JUDITH GRACE GUIONS was born in St. Paul, North Carolina
on September 12, 1938 and raised by her grandmother in nearby
Fayetteville. By 1950 she was living with relatives in New
York, where she sang with the choir at Faith Temple in Harlem,
the location of her first encounter with the Drinkard Singers,
who were there to make a radio broadcast. Upon learning of
Judy's unhappy domestic circumstances, the group's leader,
Lee Warrick, "adopted" the 12-year-old and moved
her into her family's home in East Orange, New Jersey, where
she could continue her growing up in safety as "big sister"
to Lee's daughters, Dionne and Delia.
The precociously talented Judy was soon enlisted as a Drinkard
Singer alongside Lee's brothers, Larry and Nicky, and sisters,
Marie, Anne and Emily. It was the great Mahalia Jackson who
brought the group to the attention of gospel DJ Joe Bostic,
who became their manager and featured them on his weekly TV
show, broadcast from Symphony Hall in New Jersey. In 1951
Bostic hired Carnegie Hall to stage the Negro Gospel and Religious
Festival, featuring the Drinkard Singers supporting not only
Mahalia Jackson but also Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Clara Ward.
The sold-out event broke box office records held previously
by Toscanini and Benny Goodman.
While it was the eldest Drinkard sister, Lee, who led the
family group, it was the youngest, Emily, who acted as director
of the singers at the family's local place of worship, the
New Hope Baptist Church. The church's young people's choir
contained Judy, her younger sister Sylvia Shemwell, Dionne
and Delia "Dee Dee" Warrick, their cousin Myrna
Smith and their friend Carol Slade - all future solo recording
artists, and all except Judy also members of the Gospelaires,
the Warrick sisters' junior version of the Drinkard Singers.
Emily Drinkard, now, of course, known as Cissy Houston, directs
the New Hope choir to this day.
The Drinkards' sensational appearance at the Newport Jazz
Festival of 1957, which climaxed with a version of Dorothy
Love's "That's Enough" with Judy on lead vocals,
was captured on the LP "Gospel Singing At Newport With
The Back Home Choir And The Drinkard Singers", released
by Verve. A Savoy album, "Newport Spiritual Stars",
featured four tracks cut by the group in 1954. Among those
in the audience at Newport was RCA Victor executive Herman
Diaz, who signed the Drinkards on the spot to record an album.
The resulting "A Joyful Noise", released in 1958,
featured Judy as lead vocalist on four tracks, including a
powerhouse version of Thomas A. Dorsey's "Singing In
My Soul". Labelmate Elvis Presley was so enamoured of
the thrilling LP that he made approaches for the Drinkard
Singers to record with him, but Lee Warrick, horrified at
the thought, yielded not to temptation.
The younger members of the family were less bound by gospel
tradition. It was at a 1959 show at the Apollo Theater in
Harlem with the Drinkard Singers, the Davis Sisters and Professor
Alex Bradford that Dionne Warrick accepted an offer for the
teenage Gospelaires to enter the "sinful" world
of secular recording. Judy Guions was the next to follow suit.
Resisting a move to rename her "Amanda Knight",
she debuted as Judy Clay for Ember Records in September 1961
with "I Thought I'd Gotten Over You", arranged and
co-written by Leroy Kirkland. Her 1962 follow-up, the David
(Dave "Baby" Cortez) Clowney-authored and arranged
"Do You Think That's Right", featured backing vocals
by the Gospelaires, who were by then already established as
top New York studio singers. Judy also worked the session
circuit, frequently in cahoots with Cissy and their pal Doris
A move to the Broadway-based La Vette imprint in 1963 resulted
in a corking platter which coupled the uptempo "Let It
Be Me" with "I'm Up Tight", one of the most
intense ballads Judy would ever commit to tape. Her only other
appearance on the label was a duet version of "My Blue
Heaven", released as by Little Lee & Judy. The small
La Vette company was then taken over by Scepter Records, home
of Judy's "sister" Dionne, now world famous with
the re-spelt surname Warwick. With Garry Sherman and Ed Silvers
acting as her producers, Judy opened her Scepter account in
May 1964 with the stunning "My Arms Aren't Strong Enough".
The single featured on its B-side a bossa nova-flavoured version
of Dick Haymes' "That's All", one of two vastly
different interpretations cut by Judy at the session. Her
jazz-styled version of the song (the backing track of which
was also used by Big Maybelle on her Scepter LP) was eventually
released on a Westside CD in 2001. The deeply torrid "Lonely
People Do Foolish Things" was paired with a rare Clay
co-composition, "I'm Comin' Home", to form Judy's
second release of the year. As usual, the disc featured Dee
Dee, Cissy and company on background vocals.
After a year off to have a baby, Judy re-emerged in 1966
with a stupendous Van McCoy-written ballad, "Haven't
Got What It Takes", backed with a spine-tingling version
of the old Fred Astaire classic, "The Way You Look Tonight".
New Scepter staffer Tommy Kaye then took over the reins of
Judy's recording career from the Sherman-Silvers team. Unfortunately,
Kaye's pounding, Stax-styled "You Busted My Mind"
b/w "He's The Kind Of Guy" marked the end of Judy's
Scepter tenure, while signalling the musical direction her
career was about to take.
