Willie Clayton left Chicago in 1993 for the warmer climes of Atlanta, but he's a proud product of the Windy City soul circuit. Well before turning 21, Clayton was opening for the greats of the genre at the city's top venues. He's long since graduated to headliner status himself: he made his main-stage debut at the Chicago Blues Festival in 1996, and Saturday evening's set is his fourth appearance there.
"We're going to really, really mix it up, change it up, and really do something that should have Chicago saying, 'OK, this old boy's still got it!'" promises the 63-year-old Clayton. "I'm very much excited." He's bringing his full entourage along. "I roll with backup singers, four- or five-piece rhythm," he says. "When I play bigger events like the Chicago Blues Fest, you will see live horns." That tricked-out stage show keeps him in high demand. "If we keep rolling the way we're rolling now, we could tap out a little over 100 dates this year," he says.
Sat 6/9, 6:45 PM, Jay Pritzker Pavilion
Clayton has called himself "the King of Southern Soul," and his claim to that crown hardly seems presumptuous, thanks to his steady touring over the decades and his series of popular albums for the Ace, Ichiban, and Malaco labels in the 1990s and 2000s (he now records for Endzone). These days, though, he thinks of his style in somewhat more inclusive terms. "I grew up in Chicago, but I was born in the south. I like to think of mine as more of soul, R&B, and blues," he says. "The era that I came up around, either you had some good singing pipes or you just weren't allowed to get on the stage."
Clayton's own sterling pipes jump-started his career, and he made his recording debut when he was still in his early teens, at the dawn of the 70s, for Jimmy Liggins's Duplex label. "I was born singing," he says. A native of Indianola, Mississippi, he arrived in Chicago in 1971 and locked down high-powered managerial representation from WVON on-air personality Pervis Spann. "They saw this kid that they thought was phenomenal," says Clayton. "If you came to Chicago to play a big show back in the 70s, you were coming for Pervis Spann or [WVON program director] E. Rodney Jones." Clayton was soon rubbing shoulders with some of the top names in R&B.
"Here I was, this kid, able to be onstage and work with all those greats, from Marvin Gaye to David Ruffin," says Clayton. He played south-side hot spots including the Burning Spear, Checkmate, and the High Chaparral, in addition to package shows at the International Amphitheatre and the Auditorium promoted by Spann, Jones, or both. "I miss those good times, because you just don't have those type of stand-up artists anymore," he says.
Spann arranged his protege's first major recording deal, with Memphis-based Hi Records. "Pervis was the person who introduced me to Willie Mitchell," says Clayton. "You had to get your act together, or Willie Mitchell was not going to record you." Clayton signed to Hi sister label Pawn and debuted there in 1974 with "It's Time You Made Up Your Mind." Through '76 he made five more singles for the imprint, backed by the vaunted Hi rhythm section.
Clayton's singles for Pawn included some shoulda-been hits, but they didn't sell especially well. "Being a younger artist in my teens, some of those songs might have been a little too old for me," he admits. Of course, that's not to say he regrets his work for the label: "Being able to go out and to run out there and do some touring with Al Green across the country, that was some great stuff."
Clayton broke through on the soul charts in 1984 with "Tell Me" and "What a Way to Put It," produced by singer General Crook and released by Nashville label Compleat. "I learned a lot from General," he says. "That's when I really decided, 'OK, it's time for me to start producing myself.'" Before long, he did—and beginning in 1998, he was a regular on Billboard's blues and R&B charts for more than a decade running.
Clayton always looks forward to returning to the scene of some of his earliest triumphs, and this weekend's visit is no exception. "There's no place like Chicago," he says. "I don't miss the cold weather, though!" v