Visual impairment : Blind since birth
Born in Montgomery, Alabama, on January 4, 1936, Clarence grew up and learned to play guitar from listening to records by John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins and Jimmy Reed. He attended Alabama State College in Montgomery where he earned a music degree. By the time he graduated, Carter had developed sufficiently diverse skills that on his recordings, he would not only sing and play guitar but also occasionally do his own keyboard work and write and arrange, writing charts in Braille.
Carter's numerous hits of the late '60s and early '70s epitomized the Muscle Shoals rhythm and blues sound. Despite being blinded as a child, he developed a distinctive guitar style that complemented his earthy delivery, and was just as comfortable on keyboards, writing songs or arranging sessions. The first two albums, 'This Is Clarence Carter' and 'The Dynamic Clarence Carter' show off his versatile talent to good effect.
Clarence was the final link in a long chain of blind blues singer-guitarists , a descendant of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell, and Blind Willie Johnson, among others. Like them, he was possessed of a special vision, darkling and a little frightening. In Carter's case, love, particularly cheating love, became the great spiritual metaphor. In a sense, he owed more to the preaching gospel-blues of Blind Willie Johnson than any of the others, for even when he was singing the melody straight, you always had the feeling that Carter was reaching for a homily and his vocals feature frequent interjections and interpolations, spoken, gasped and hummed, whose source could only be the gospel church.
On the other hand, more than any of his guitar-playing predecessors (but not unlike that more contemporary blind musical genius, Ray Charles) Carter was possessed of an expansive sense of humor, embodied in the lewd guttural chuckle (reportedly derived from Mr. Lee, a Montgomery, Ala. disc jockey) that punctuates many of his best records. This deeply ironic spirit also allowed Carter to knowingly but quite unselfconsciously work with metaphors based on his own blindness, as on 'I Can't See Myself' and 'I'd Rather Go Blind.' For all his links to the past, this spirit marks Clarence Carter as a genuinely modern performer, a link in another chain that stretches from street corner dozens players to the rappers of today.
The typical Clarence Carter record features his mammoth vocal and twanging Jazzmaster guitar figures over a solid Muscle Shoals soul groove, accented by a sonorous Memphis-style horn chart. Chances are, if the song is a ballad, there may be some kind of preaching break, or if the tune is up tempo, ample space for his lascivious chuckle. (That naughty laugh practically becomes a percussion instrument on his Christmas classic, 'Back Door Santa.')
Carter sings, in his massive deep baritone, almost every kind of love song. from the ecstatic 'Soul Deep' (borrowed from the Box Tops) to the despondent 'I'd Rather Go Blind.' but his specialty is narrating cheating in all its myriad aspects . Most often, he presents infidelity either as the most rarefied of romantic delights or as a sin whose wages are guilt both overwhelming and spine-tingling. 'Slip Away' typifies what he has to say on the subject but the pinnacle of his preachments on this text in undoubtedly 'Making Love (At The Dark End Of The Street),' with its four minutes of preaching and thirty seconds of singing. The sound seems to blossom directly from his chest, an explosion of feeling so rich that mere flesh cannot contain it.