Felix Grant
Radio Interview
with Clea Bradford

Text and Photos by Larry Benicewicz

Celebrated jazz chanteuse, Clea Bradford, passed away August 19 at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, succumbing to complications from breast cancer. She had been in ill health of late suffering as well a series of strokes. She was 75.

Although Clea Bradford was best recognized and greatly esteemed as a songstress in this improvisational realm of music, she was also equally adept at tackling a wide range of genres, including blues (a big fan of Jimmy Reed), pop, and soul. And this eclecticism and versatility was mirrored in her real life, as she was a Renaissance woman of sorts—a world class chef (her culinary skills were documented in the Washington Star), a formidable painter, social activist, and composer, even penning blues numbers like “One Sided Love Affair” and “I’ve Found My Peace of Mind” for famed guitarist Pee Wee Crayton.

As a vocalist, she was noted for her articulation, impeccable sense of timing, idiosyncratic phrasing, and heartfelt, emotional renderings of her material. A stickler for details, she demanded perfection from both herself and her supporting cast. “She was an enormous talent and darling of critics. I’ve never read a bad review of her act, ever,” said Al Becker, jazz historian and host of St. Louis’s “Voices in the Dark,” broadcast over station KDHX, FM 88.1, on Sundays at 9 pm.

Onstage she was an indelible, conspicuous figure--tall (at 5ft11in.), willowy, elegant, and gorgeous, with high cheekbones and straight black hair, the latter two traits directly attributable to both her mother (of Choctaw, Ethiopian, and Creole descent) and father (of Cherokee ancestry). In fact, throughout her life, her Native American roots were always a source of pride and she relished any opportunity to display her sundry authentic Indian garb. In fact, when her father died in 1967, she sang at his funeral dressed in full regalia. Recently, she formally changed her last name to Bradford-Silverlight out of deference to her forebears.

Clea (left) with pupil, Cathy Ponton King, Photo: Courtesy of Cathy King

Clea Annah Ethell Bradford was born in the hamlet of Farrell near Clarksdale in Coahoma County, MS, in 1933 but soon thereafter her family moved to Charleston in the extreme southeast corner of Missouri. In Charleston, Clea’s father, Rev. Richard Henry Bradford, a strict religious man, became pastor of the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church, which served the needs of the local community both spiritually and physically, ministering to the homeless and providing them with a dependable soup kitchen at the height of the Depression. Elizabeth, Clea’s mother, inspired her to sing at an early age, composing melodies to verses she would discover in poems, psalms, and scripture. At age three, Clea had her first recital, singing the hymn, “I Come to the Garden Alone.”  She also credited an elementary school teacher with further encouraging her musical predilection but it was to be her maternal grandfather, Jessie Coleman, who was to teach her the fundamentals of voice, harmony, and sight reading; so much so, that by age thirteen she was lead singer, pianist, and conductor of the church choir.

After separating from her husband, Elizabeth took the then seven-year-old Clea and moved north to Saint Louis, eventually landing on Washington Boulevard. For Clea, it would be a fateful relocation. It just so happened that almost next door to the Bradfords lived the redoubtable tenor sax man, Jimmy Forrest (1920-1980), who at the time of Clea’s arrival had just returned from a New York junket backing pianist Jay McShann and was about to join forces with Andy Kirk’s big band (1941-7). In the late 40s, Forrest would serve a stint with Duke Ellington from whom he appropriated a solo from Ellington’s “Happy Go Lucky Local” and converted it into the jazz/R&B smash “Night Train” (United # 110, 1952). Moreover throughout the 40s, Forrest, when not on the road, would hold both rehearsals and impromptu jam sessions at his residence, which would include St. Louis chums, like alto sax player Oliver Nelson (1932-1975), who was already a professional at the tender age of fifteen playing in the outfits of locals, George Hudson, Nat Towles, and the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra. He would go on to further distinguish himself as a member of Louis Jordan’s big band in 1950. Another regular would be trumpeter/fluegelhorn player, Clark Terry, (1920-) who was with the all-star Navy Band at Great Lakes, Chicago, from 1942-45, and later in the decade would hook up with the aforementioned Hudson, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnet, Charlie Ventura, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, and finally Count Basie (from 1948-51). And last, but not least, of these “young Turks” was trumpeter Miles Davis (1926-1991), who still made St. Louis his home in the 40s, before his father sent him to Juilliard in 1945. Thereafter he made the rounds of all the clubs on 52nd St, competing with such luminaries as Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins.

