the street from the church. They held back the first two weeks of pay. I’ll never forget this. I finally got my first two weeks of pay and the preacher wanted me to give my money to the pot. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had my car and I hadn’t even got new tags, the tags had expired, me and my wife had come up from Florida.
There’s a line on the first song on this new record, “I’m A Man”: “I live by faith.” I’ve had to. That’s all I’ve had. I stopped school in 7th grade when I was 13 years old. God gave me this voice and this has been my sole survival. But I didn’t always have something to sing about. “Let’s get in bed and whoopee!” I’d rather sing about other things. God has taken me through the valleys and the peaks to become who I am. I’m proud of that. I’m proud of who I am, not in an arrogant puffed up way. I know who I am and I’m proud. I know where I come from and I know where I could have been except by the grace of God I’ve found some peace. I’ve stopped drinking. I’ve stopped smoking after years of doing it. I was smoking cigarettes before I left home when I was 13 years old. I used to light cigarettes for my mother, Philip Morris. I started smoking early on. I’m going to be be 55 on April 15 and I stopped smoking four years ago. I stopped drinking three years ago. That was it. I quit, I was tired. I’m through. I surrender God. That’s very gratifying to me.
In 1992 you released “Give It Up to Love.” It was not only your first album for Audioquest, it was the first studio album in your whole long career. Was it frustrating for you that it took so long?
Always. Always been there. From the git-go. My very first shoot out the gate in ‘66, when I cut “Sweet Dreams of You.” We went to cut “Georgia Pines” and some other song. We got there and “Sweet Dreams” was introduced to us, me and my producer at the time, [Papa] Don Schroeder. That song was introduced to us by Dan Penn. He said, ”You ought to cut this song.” Alright, it was a great song. I liked it. Don Gibson, Patsy Cline. We did our version of it. When we got through cutting it – this was my very first time in a studio, Lord Jesus, and not only is it my first time in the studio, I got fired from my job for going to the studio. I had my job at the 506 Club in Pensacola, Florida, They threatened to fire me if I leave to go record. So I had to get fired to go cut my first record!
Well, we got through cutting this record and somebody comes into the studio with a copy of Billboard, man, and there was a guy by the name of Tommy McLain out of Alexandria, Louisiana, right up the road from where I come from in Monroe, Louisiana. “Sweet Dreams” is already in the charts. and it’s a white boy! This is 1966, mind you, and I’m in Alabama [laughs]. My first thought is, “Oh, my life is over.” My very first recording, before we’re out of the door somebody is showing me the record is already out by a white boy. Whooo. Frustrating. You’re asking me has there been frustration? What a way to get started. But my whole life has been that way. But here I am because God has taken me in the back door. Despite the wind being let out of my sails, we took the song over to Nashville and by the grace of God we got it released anyway. And that was my start.
Did it seem extra weird to you that a guy cuts the same song and his name is McClain too?
Absolutely. He spelled it differently, but it’s said the same. And from right up the road, too. Same song. Same identical song. I think I’d-a had a smash if there won’t be no Tommy McLain. But in retrospect, it’s probably better I didn’t have a hit because I was destructive enough at the time. I would’ve had more money, more success, and I wouldn’t have handled it. I wasn’t ready. I know that now. If I would have done more destructive stuff, I would have more stuff to be sorry for. I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t. I left home when I was a child. And I was by myself even when I was home. Because I never had a father. My mama went from man to man till she found my stepfather. She had 13 children by four men. This last guy, I really wanted him to be my daddy. I guess I wanted anybody to be my daddy. I liked him. He was a good looking man, but he didn’t like me. That was my main reason for leaving home. He was abusive. He hit me upside the head with a hammer and a walking stick. I was thinking about taking him out. I could have killed him very easily, because there were guns all over the house. It would have been very easy to kill him.
Anyway, I wound up seeing him just before he died and we became good friends at that point. I’m thankful I lived to enjoy that moment, that precious moment with that man. That moment of recognition was worth all those times I wanted him to recognize me as a man. He was glad to see me and I knew it. I was glad to see him. It makes you cry thinking about it. That was a wonderful time, this man I hated and wanted to kill at one time, and we lived long enough to say I love you to each other…silently.
So tell me, why did you decide to move to New England?
