There is some confusion at the door of Terra Blues. The East Village club sits atop a tall staircase that rises up from Bleecker Street. I arrive at 6:40p.m., ten minutes after the club opens, and ten minutes late for my first interview with guitarist Clarence Spady. Spady, however, is also late—he assured me over the phone that my name is on the bouncer’s list. It is not.
The bouncer tells me that “Clarence isn’t here yet—I don’t have a list,” and it’s a $20 cover. The speed of his reply lets on that he doesn’t believe me, or simply doesn’t care. I don’t want to argue with his wooden tone and, defeated, step outside to wait. At 6:55p.m. I grow uneasy—the set begins at seven, and the crowd is filing in. Then, from the shadows cast on Bleecker, a short and dreadlock-ed man with a guitar strapped over his back struts toward me. He does not, however, turn up the steps.
“Clarence!” I shout, and wave. Spady waves back and smiles, but keeps his pace. I rush down to the sidewalk—he is already one block away. The man is quick for fifty-six years old. I reenter Terra to tell the dispassionate bouncer that Spady just walked by. At 6:58p.m., the door to the club opens. A cloud of cigarette smoke floats by me, followed by Clarence Spady, who puts the ember out on the inside of the door frame. He coolly tosses the butt behind him, and I watch as it trails across the floor. Again, I say hello, and again, Spady smiles. His eyes are friendly, but they hold no recognition. He keeps on walking, this time into the dressing room. Someone comes out with a guest list. I am, however, not on it.
“I have an Emmie,” the bouncer tells me. His expression is wary. I try to persuade him that I am who I say, and I am in fact the person on the list, albeit the person on the list is not me. I look up to see Spady on stage, setting up his gear. He has somehow bypassed all known stage entryways. He walks with a diva’s nonchalance—comped meals and exclusive back doors are his tried and true ways of life.
I convince the bouncer to, under his supervision, let me approach the stage.
“Clarence, it’s Emmett,” I say. He puts down his guitar and amplifier cables, and extends his hand. He greets me as though my name was never in question. This Pennsylvania blues man never hints at regret or chagrin—it’s as though nothing has been forgotten at all. He grins, and with a rushed civility (it is now 7:14p.m., and the room is packed), points me to a reserved table in the front row. I order a bourbon and watch his acoustic guitar hum Bible Belt blues.
Six years ago, Spady was inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame. Tonight, the music is still full of bravado and depth. He vibrates a high note like a man from the Delta, and strums a chord that trails off—its sound is lost to the bass line and drums. He holds onto the pause until the crowd’s excitement peaks, and they cheer as he picks the rhythm back up.
The first set ends, and Spady unstraps his guitar and zips off the stage like a dart. I’m told that I’ll find him outside smoking, and so I walk through the crowd toward the exit. The only person outside, however, is the owner, a large man who was earlier pointed out to me. He is bundled in a beige coat, and stares without expression at the strip of sidewalk that is his domain. I ask if he’s the owner.
“Who wants to know?” he asks. The words are full of gravel, and he continues to look past me. I tell him I’m writing an article on Clarence Spady. He nods and, for the first time, briefly looks me over, and offers this solemn praise: “Clarence is a fucking outlaw.”
The air is cold and foggy on the streets of Scranton. The “Electric City” is a small, industrial town stuck inside rural Appalachia, in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna Valley. It is quaint and haunted, like many Atlantic towns that have given up on their original industry: slight and eerily empty. These streets are home to Spady. He was born in Patterson, NJ, which he’ll tell you was a time before it had its current rough-and-tumble connotation. His father was career military, and became stationed in Scranton, where the family moved when Spady was between five- and seven-years-old, depending on what day you ask. He learned to play guitar by sitting on his father’s lap and strumming along. After seeing his father wake up at 4:30 each morning, Spady knew at an early age that he “didn’t want to punch no time clock for no one. I knew I wasn’t cut out for the service. I knew I wasn’t hangin’ in that direction.”
But he did try. His father pushed him to audition for the US Jazz Ambassadors, an army band that has a two-year run with gigs around the world. At eighteen, when Spady worked as a heavy equipment operator in Scranton, he decided to join his best friend at giving the military a shot. “[My friend] went through, and I didn’t.”
Spady did, however, see the guitar through. His high school friend, and current manager, Scott Goldman, opened Blues Street, the first blues bar in Scranton, which Spady would frequent. The future bluesman would work his days on construction sites with pipelines and heavy machinery, and spend his nights on stage with whatever acts passed through. “He’s a chameleon,” Goldman says. “He could play with Sonny Rhodes, Luther Houserocker Johnson. From there he really grew as an artist.”
His rise as a guitarist and bluesman was fast and dazzling, but hanging on at the top has always proved a challenge. He began to initially tour in 1991, but he and his father’s lives were devastated by the passing of Spady’s mother that same year. To cope, he brought his father on tour for the next ten years. “I came home with a suitcase and said ‘this ain’t for me, pops—it’s for you. Me and my dad had a relationship—I never thought two men could bond like that. The thirty previous years were a speck compared to that time.”