For a spell, Clea was just an ardent listener to this unfamiliar brand of music emanating from Forrest’s house, but it wasn’t long before as a young teen she was sitting in with the group. She was always quick to acknowledge especially the intricate trumpet passages of Terry and Davis as source of her own vocal intonations. At first, Forrest, as mentor, allowed her to sing at such functions as proms but later at fifteen, much to her father’s consternation, she was sneaking off to sing at clubs like the Red Rooster in East St. Louis, IL. Her big professional break came in 1950, when she at seventeen was rewarded with a 32-week engagement at the famous Faust club in that same city wherein she earned the princely sum of $10 a night. When advised by fellow musicians that Detroit offered more opportunities to perform, she moved there in the early 50s and quickly picked up an engagement on the same slate as Al Hibbler ( 1915-2001, now on his own after an eight year hitch as vocalist in Duke Ellington’s big band) at one of the major venues of the Motor City—the Flame Show Bar, which during that same time frame would be featuring R&B acts like the Royals with Hank Ballard and Billy Ward’s Dominoes, with lead singers Clyde McPhatter and later Jackie Wilson. She would remain in Detroit for three years, before moving on to Buffalo, NY, Cleveland, New York City, and Chicago, where her distinctive style finally coalesced. But through her Detroit connection, she was able to finally make her first recording in 1959 on the Hi-Q label (John Lee Hooker, Dr. Ross, Roy Hall, Eddie Kirkland), a subsidiary of Fortune, run by Dorothy (Devora) Brown and Jack Brown at 3942 Third St. Although the soul tinged number “I’ve Got You” (#5011) failed to make a significant impact, it did succeed in giving her the recording bug, a preview of things to come in the 60s.

Ironically, Clea was indirectly responsible with putting Motown records on the map in that her younger sister, Janie Bradford, eventually followed her to Detroit and while still in high school found a job as a receptionist at Studio A in the building that is now referred to as Hitsville U.S.A. at 2648 West Grand Boulevard. “One day, Berry Gordy Jr. was fiddling around on the piano and I made a joke about him always needing money. Well, anyway he took a few lines that I had spoken and put a melody to it. Then he called in Barrett Strong to try some vocals and the rest is history,” said Janie. “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong was first released on Tamla (#54027), but really took off (#2 R&B, #23 Billboard) when it was leased to another Motown affiliate, Anna (#1111), named after the sister of head honcho, Berry Gordy. This oft recorded tune (including the Beatles) proved to have a long shelf life in rock and roll history, becoming a smash for the Kingsmen (of “Louie, Louie” fame) in 1964 and as late as 1979 for the Flying Lizards. Janie would go on to pen other numbers for Motown, including Strong’s second effort, “Whirlwind” (Tamla, #54033).

While stationed in the New York area in 1961, and through the intercession of Oliver Nelson, Clea recorded her first album, These Dues, oddly enough for a rather R&B designated arm, Tru-Sound (#15005), of the jazz label Prestige, operated by Robert Weinstock at 446 W. 50th St. in New York. Other artists in the stable of this short-lived label (1961-63) included King Curtis, Ernestine Allen, Jesse Powell, Eddie Kirkland, and Buddy Lucas. Although produced and arranged by Nelson and showcased a stellar cast of characters, including Nelson, Clark Terry, Chauncey “Lord” Westbrook on guitar, and George Duvivier on bass, the project, which involved covers of jazz classics---“Skylark,” “Willow Weep for Me,” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”---seemed to lack that certain spark. Perhaps it was because Clea had not quite found her real voice. “Clea didn’t like it at all and never alluded to it,” said Al Becker and the principals at Prestige probably thought the same, as they (unlike in the case all the others on the roster) never released a single from it. However, the album was later repackaged and re-released as Clea Bradford with Oliver Nelson and Clark Terry on New Jazz (NJLP 8320).

After a hiatus of a decade, Clea Bradford made a triumphant return to her hometown of St. Louis in late 1962, accepting an extended engagement at the Tres Bien Club at 455 North Boyle smack dab in the middle of once vibrant, but now sadly defunct, Gaslight Square entertainment district (at Gaslight and Boyle) which at one time could boast of a whole host of perhaps 30-40 live music hot spots including its crown jewel, the Crystal Palace, an obligatory destination for big name stars such as Barbara Streisand, the Smothers Brothers, and Phyllis Diller. Now living in the Laclede neighborhood, she appeared nightly at the Tres Bien where she was invariably backed by the expert and highly regarded Quartette Tres Bien---Jeter Thompson on piano, Richard Simmons on bass, Albert St. James on drums, and Percy James on congas—who would later go on to record for major labels like Decca and Atlantic. Soon the singer and combo were attracting so much attention that they were approached by Norman Wienstroer who founded in 1960 Norman records at 1406 Douglas St. Wienstroer recorded the foursome both as a separate entity and in accompaniment with Clea, producing her second single, a jazzed up rendition of “Some Day My Prince Will Come” Parts I & II (Norman # 548), which initially clicked regionally but, lacking national distribution, soon thereafter faded. He also saw fit to include her version of “Old Man River” on an anthology, a long out of print LP, Meet Me in St. Louis: A Musical Souvenir (NS 212) , which was reissued in a CD format in 2005 as In the Afterglow: Memories of Gaslight Square on Gaslight records (GSL 5105).

Another positive outcome of her long standing gig at the Tres Bien was her “discovery” by comedian and native St. Louisian, Dick Gregory, who made her a part of his Kool Jazz Festival tour of the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit” in 1964, where she appeared at the Apollo in Harlem in New York City along with the Quartette, Gregory, Dizzy Gillespie, and vocalist Bill Henderson on the same bill. Undoubtedly this “caravan” also made a stop at Baltimore’s long gone Royal Theatre on Pennsylvania Ave.

And most certainly it had to have been Gregory who thereafter introduced her to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club circuit, after having had such a lengthy and rewarding association with the Windy City’s incarnation. In fact, Clea had to admit that during its heyday in the 60s and 70s, the Playboy Club national network had become her bread and butter. “In the mid-60s, the Playboy Club at 3914 Lindell Blvd in St Louis served as her headquarters. It had the distinction of being only one of two built specifically for that purpose. All the rest were already existing spaces which were renovated or made over,” said Al Becker. During that time frame, Clea was constantly on the go, as every major metropolis had their own, even Baltimore, located on Light St, before the novelty of their waitresses, attired in revealing bunny costumes and serving overpriced drinks, wore off.

But amid this flurry of activity, Clea in 1965 found time to record her second album, Now, on the Mainstream (#56042) trademark at 1290 Avenue of the Americas in New York, a label created in the early 60s by veteran A&R man, Bob Shad, who had broad experience in  both blues and jazz, having formerly operated the Time, Jax, Shad, and Sittin’ in with logos, which may explain why he included more R&B related material among the selections of this undertaking---Titus Turner’s funky “All Around the World” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.” But, Clea may have chosen this particular company out of her respect for two of her potential label mates of that era, singers Morgana King and Carmen McRae, or it may have been through the influence of old time colleague, Clark Terry, who played on the session. Oddly enough, Now is divided into two distinct presentations; on the first date, Clea is backed by a combo consisting of Terry, Hank Jones on piano, the great Barry Galbraith on guitar, Osie Johnson on drums, and Milt Hinton or George Duvivier on bass; on the second, she is not only supported by a large brass ensemble of flutes, saxes, and trombones (Urbie Green) but also a huge string orchestra consisting of nine violins, three violas, and three celli. In short, though, Clea proves that she is more than up to the task and is obviously very comfortable in either environment, both arranged and conducted by Jim Tyler; in fact, she even attempts a vocal version of “Little Boy Bad,” which may have been a first.

