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Photo courtesy of Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar.

Finding Success Before “Fame”: Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar Trace Their Uptown Roots

Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar, who actually lived "Uptown Funk", retrace their uptown roots, their breakthrough at the Apollo Theater, and how they brought funk to Sesame Street.

If any two people embody the spirit of “Uptown Funk”, it’s Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar. The wide-ranging sounds that echoed through the Bronx and Harlem in the mid-’60s course through their DNA. Even before they reached 21-years-old, both Clark and Alomar were respected pros in New York City’s community of singers and musicians. Alomar had made history as the youngest guitarist ever to take the stage at the Apollo Theater while Clark sang on countless jingles and studio dates. It’s one thing to sing “Uptown Funk”, but Clark and Alomar actually lived it.

When David Bowie released Young Americans (1975), the whole world finally saw what New York audiences had witnessed dating back to the couple’s work in Listen My Brother, a musical revue based at the Apollo. Alomar’s signature guitar style anchored much of the album, especially on the chart-topping jam he co-wrote with Bowie and John Lennon, “Fame”.

Clark and her close friend Luther Vandross were two of the singers who shaped the album’s lush yet soulful background vocals. In fact, the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom (2013) illustrated just how integral they were to Young Americans. Viewers glimpsed Clark and Vandross rehearsing vocal parts for the key album cut “Right” as well as bringing their rich and robust vocal power to Bowie’s performance of “Young Americans” on the Dick Cavett Show.

As the years progressed, both Clark and Alomar expanded their already impressive musicality with successful forays into folk, rock, jazz fusion, disco, and new wave. Amidst her prolific session work, Clark sang on CHIC (1977), the very first album that Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards wrote and produced for the CHIC Organization, which spawned “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” and “Everybody Dance”. She’d later join Simple Minds on Once Upon a Time (1985), an album notable for her guest vocals on the group’s Top 5 hit “Alive and Kicking”.

Alomar became Bowie’s Musical Director for several tours while also writing and playing with Mick Jagger (She’s the Boss, 1985), Paul McCartney (Press to Play, 1986), and Arcadia, a side project by Duran Duran members that generated the Top 10 smash “Election Day” (1985). Over the past few decades, Clark and Alomar have each released solo albums and performed or recorded with a roster of groundbreaking new artists and music icons that span nearly every genre imaginable.

Throughout their many musical adventures, Clark and Alomar have won praise from fans and fellow contemporaries alike. Renowned vocalist Paulette McWilliams says, “Robin’s extremely intelligent, giving, and has a beautiful spirit. Her heart, which encompasses all those things and then some, comes out when she sings. She’s my sister!” Legendary guitarist Eddie Martinez adds, “Carlos Alomar is authentic. I remember meeting him in ’75 when he was playing with Bowie. I was just starting with Labelle at the time. I found him to be such a great, funny, and warm person. His musicality is so broad and comprehensive. He’s very funky and unique with his approach, regardless of the genre. His authenticity always shines through. I’m privileged to call him a friend. He’s an original and a Bad-Ass!”

This has been a memorable year for the couple both on and off the stage. It began with Mark Ronson inviting Alomar to play on his critically acclaimed Uptown Special (2015). Featuring Bruno Mars on lead vocals and Alomar on guitar, Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” won “Best Single” at the 2015 BRIT Awards and held the top spot on the U.S. Hot 100 for 14 weeks between January and April 2015. Meanwhile, Bowie fans celebrated the 40th anniversary of Young Americans, an essential musical component of 20 Feet from Stardom, which won “Best Music Film” at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards in February 2015.

Clark also contributed to Reach for the Sky: the Change Anthology (2015), a two-disc retrospective of the session work she and sought-after vocalists like Vandross, Jocelyn Brown, Fonzi Thornton, Diva Gray, and Gordon Grody did for Jacques Fred Petrus’ seminal disco-funk band Change. In a completely different realm of music, both Clark and Alomar sang and played on New York-based singer-songwriter David Bronson’s Questions (2015) album, capping the release with a sold-out, full-band show at Joe’s Pub in New York.

On the eve of the couple’s 45th wedding anniversary, PopMatters presents the first of an exclusive two-part interview that revisits Clark and Alomar’s impressive journey through music and how their relationship evolved from sharing a stage to sharing a life together. In this first installment, Clark and Alomar trace their roots back to New York’s fervent music scene, recalling a time when Listen My Brother schooled them and other future luminaries on how to command a stage, while their appearance on a new television show called Sesame Street made counting to 20 just as funky as dancing in the street.

You’ve both played and sung on songs that have given so many of us our first memory of music. What song made the strongest impression on you during childhood?

Alomar: Other than playing in church, mine was “Chief Natoma from Tacoma” by Mary Lou Williams, a great jazz pianist. I was in DeWitt Clinton High School and they had a special college preparatory program at Fordham University for below-poverty kids called Upward Bound. That’s where, at 16-years-old, I met Luther Vandross. At one point, I was playing bass as well as guitar. Mary Lou Williams came to Fordham to give some talks. She would play piano for the kids. I got up there and played bass with her. The next thing I knew, she invited me to play bass at a gig she was doing. It was one of those gigs where she would play at the library or very intimate little places. One of the songs I had to learn was “Chief Natoma from Tacoma”.

Clark: As a child, I used to watch and listen to all kinds of music, like Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” or anything Dinah Washington sang. A singer named Gloria Lynne had a song called “He Needs Me” (1961). I used to take my brush and stand in front of the mirror and sing (sings) “He needs me. He doesn’t know it but he needs me.” I was eight or nine years-old. A lot of the songs I learned came from watching television. We’d just gotten television so I was fascinated by every musical and every commercial that came on. That was my musical training.

When we were kids, there used to be the Million Dollar Movie, which would run the same movie everyday for a week, so I was able to learn all kinds of songs. The Wizard of Oz (1939) was my favorite as a kid. I wanted to be Judy Garland. (laughs) My dad was a musician so we had a lot of jazz in my house. He worked with George Shearing, Nat “King” Cole, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lena Horne, just on and on and on.

You both grew up in the Bronx. How far apart or close together did you live?

Clark: I lived in the West Bronx and Carlos and Luther lived in the East Bronx. I moved to Harlem when I was 12 and Carlos was probably 11.

Take me back to your childhood. How did you absorb the sights and sounds of New York City?

Clark: For me, because my dad was a musician, my mom took my sister and I to all the clubs around the city where my dad would play, Birdland, Café Society, Minton’s Playhouse. Coming into Manhattan from the Bronx was just like going to Disney World. It was exciting. The people were well-dressed. There was music everywhere. During the time that I grew up in the Bronx, it was still like the country. It still had trees and private homes as opposed to high-rises, which didn’t come until the ’60s. Everybody knew you on your block. Everybody knew your parents.

Alomar: My circumstances were nothing like that! I was in the real Bronx. (laughs) I lived in an Italian and Puerto Rican neighborhood. In these tenement houses, there were alleys in-between the buildings. You could go on 115th Street, go down the alley, and come up on 114th Street. The only problem was 115th Street was Latin and 114th Street was Italian. It’s classic West Side Story: “What are you doing on my block? I’ll kill you!” (laughs)

As long as our parents could look out the window, they would let us go play downstairs with the other kids. My life was not like Robin’s in that I’m a minister’s son. It was all about church, five days a week. On the sixth day we’d go visit the sick. On the seventh day we’d have open house.

In those days, you could order this little radio that didn’t need a battery from the back of a comic book. You would just clamp it to a lamp or anything electric and you could get electricity. There I was, 11- or 12-years-old, listening to Murray the K under the covers with my earphones and my little radio that I ordered. That’s where I first heard rock ‘n’ roll! The problem was I would go to church, they’d be singing, and I started adding rock ‘n’ roll to the music. Ms. Gonzalez would say, “Carlos that’s not Christian music.” I got put “on discipline” so much because of rock ‘n’ roll. (laughs)

Clark: I went from loving Judy Garland — and still loving her no matter what — to the Supremes, which was a life-changer. The minute that music hit, life changed for all of us who were into the music. It gave us the idea that someday this could be us.

Alomar: Shows like the T.A.M.I. Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, Hullabaloo, Shindig! … all of these shows were not only monumental in the fact that they offered us a different genre, but we saw kids like us in the audience! Having that teen beat was different from looking at Dean Martin and even Cab Calloway. It was our music because we were in the audience. As we started developing our trade, we knew that we could rightfully take our place in that.

Robin, you and Luther Vandross both attended Taft High School. How did you first meet?

Robin: One day, I’m in the subway station, Grand Concourse between E. 170th and E. 171st Streets. Luther’s on one side of the tracks going uptown to where he lived and I was going back to Harlem. I was on the other side. He yells over to me, “Hey! I hear you can sing.” I said, “Yeah I sing some.” He goes up to the street and comes down on the other side and says, “Well sing this.” At the time, Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles had a song called “Down the Aisle”. I sang it.

We became friends from that moment on. We would hang out everyday. I’d go to his house. He’d put the music on and turn the lights out. There’d just be the lights on the equipment. He’d say, “Doesn’t that look fabulous? Let’s close our eyes and listen to Dionne Warwick.”

Alomar: Luther was passionate about the female singers. I think that Luther was the one who showed us the emotional attachment that music really had. If the divas did not give Luther a goose bump moment, they would not reach his record player!

Carlos, how exactly did you and Luther get to know each other while you were in the Upward Bound program at Fordham?

Alomar: Bruce Wallace, a friend of mine who I went to DeWitt Clinton with, knew that I was really really good on guitar. He said to Luther, “I want to introduce you to Carlos.” Luther said, “Oh yeah? What do you do?” I said, “I play guitar.” He said, “Let me hear you play something.” I started playing. He said, “Oh yeah. You’re good. I’m a singer. Let’s work together.” We found a bass player and a drummer.

Finally, Luther said, “We’re gonna form this group called the ‘Shades of Jade’. We’ve all got to wear emerald green patent leather shoes.” I said, “My momma ain’t buying me no useless green shoes.” That fool went to my house and spoke to my mom in broken Spanish. You know what? She bought those useless green shoes!

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Let’s go back a little bit more, Carlos. When did the guitar enter your life?

Alomar: I was ten years-old. There were five of us in my house: three boys, two girls. Me and my younger brother shared a room but my older brother Luis had a room of his own. He had his own record player too. Let me tell you, he was all “L.L. Bean”. He was a preppie. He was on the gymnastics team and the swimming team. I used to sneak into his room and, regrettably, scratch up his records. I saw the guitar up on this gigantic tall bureau that he had. I could only see the silver tuning pegs but I knew it was up there. My father said, “If you’ll stay out of his room, I’ll give you the guitar” because my brother didn’t play the guitar.

Of course I didn’t stay out of his room but I got the guitar. I went to sleep with my fingers bleeding at night and every morning I’d pick it back up. I did my homework at school so that I would come home and only have chores to do and I could immediately start playing guitar. The guitar was all I needed.

Because my father was starting his own church, I had to accompany all the brothers and sisters when they sang. Now understand that I didn’t know what the chords were! They would start singing and I would immediately have to attune my ears to find out what key they’re singing in. Then by finding out what key they’re singing in, I would immediately have to embellish what they’re doing with chords that I thought fit their melody.

Playing by ear allowed you, as you later develop it, not only chordal integrity but scale-wise progressions that allowed you to know intuitively what suits a certain melody. It’s not that I know what to play it’s that I know what not to play. By default, you learn certain things organically or empirically by just doing it from having to do it. It really fine-tuned me to “play by ear”.

Robin, who nurtured your vocal talent?

Clark: I would say, it was when I met Luther and saw that I could really focus this talent I had. Before that, it was always about singing around the house or singing in the talent show. I was always the kid that the teacher would say, “If you’re good today, class, Robin will sing a song for us.” One day Luther came to me and said, “I’m going to an audition at the Apollo Theater. Come with me for moral support.” I should’ve been going home right after school but I went to the audition.

Peter Long was the man who ran the audition. He was the publicity agent for the Apollo. He was short and menacing! He came over to me and said, “What do you do?” I said, “I go to school with Luther.” He said, “Well do you sing?” I said, “Yeah I sing.” He said, “Well get up and sing a song.” I didn’t have a song prepared! At the time, “Respect” (1967) had just come out. It was my favorite song. I loved Aretha Franklin and I used to kill that song in the house! I got up and sang “Respect”.

Just before I was done, he stopped me and asked, “Do you know any gospel songs?” I grew up Catholic so I knew Gregorian chants and Catholic hymns. We’d listen to Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Thorpe, the Five Blind Boys, or Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers but I didn’t really go to a baptist church, so I sang “Didn’t It Rain” by Mahalia Jackson. He said, “You’re in the group.” He told us that we’d have to come back for rehearsal tomorrow. He looked at me and said, “Never sing a song that’s not in your key. Find who you are and sing where you sing.” I was singing “Respect” in Aretha’s key but it was all too high. His advice was find your place. Find what it is that you do well and kill that.

Alomar: In my case, Peter did the same thing. It got to the point where Shades of Jade would always win the talent shows at Fordham. The director said one time, “You can’t do the talent show as Shades of Jade. Luther, you sing your own songs on the piano and Carlos you do something with the band.” I took that as a challenge. I got together with the band and we rehearsed “Soul Finger” (1967) by the Bar-Kays. