Talkin' quiet & sayin' plenty
Remembering music writer Cliff White, and his 'Granny'
In the beginning, it seemed like a small band of brothers.
Norman Jopling was one. Like other young disciples of rhythm & blues, I hunted for his byline in Record Mirror every week in the early 1960s. Gradually, other names became apparent, mostly from fanzines: Clive Richardson, Bill Millar, Dave Godin, John Abbey. I came to depend on them, not merely to learn, but to help shape a view of the music. That experience – being shaped by the music, finding a purpose in it, then living for it – may be familiar to some of you.
Cliff White was also a brother. That became clear from the calibre of his work, and his understanding of the music. His death on January 25 is a loss, and the reason for this post.
The 1970s were remarkable for those who sought that understanding. By then, the music – from Motown, Stax, Philadelphia International and more – had commercial power. And so there was a wider appetite for those who could write about it with skill and authority.
Actually, it needed more than authority. Cliff was one who recognised, by instinct or design, how the minutiae had to yield to the spirit, the personality and the soul of the music makers.
The minutiae? You know: the bland biographies published in the trade press, the names in small type on the label copy of singles, the record numbers themselves. It all helped. But it was the music which opened the door – OK, ripped the door from its hinges – and now you had to enter the premises, occasionally unsure of what was inside.
Cliff could help. Not necessarily with a floor plan, but some notes on paper. “Marvin is…er…spaced out,” ran his prose in a 1976 New Musical Express interview with the prince of Motown. “He spends a lot of time gazing absently across the rooftops while he speaks, perhaps focusing on the distant chimneys of Battersea Power Station, radiating the aura of a guru who’s about to wax mysterious and levitate himself sideways out of the window. At other times he turns inward, on the room and on himself, sitting with head bowed, playing idly with the stem of his wine glass or slowly smoothing out the creases in the table-cloth, giving me the impression of a haunted victim or a condemned man.”
This was different to the deference often found in, say, Blues & Soul during the previous decade. Now rhythm & blues (or soul music, or call it what you will) was all-conquering during the ’70s, and demanded writers to match. Who better than Cliff White to interview Marvin Gaye, Etta James, Earth Wind & Fire, Bobby Womack, George Clinton and, of course, James Brown?
“He is poorly educated and given to making socio-political statements, on record and in person, that have been attacked as being superficial and naïve by deeper thinkers,” opined Cliff about Brown in Black Music in 1977. “And yet a lot of what he has said and done makes more sense to the man in the street, be it you or I, than the pretentious and obscure bullshit spouted by a thousand others.”
I doubt that anyone wrote about JB with greater knowledge – and with less pretentiousness – than Cliff. Given that Brown was a titan of 20th century American music, this was no minor achievement. Little surprise, then, that White was intimately involved in Star Time, the four-CD retrospective of Brown’s recording career which was released in 1991. He was one of the compilation’s producers, with Harry Weinger, Oscar A. Yong and Bill Levenson. White also authored with Weinger one of the essays in the accompanying booklet, and contributed its discography.
“Cliff and I co-wrote the main essay by fax,” remembered Weinger, “our prose squawking back and forth through the ether for several weeks. We had met by telephone a year before, as he had participated in several other JB reissues. I learned an extraordinary amount from him – mainly from his reframing of a great artist whose frame was not so kind in the 1980s, but had found resurgence later in the decade. Cliff never wavered from his default position: that James Brown was the King of them all. His attitude beat back the critics.”
Star Time earned a Grammy nomination for Best Album Notes. Weinger assumed that White, with co-nominees Alan Leeds (also the set’s associate producer, who had previously worked for Brown) and Nelson George, would unite in New York and celebrate. “Cliff, however, despite entreaties from Alan and I, had little interest in travelling from his North London place for a (to him) hyped-up awards show,” Harry explained. “He didn’t imagine we would win, and, besides, he had articles to write.
“Yet we prevailed. A newly-game Cliff flew to the Big Apple, his plane ticket paid by some consulting trick, and we had a blast. When category hosts the Indigo Girls called out Star Time that night, we were, of course, thrilled. I have a vague memory of Cliff and I crashing the label party, high from making our own little piece of history. Later, Cliff sent through Royal Mail a pic of himself at home, drink and cigarette in hand, celebrating with neighbours over his win for what he affectionately called his ‘Granny.’ ”
Since January 25, others have paid tribute to Cliff, including Charles Thomson in a thorough obituary, and Alan Leeds, with recollections on Facebook. When Motown Records signed Jerry Butler in the late ’70s, its U.K. press officer at the time, Bob Fisher, arranged an interview with White. “About a day later, Jerry called to thank me for introducing him to Cliff,” recalled Fisher, “and said he was probably the best interviewer he’d ever had.” Another Motown artist may have reached a similar conclusion after talking to the writer. “If anyone is going to entice me to rip down my pin-ups of Millie Jackson and Tina Turner,” Cliff subsequently penned in NME, “it’ll almost certainly be the raunchy and oh-so-delectable Yvonne Fair.”
Personally, I will remember Cliff for grace and dignity – qualities not always associated with journalists – almost as much as for his dedication to the music. And there always was style, epitomised by this excerpt from an article he wrote for Black Music in 1977. “In battling his way to the top, [James] Brown forged about himself a shield of ruthless steel to brush aside scorn, prejudice and any would-be competitors. As a result, bitter remarks and unsavoury rumours have churned in his wake for years. On examination, most of these allegations can be seen as pure jealousy, but there are undoubtedly deep-rooted reactions in the man that set him apart from contemporaries.”
A man set apart from his contemporaries? Rest in peace, Cliff White.