Because I did not have sense enough to be scared. I just never could look back. When I make a decision I just go. Like when I was 13 years old. It was always a toss of a coin. I toss the coin, decide which way I’m going and that’s it. I moved and I don’t look back. The decision to move up here was because I worked up here. I started working in New York in 1966 at the Apollo Theater. I started working in New England in 1987, I think. Places like Harpers Ferry, Nightstage. I got in with Concerted Efforts, [booking agent] Paul Kahn. I met people. I got a band, went on a swing of dates up here, and we liked each other. By that time I had left New Orleans and moved to Houston. I married an attorney over there. I thought with her expertise in the law field and my expertise in music, we should be megastars together [laughs]. We couldn’t even get along together. That situation was coming to a head. I knew that and the guys said, “Hey, man, you wanna come up here, you got a band.”
I was totally living on faith. Laura and I had gone into real estate in Houston to compensate for my lack of income. I thought about opening a liquor store but I decided against that because I knew I’d die in there – I was drinking at the time – so we went into real estate. We bought three houses. They were giving them away after the oil boom went bust. I got one for $6,000 for a whole house. Anyway, she got all that. I didn’t get anything, I didn’t have any money. All that helped make the decision to move to Boston. I got a divorce and left. I had this music to pursue. I followed the music up here. I was gonna write it, produce it and send it to some people.
It’s ironic in a way that you moved up north to do Southern music.
See, you say it’s from the deep South, but I never saw it that way. I guess ignorance is bliss [laughs]. I just never saw it as something I couldn’t do. Once I started believing in God, I knew I could do anything I wanted that God saw fit. I don’t write music. I don’t play an instrument. But I hear melodies in my head. I get a tape recorder and put ’em down. Then I get a guitar player and say, “This is what I want to do.” [Starts to sing wordless melody] That’s how I write my music [laughs].
Now I’ve got four albums with songs I’ve written or co-written. I’ve produced and co-produced. I’ve got my own publishing company and management company. I’m working all over the world. I’m going to China this year, Australia next year. I’m leaving for Europe at the end of this month. I’ve got a new live CD [“Joy and Pain”] coming out in Europe right before we get there. And it should be out in the states in the fall. I’ve got two CDs coming out at the same time and I negotiated and handled all the business.
I stopped in Boston, stayed a week at my sax player’s house. Then I moved to Glastonbury, Connecticut, with the drummer, Lorne Entress, and stayed there about five months. We wrote some songs. I was sending tapes all over the place trying to get a major label deal. I turned down Joe Harley. I wanted a Clive Davis, I didn’t want a Joe Harley. But then again, God knows best. I turned Joe down. He was the first one to call back and say, “Let’s do it.” He had this tape in his car for two months, rode around, stepped on it, finally threw it in. But I said, “No, I got some other irons in the fire.” When I finally got out there to do the album with him, I wanted to use horns. He said “You got this big ol’ voice, why you need horns?” [laughs].
After Glastonbury, I moved back to Boston and started working little by little. I ran into people who were supposed to be managers and attorneys. It was like going through the things I went through in the ‘60s. I had to make some decisions. I had to look at things. I stopped drinking and that really set me free. I quit that crap. I fired my supposed-to-be manager, my supposed-to-be booking agency, went out and hired a horn section and I raised my price. My wife thought I was crazy, thought I lost my fucking mind. But I knew I had to get off this merry-go-round [laughs]. Luckily I had some money. Audioquest pays me! I’ve been receiving royalty checks for the first time in my life. I’m getting paid for my music. I even had one of my songs cut by another artist, Rufus Thomas, “What You Want Me to Do.” I’m getting paid. I never dreamed – I never thought I was a songwriter, it was always somebody else. Now it’s happening to me. That helped me make the decisions – all that crap I went through to write those songs. “What You Want Me to Do,” I wrote that song in Nashville, wrote it to the woman I was married to at that time. “What the fuck you want me to do?” All that pain – now I’m receiving royalties from it. All those songs I wrote then, I’m getting paid for them now. And JVC reissues “Give It Up for Love”  and “Keep On Movin’”  and I’m getting paid again. These songs caused me so much grief, I was crying, had boogers from my nose hanging to my knees when I wrote those songs. Now I’m getting paid for them. It’s amazing. I’m living in my own home on seven acres here. The McClain Ponderosa we call it. And I used to eat out of garbage cans.
[Talk about meeting his current wife (his fourth) and moving to Epping three years ago, shortly before they got married.]
