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Vocalist Willie Clayton was born in Indianola, Mississippi, in 1956. By the late 60s he was singing professionally, and after moving to Chicago in 1971 he impressed WVON deejay Pervis Spann, who became his manager. Spann got him a contract with the Memphis-based Pawn label, a subsidiary of Hi Records, and though none of Clayton's 70s releases made him a star, Memphis was good to him: mentored by legendary Hi producer Willie Mitchell, he developed a distinctive voice that fused churchy intensity with sophisticated R & B sensuality. He charted a few times in the 80s, but it was mid-90s outings like "Three People (Sleeping in My Bed)" and "Equal Opportunity" that finally earned him celebrity status on the soul-blues circuit. Clayton's intonation is sure, and he handles challenging intervals with careless ease; he sometimes sounds confident to the point of arrogance, but there's a gentleness to his singing that keeps him from coming off as too cocky. His latest full-length, The Little Giant of Soul (on his own Claytown label), grafts melodies reminiscent of old-school 70s soul onto anachronistically contemporary-sounding backing tracks, which consist almost entirely of programmed keyboards and harsh electronic drums. It's a difficult and uncomfortable balance to maintain, but Clayton pulls it off: rather than try to shout down the "band," he finds room in the middle of the cluttered mix, both tonally and rhythmically, and from there teases, caresses, and prods the groove. On ballads his vulnerable, lightly sandpapered croon can make a line like "Can we skip the foreplay" (from "Baby I'm Ready") sound seductive, and even amid the somewhat stiff programmed cadences of up-tempo outings like "Wiggle" and "The Blues" he's self-possessed and casual. Thankfully, Clayton will be accompanied by real live musicians for this show. The opening act is Chicago singer Jessie, whose performance at the Blues Fest a few weeks ago showcased an impressive range--from breathy half whisper to sultry croon to hurts-so-good wail--that bodes well for her development into a first-tier contemporary soul-blues stylist. Sunday, June 30, 8:30 PM, East of the Ryan, 914 E. 79th; 773-874-1500.

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