Now was certainly an improvement over her last endeavor, not only in its eclecticism and freshness of product but also her self confidence, in which she felt she had finally arrived as a song stylist. Two singles were subsequently released from the LP, “Don’t Rain on My Parade” (#608) and “I Had a Ball” (#609), neither which fared that well on the hit parade. But at this juncture in Clea’s career, she was still very much on a roll.

On the strength of her Mainstream album which was broadcast over “Voice of America” and beamed specifically to countries behind the Iron Curtain, she was invited to be lead vocalist and tour the Soviet Union with legendary jazz pianist, Earl “Fatha” Hines (1903-83), and his contingent featuring illustrious alto sax man, Benny Carter (1907-2003). Sponsored by the State Department’s Cultural Presentations Program, this relentless, six-week, 35-engagement peregrination was intended to foster better relations between the Cold War superpowers. And this ambitious itinerary was kicked off in New York City on July 1, 1966 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as the second installment its “Jazz in the Garden” series. Upon touching down in Russia, Clea at each stop was greeted enthusiastically, finding that her “reputation had preceded her.” This would mark the first of her many subsequent trips “over the pond.”

The next year 1967, she toured Mexico, again as part of the Kool Jazz Festival along with Woody Herman, appearing onstage accompanied by accomplished pianist and then St. Louis resident, John Hicks (1941-2006). According to Al Becker, the Mexican emcee, a celebrity DJ, was so absolutely wowed by her performance that he exclaimed, “Where have you been hiding this voice all these years?” Or words to that effect.

Still very much on the Playboy circuit in 1968, Clea met and thereafter had a close association as lead singer for several years with Detroit-born, jazz guitarist extraordinaire, Kenny Burrell ( 1931-), a ubiquitous presence on recordings of all the masters of this musical bent throughout his long career. At that time, Burrell was recording for Cadet records, a subsidiary of the prominent R&B independent, Chess, of Chicago. Moreover, Burrell was produced by the legendary bassist, Richard Evans, who also was then arranging for up-and-coming Cadet soul artists, including Dorothy Ashby, Terry Callier, Marlena Shaw, and Rotary Connection, the latter group including the young Minnie Riperton. Under the direction of Evans, Her Point of View (LPS 810) was recorded and released in this same year, as well as a soul single, “My Love’s A Monster” (#5602), a compositional collaboration between Clea and Evans. And right away, this single started making waves in the Mid-West; so much so; that Chess records booked her on a promotional swing through several states. But the disk (which by the way became an instant cult classic and durable DJ’s delight in England under the category of Northern Soul) fizzled just as quickly as it had burst on the scene.

And, evidently, there was a good reason for its failure. According to Janie Bradford, Clea had second thoughts about the direction her career might be taking and adamantly refused to go along with it. “She was over in Ohio at this concert and the crowd was clamoring for ‘Monster’ and no matter what, she wouldn’t sing it. She just gave them “Summertime” [the Gershwin standard and flip side of the record] and more jazz numbers. But it just wasn’t that type of audience,” she said. This recalcitrance to publicize her new departure might explain why the powers that be at Chess were reluctant to release a second LP’s worth of material in this same vein, which would have been entitled When A Woman Loves.

