SoundCheck: From Churches to Juke Boxes: A Young King Clarentz Gets A Guitar
Clarence Brewer is many things. He’s a welder, sculptor, actor, musician, and songwriter, going by the name, “King Clarentz.” I called Clarence up for an interview to talk about what it was like growing up Black in Springfield during the 1950s and 60s.
As a child, Clarence went to Timmons Temple with his mother and recalls the music of that church having a big impact on him.
“My mother was in the Pentecostal church. But, the Pentecostal church was rockin’. It was very musical. With a really good backbeat, the place would erupt,” said Clarence.
Keeping music in the family, his mother bought an accordion for his sister, Helen, because Lawrence Welk was a very big deal. Even back in the 50s, this Italian, mother-of-pearl accordion cost $500. But it didn’t last long in the Brewer family.
“And so, there under the bed was that accordion. And Helen, bless her heart, she could read the writing on the wall about what was going to be rock ‘n’ roll and what was going to be polka,” said Clarence.
In 1960, after Helen was clear about not wanting to play the accordion, Mrs. Brewer took Clarence to Ike Martin Music in downtown Springfield and told him he could pick out any instrument. He didn’t have to think long. He chose the guitar – just like he had heard at church and on the juke boxes of Graham’s BBQ. The entire affair, from the purchase of the guitar to his music lessons, was met with difficulty along the way.
Clarence recalls that a man named Frank, who worked at the store, told the Brewers that they couldn’t afford any of the guitars for sale. But the moment Mrs. Brewer pulled out the accordion, the salesman changed his tune.
“He pawed around and got the cheapest, little guitar that he could find and twenty bucks from my mom and the other instrument in trade,” he said.
Clarence says his mother wasn’t going to let this be the end of it. She spotted a sign in the window offering music lessons.
“And so she says, ‘You’ll teach him how to play guitar?’
He goes, ‘Well, they should have took that sign down years ago. Oh, alright. Come back next week.’
Next week we come back and he’s having a Klan meeting! I walk in with the guitar and, boy, these guys are intimidating. Passing bottles, smoking and spitting. And then they all look at me. So, finally, I knew Mom would be upset if I didn’t get a lesson, so I said, ‘Frank, where’s the lesson?’
He said, ‘Carl’s upstairs.’
So, I get ready to get on the elevator, which looked like it was going to be the only fun I would have that day, and he goes, ‘No niggers on the elevator!’ So, I drag the guitar up the steps, knock on the door. There’s an old man in there, just white as chalk, coughing, with a bloody handkerchief. Just sick as a dog with two cigarettes going in the ashtray. And so, I come in and he goes, ‘What do you know?’
And I go, ‘Not much, sir. How are you?’
And he goes, ‘On the guitar!’
He didn’t want to talk about anything. He said, ‘Where did you get this thing?’
I said, ‘From Frank downstairs.’
He goes, ‘Frank?!’
He got upset. Really upset. When he got upset, he’d start coughing. He said, ‘Come on, let’s go! I can’t teach you how to play guitar with this thing. It’s not even a guitar. This is a piece of crap!’
‘We traded an accordion for it.’ You know, to try to give it a little worth.
And he goes, ‘That mother-of-pearl Italian accordion?! Let’s go downstairs!’
And so we get out on the mezzanine, I started to head toward the steps and he goes, ‘Where you going?’
And I go, ‘No niggers on the elevator.’
‘Get on the elevator!’
And so he gets down and goes, ‘Frank!’
You know, all Lord of the Flies, he gets them all alert and is like, ‘I’m not going to teach anyone how to play guitar if you keep selling this garbage!’”
Carl gave the young Clarence Brewer a Mel Bay guitar chord book. And even though the older man wasn’t long for this world after that first lesson, he sent Clarence on his way to becoming the artistic treasure that he is.