Judy had witnessed Dionne Warwick become a superstar and
her younger sister Dee Dee enjoy a couple of hits, while not
one of her own releases had even grazed the charts. Vexed,
she negotiated with Jerry Wexler who, well aware of her sterling
backing vocal work for stars like Wilson Pickett and Solomon
Burke, helped extricate Judy from her Scepter contract. Upon
inking to Atlantic, now also the recording home of the Cissy
Houston-led Sweet Inspirations, Judy was immediately "loaned"
to Stax. In July 1967 she travelled south to Memphis, where,
with assistance from local session girls Jeanne and the Darlings,
she cut her fabulous label debut, "You Can't Run Away
From Your Heart", written and produced by Isaac Hayes
and David Porter.
By that September a heavily pregnant Judy was on Atlantic
itself with the Chip Taylor/Ted Daryll-produced "Storybook
Children", performed in duet with Billy Vera. The delicious
song provided Judy with the hit she had so long deserved,
albeit a modest #54 on the Hot 100. The disc's healthy showing
at #20 on the R'n'B chart indicated its acceptance in the
black marketplace, despite the fact that Billy and Judy were
an interracial duo. They were regarded by many as a symbol
that prejudice and intolerance were finally disappearing.
Before the year was over Atlantic had them back in the studio
taping the "Storybook Children" album, from which
were plucked the 45s "Country Girl - City Man",
which charted at #36 pop and #41 R'n'B, and "Where Do
Meanwhile, Scepter Records, a company no stranger to the
cash-in principle, scheduled a single pairing "I Want
You" and "Your Kind Of Lovin'", stompers cut
by Judy with producer Tommy Kaye in 1966. Copies of the disc
are so rare that its actual release probably never occurred.
A Scepter LP was also planned but not released, from which
"Upset My Heart (Got Me So Upset)" and "Turn
Back The Time" were eventually issued by Kent Records
in the 1980s. Scepter did press one further Judy Clay 45 that
coupled "You Busted My Mind" and "Your Kind
Of Lovin'", but, like every other release on that label
bearing her name, it sank without trace. She had recorded
a terrific body of work for Florence Greenberg's veritable
logo, all to no avail.
The Billy Vera/Judy Clay partnership came to an unhappy halt
when, midway through a week-long engagement at the Apollo
in the summer of 1968, they received a call from Jerry Wexler
informing them that the long-standing distribution deal between
Stax and Atlantic had ended. Judy found herself legally obliged
to fulfil her contract at Stax, who whisked her back to Memphis
to record "Private Number" with new duet partner
William Bell. The record reached #75 on the Hot 100 and #17
on the R'n'B chart, unlike Judy's solo "Bed Of Roses",
which fell on deaf ears. "Private Number" did much better in the UK,
where it reached #8. Stax included Judy's "It's Me"
on their "Soul Explosion" double compilation album
and the label's soundtrack LP to the movie "Uptight"
contained her recording of "Children, Don't Get Weary",
a great throwback to her days as a Drinkard Singer. Early
in 1969 the William Bell and Judy Clay duo registered again
with the #45 R'n'B hit "My Baby Specializes", but
twenty five years later Judy was still seething over the fact
that she had recorded the song solo and Stax had added Bell's
voice without her knowledge or consent. The company issued
one further solo 45, "It Ain't Long Enough", before
"giving" the "difficult" singer back to
Atlantic. Judy's solo version of "Specializes" has
been released in recent years, along with "Since You
Came Along", another previously unissued Stax side.
Duly despatched to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Judy taped four
new duets with Billy Vera and enough Jerry Wexler/Tom Dowd-produced
solo material to fill an album. However, just three 45s were
issued from the sessions. The duet "Reaching For The
Moon" bubbled under the Hot 100, Judy's version of Otis
Redding's "Sister (Mister) Pitiful" missed out altogether
and the Allen Toussaint-authored "Greatest Love"
scraped to #45 on the R'n'B chart. It proved to be the only
solo hit Judy would ever register. A few of Judy's "lost"
Atlantic tracks were released by Ichiban in the 1990s.
Undeterred, and with a living to earn, Judy kept busy by
reverting to session work with Cissy Houston, spicing up the
outputs of Aretha Franklin, Herbie Mann, Van Morrison and
others. Whenever the Sweet Inspirations needed a temporary
replacement Judy was on hand and she also toured South Africa
and Liberia with Ray Charles and his Orchestra. She made a
fleeting return to the record world in 1979 with "Stayin'
Alive", cut live for the small Newark, New Jersey-based
LA-DCP label. Ill health then set in.
Judy relocated to her hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina,
where she spent the rest of her days as Mrs. Judith Gatewood,
witnessing her two sons graduate from college and exercising
her deep and commanding singing voice only in the choir of
her local church. She died on July 19, 2001 at the age of
62, following a motor accident. As her old friend Billy Vera
once wrote, "Judy Clay was a hell of a singer."
Amen to that.