In the very late 60s or early 70s, Clea moved to Los Angeles. By that period, Gaslight Square in St. Louis was well into its decline, a seedy shadow of it former self, with many of the once live venues being reincarnated as discos. Moreover, since LA was the headquarters of Playboy, Clea could use that connection to gain access to a then still flourishing club scene. But probably the most compelling reason for her relocation to the West Coast was old friend and adviser, Oliver Nelson, with whom she still remained in contact since her jam session days at Jimmy Forrest’s house in the 40s. Nelson had preceded her to Tinsel Town in 1967, finding work to be plentiful as both a session musician and as a writer of scores for movies and television—which may be the reason she was selected to appear on one of the broadcasts of the second installment of the Joey Bishop Show (1967-1969). Furthermore, Nelson in the early 70s was arranging for the one of jazz’s demigods of the drums, Louis Bellson (born Luigi Paulino Balassoni in 1924), who, according to jazz critic Scott Yanow, “has the rare ability to continually hold one’s interest throughout a 15-minute solo.” Undoubtedly, it was through the recommendation of Nelson that Clea Bradford was fronting Bellson’s touring band in the early 70s. And it was in 1975 (the year of Nelson’s premature passing) that Clea left Bellson’s outfit on one of his excursions to the Nation’s Capital. She thereafter called Washington, D.C., her home, settling in at 1416 Hampshire West Court in Silver Spring, a close suburb.

Clea felt very at ease in these new surroundings. Not only was there a thriving live entertainment scene available but also she discovered that the demand was great for voice coaches. As to this latter vocation of Clea’s, there are several testimonials posted on the internet. Among her early students was veteran area blues player Cathy Ponton King who, after one day losing her voice, sought out the songstress. “I guess you could describe a typical séance as sort of a salon method of teaching. And Clea would be running back and forth between the living room and kitchen checking on some exotic dish that she was concocting for a gaggle of her pupils,” said Cathy in a recent interview.

But by 1976, Clea was back on the road again, this time as the lead singer for the Air Force Band, the Airmen of Note, under the direction of tenor/alto Ernie Hensley. In that same year, she appeared with the group at the venerable Baltimore jazz venue, the Famous Ballroom on Charles St. Apparently, it was quite a special occasion and in fact was taped for Yale Lewis’s “Jazz Insights” program, that segment entitled “The Military and All That Jazz,” which examined particularly the contributions of black musicians to the armed forces over the years. Joining Clea onstage on that magical Sunday evening was Bill Harris of the Clovers, Damita Jo, and the Buddy Tate/ Scott Hamilton Quintet.

In the early 80s, Clea was still quite active in the Baltimore-Washington region and in fact her renown was such that the late Felix Grant, heralded host of WMAL’s late night radio show, “The Album Sound,” invited her to his broadcast booth for a tete-a-tete. By the way, this interview (as all the rest of his) of May 15, 1981 was recorded for posterity and now can be obtained through the Felix E.Grant Archives. Also in 1981, she created and acted in a one-woman show of reminisces, songs, and anecdotes of idol Billie Holiday (whose phrasing and intonation closely matched that of Clea) which she debuted at the Ethical Society in Washington, D.C. Later, she reprised this production, “A Tribute to Billie Holiday,” at Charlie’s of Georgetown, managed by area jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd (1925-1999). At least one of these performances during her “Month of Mondays” run at the club was taped by local public television outlet, WETA; while another was recorded for dissemination over “Voice of America.”

In 1983, she last recorded. And it was in keeping with her emerging social consciousness which was to hold sway over the latter stage of her life. Released as a public service message, it appeared as a 45 rpm on the local Matrix label, “Singles Should Never Mean Alone.” She also championed the causes of the union, American Federation of Musicians, an organization of which she was a member.

