Judy Clay Biography

Judy Guion, 12 September 1938, St. Paul, North Carolina, USA, d. 19 July 2001, Fayetteville, North Carolina. Guion began singing in church in St. Paul at a very early age, before moving to Fayetteville, North Carolina, to be raised by her grandmother. A move to Brooklyn in the early 50s saw her join a church choir that also sang on Sunday night radio broadcasts. After her grandmother took Guion back to North Carolina, the young teenager asked to return to New York, where she first stayed with a girlfriend and had a church minister as temporary guardian. Soon, however, Lee Warrick Drinkard of the Drinkard Singers ‘adopted’ her and, from the age of 14, she became a regular performer with the ‘family’ gospel group, originally formed in Savannah, Georgia, around 1938, when Emily Drinkard (today better known as Cissy Houston, and Lee’s cousin) was only five. The family group had moved to East Orange, New Jersey, and Guion joined them around 1953, at which point the family comprised her adopted mother, Lee, and sometimes (though never on record) Lee’s two daughters, Marie Dionne (later just Dionne) Warrick (later Warwick) and Delia, also known as Dee Dee Warrick (Warwick), plus regulars Emily/Cissy Drinkard (whose married name at the time was Garland), Emily’s married sisters Marie Epps and Ann Moss, and their brothers Larry and Nick Drinkard, who often helped out on piano. This invaluable experience honed the young Guion’s forceful and interpretive contralto, and she regularly shared lead-vocal duties with the other girls, even on three 50s Drinkard albums (a 1954 Newport Spiritual Stars set on Savoy, a 1957 live set from the Newport Jazz Festival on Verve Records and a 1958 studio set for RCA - Victor Records). After marrying John Houston, Cissy Drinkard went on to form the backing group the Sweet Inspirations.

In the early 60s, Guion began her own secular recording career singing with Cissy and other girls in various backing groups that predated the first incarnation of ‘The Sweets’. Her first solo recordings (now as Judy Clay, though her record company had wanted to call her Amanda Knight) comprised two singles for the New York-based Ember label in 1961/2, followed by three 1963 sides (one duet and two solo) for Lavette. Next, she moved across town in early 1964 to Scepter Records, where fellow ex-Drinkard Singer Dionne Warwick had by then already successfully started her own secular career. Four singles appeared in 1964/5, with a later one seeing release after she had moved on. The next port of call was Atlantic Records, where Clay had already done much back-up work, but Jerry Wexler decided to send her south to Stax Records in Memphis, where she recorded ‘You Can’t Run Away From Your Heart’ in mid-1967. A return to New York saw her achieve her first hits via two duets on Atlantic with blue-eyed soulman Billy Vera, ‘Storybook Children’ (a promo of which Vera had first cut with Nona Hendryx and Patti LaBelle’s Bluebelles) and ‘Country Girl - City Man’, with the Sweet Inspirations on back-ups.

Later in 1968, Clay returned to Stax to record her best-remembered track, the fine duet with William Bell, ‘Private Number’, which had been originally intended as a vehicle for Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. A solo outing by Clay, ‘Bed Of Roses’, failed to register, and she returned to duets, this time with Bell again on ‘My Baby Specialises’, which at least made the R&B chart. Again a solo follow-up, ‘It Ain’t Long Enough’, coupled with the exquisite ‘Give Love To Save Love’, failed to chart, and Clay’s association with Stax ended with a song on Booker T.’s soundtrack for the movie Uptight and a lone track on Stax’s spring 1969 compilation, Soul Explosion. Next, it was back to Atlantic for another, this time non-charting duet with Billy Vera, ‘Reaching For The Moon’, recorded in Muscle Shoals, where solo sessions were also intended to produce a Judy Clay album. In fact, only two solo singles were released, ‘Sister Pitiful’ and her one and only solo R&B hit, ‘Greatest Love’.

Clay continued working through most of the 70s as a back-up singer but had to have major brain surgery in 1979, before returning briefly to the scene with one unsuccessful single, a live version of the Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin’ Alive’, recorded by Dave Crawford in a Newark club and intended as part of a never-issued album. Clay subsequently satisfied herself with being a wife and mother, although she occasionally travelled up to New Jersey from her North Carolina home for gospel work, including appearances with Cissy Houston’s choir at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark. She became a licensed evangelist in 1990. Clay died in July 2001 following complications after a major car accident.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.