I bought a tractor from 1943. That was one of the things I left home running from. I said I never want to see another tractor. I picked cotton. I didn’t want to do that no more. I didn’t want to be no farmer, no cotton picker. I used to see the Greyhound bus go by and just want to get on it. I used to get high just smelling the fumes from those buses. I just wanted to go. Now I’ve turned 180 degrees and bought a tractor last summer.
Tell me about the photo on the back cover of the album. Is that boy you?
At first this album was supposed to be called “Hanging on the Cross Between Heaven and the Blues.” [which, he explained, was written after being let down by people he considered his friends and losing a couple of hundred thousand dollars, an experience that left him extremely angry.] I felt like I was hanging on a fucking cross like Jesus Christ – and that’s the way the song came. [But the record company suggested a simpler title would be preferable.] So there’s a picture of little Mighty on the back and big Mighty on the front. “Journey,” that was my concept.
The first song on the album, “I’m A Man.” I love how you sing about being a man, but you spell out “human,” not “man.”
I didn’t want to sound macho. That’s why I say h-u-m-a-n.
Do you consider yourself primarily a blues singer?
I consider myself a blues singer, soul singer, gospel singer, country singer. I’m a singer. I’m a man with a song. “Mr. So and So,” that’s my country flavored thing. I didn’t plan it, it just came to me. And it came out country [McClain then told the story about the inspiration for the song, which came when he took a trip to Boston to do a radio interview and lost his slot to singer/songwriter Kevin So, who was so thrilled to meet him he started talking about Mighty Sam on the air and he wanted to dedicate a song to him.] It was “Let Me Carry the Load. I felt so humble. He acknowledged me on his time. I came home and wrote this song. I was gonna name it “Thank you, Kevin.” He inspired me. And I was going to walk in and choke this man because he was taking my spot!
When you started to turn your life around was it a sudden thing or was it a gradual change?
It was a bolt. All the people that knew me thought I was crazy. This happened in Pensacola. God came to me first of all through people, a woman, when the bottom fell out and I did my last single with Malaco, Atlantic, one of them labels. Nothing was happening for me musically. The gigs stopped. I wound up selling marijuana. And after coming real close to going to jail and deciding to go back to music I met this woman and this band. I went down to this club, Trader John’s, in Pensacola, to a jam session. And all of a sudden I had a real band. I looked up and there was a woman who worked in the joint. She had her eye on me. After that, I saw God. I started seeing God everywhere, in everything, in rocks, in trees, in the air. That was in 1973. It was in that period that I went back home and saw my stepfather before he passed. I changed. And everybody around me got to see it. Everybody who knew the old Sam got to see the new Sam. They thought I was crazy. Most of my friends thought I lost my fucking mind. “What’s wrong with Mighty, man?” Because I went from one thing to another. There was a time when I went around with a Bible in my hand. Because I saw what God had done for me and I wanted to share that with the whole world. The main thing was that I saw about love, about forgiving everybody, about doing right, about believing in myself. I knew I was going to get here and be doing the things that I’m doing but I didn’t know how long the road was going to be.
Was your faith shaken in the years between 1973 and when you finally signed with Audioquest – when almost 20 years went by without a record deal?
Oh, of course. It’s in the song, “Hanging on the Cross” [on “Journey”]. The second verse: “I promised God I would never ever lose my faith and now here I stand I got a question mark on my face.” Does that answer your question? Getting up, getting down, getting up, getting down. I was eating out of garbage cans, starving to death. And now I go over to Japan and see they have these albums out on me. And you ask me about frustration? I’ve been down so much I didn’t want to get up. I was tired. I wanted to die. I don’t have to make up stories, I just talk about my life. I was in Pensacola, Florida standing on the beach thinking about just walking into that water. That very first line [of “I’m So Lonely” from his 1995 album “Keep on Movin’”] “I watched the tides roll in, I stood there and watched them roll away again, thinking about that woman that I lost….” That was one of the times I was thinking about giving up. I was hurt. I never felt so much pain. But here I am.
It’s a struggle to get my music heard. But everywhere I go and open my mouth, I’m accepted. It’s tough, but I’ll make it. There’s progress, but there’s still so much to be done. I couldn’t imagine being in this position. I’m contractually free. I used to walk in begging, now I walk in selling. I’m seeing this all come together after years. After years. Was it worth it? Hell yes.