By the late 80s, she had completed an extensive tour of Switzerland in which she was well received. And another feather in her cap during this time frame was an engagement at the New York City’s Town Hall. In 1986, station KWMU (90.7 FM, affiliated with National Public Radio) inducted Clea Bradford into its St. Louis Jazz Hall of Fame. Locally, throughout the decade, she was a fixture at such venues as the aforementioned Charlie’s (after which Byrd opened his King of France Tavern in Annapolis, MD) and the much missed One Step Down in Washington.

The 90s were marked by Clea’s gradual retirement from the entertainment business. Following in her father’s footsteps she earned a degree in divinity from Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA, and returned home to become minister and counselor for her church. And even if she had aspirations to continue her secular music career, she couldn’t have, especially after an operation to remove her thyroid went awry. And then it was just a matter of time before her health deteriorated.

Clea Bradford’s “Celebration of Life” funeral rites were held at her Faith Community Baptist Church on Friday, August 22. And she was buried at Parkland Memorial Park in Rockville, MD.

There has been much speculation about why a woman of Clea’s prodigious vocal gifts had been so grossly underrepresented by her recorded output—just three albums and a half dozen singles. Undoubtedly, career-wise, she could have made better choices. She could have chosen not to become involved both professionally and romantically with her first manager whom she encountered in Detroit, the swaggering, womanizing, abusive Ali Delmar Muhammad (think Ike Turner), a fanatical follower of the Nation of Islam’s spiritual leader, Elijah Muhammad. Delmar, from all accounts not much of a diplomat, often clashed with agents and promoters, many of them Jewish and many of whom could have opened quite a few doors for her. Secondly, as in the case of Chess records, she could have chosen the route of a post-Columbia Aretha Franklin, becoming, instead, a soul diva, but did not. And thirdly, she could have chosen to stay in Los Angeles and not select Washington, D.C., as a home base, a city devoid of major labels and not noted for supporting and nurturing the best of its home grown talent--the deaths by suicide of guitar wizards Danny Gatton and Roy Buchanan bear witness to this hypothesis. Granted, Washington has had its fair share of natives or long time residents who have found fame and fortune, but only by going elsewhere—Marvin Gaye, Don Covay, Jimmy Castor, Nils Lofgren, Roy Clark, and Roberta Flack, just to name a few. Furthermore, even when the local musical community cared to embrace one of its own, there was always an entrenched and tacit pecking order, a practice of which Clea was keenly aware and on occasion to which she expressed her frustration. Like her blues counterpart, guitarist/singer Bobby Parker, who despite toiling four decades here, was never able to establish himself and shake the “outsider” tag. As many eminently qualified artists, Clea included, have discovered, politics in Washington, D.C., are not necessarily confined to Capitol Hill or K Street.

Thanks to:
Al Becker and Felix E. Grant
for the permission to take the photos
and the radio Interview.

Fritz Svacina

But Clea, despite these circumstances, continued to march to the beat of her own drummer. And she took pride in being what she was, what she had become, with no regrets, no looking back. “I may not be a big star, but, definitely, I’m a large twinkle,” she’d often assert. During interviews, she also was wont to say that “I look at all the greats and I admire them all, but I don’t want to be a second Sarah [Vaughan] or a second Ella [Fitzgerald]. I want to be the first Clea Bradford.” As far as that sentiment went, she was a success; for she was, indeed, a unique talent. And we should ever be thankful that at least we have handful of these precious recordings that can only give us an inkling of the full extent of her interpretive genius.

>>>>> Larry Benicewicz, Baltimore Blues Society

P.S. I would like to thank the following people for contributing so generously to the fruition of this article: Al Becker, Terence McArdle, Washington Post staff writer, Bill Greensmith of St. Louis, Glenda Smith, daughter of Clea Bradford, Clea McKinney, granddaughter of Clea Bradford, Janie Bradford, sister of Clea, Rachel Elwell, media technician at the Felix E. Grant Jazz archives, Sonja Monk, historian of the Mississippi Choctaws, and Cathy Ponton King, longtime dear friend of Clea Bradford.

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