Last week, Bradley Reeves at the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound posted some recently unearthed silent black-and-white footage of Knoxville R&B singer Clifford Curry performing at Chilhowee Park in 1964. Tall and skinny, dressed in a tuxedo and cradling a microphone, Curry shows off some fleet-footed moves as a few dozen teenagers dance in front of the stage.
Curry, now in his 70s, doesn’t move quite as well these days. He’s put on a little weight and walks with a cane, and his performing days seem to be winding down. But, as he showed last week during a visit back to Knoxville from his home in Nashville, he’s still Knoxville’s number-one soul man.
Curry was in town for a meet-and-greet with fans at a West Knoxville hotel; he also found time to visit with some friends and stop by WDVX for Reeves’ East Tennessee Quiver radio show.
Curry grew up in Bearden, right at the intersection of Kingston Pike and Mohican Drive, in the 1940s and ’50s.
“That was a black neighborhood back then,” he says. “All my cousins, all my uncles, all my kinfolk lived around there.”
He caddied at Cherokee Country Club—he even became a scratch golfer—and listened to music. He went to nightclubs and R&B and rock ’n’ roll concerts at Chilhowee Park.
“Knoxville was jumping back in those days,” he says. “There were clubs everywhere and bands all over the place.”
Curry’s music career began when he was a student at Austin High School in the late 1950s, when he joined a vocal group called the Echoes, which later became the Five Pennies.
“My first gig in public was in high school with the Echoes,” he says. “The lights were on so I couldn’t see anything, so I wasn’t nervous. That got me out of my shyness right there.”
Curry stayed in school while the other Pennies signed a deal with Savoy, the famous jazz label, and moved to New Jersey. He graduated in 1959 and went on the road with a band of white musicians. He stayed with them until 1963, honing his stage chops and getting professional experience. He came back to Knoxville after that and played wherever he could, writing songs, and recording the first of dozens of singles and albums he would release over nearly 50 years. His first sessions were at a local radio station—a friend was on the air from 8 p.m. to midnight, and Curry would come in after his shift and record demos of his songs. In 1967, he had a minor national R&B hit with “She Shot a Hole in My Soul,” a bruising, hard-edged and emotion-filled soul number that was covered by Alex Chilton’s Box Tops a year later.
Two other developments in the late ’60s extended his career: He started performing in Myrtle Beach, S.C.—he eventually earned the unofficial title “the King of Beach Music”—and DJs in England discovered his records as part of the Northern Soul movement.
“Carolina really opened up a door for me when I went out there in ’67,” Curry says. “This guy had a club out in Myrtle Beach—a concrete floor and a stage, that’s all it was. No tables, no chairs, nothing.”
In the mid-’60s, white audiences all over the Southeast were listening to—and dancing to—R&B and soul artists on the radio. Clubs along the coast in North and South Carolina started catering to these audiences, bringing black artists like Curry in for lengthy engagements. He performed off and on in the Carolinas for decades.
In the 1980s, Curry settled in Nashville for good. His most recent local performances were at the Knoxville Museum of Art’s Alive After Five series four or five years ago and at a blues festival in the Old City in 2010. He has no plans for future performances, but in the meantime, there’s a lot of his music out there.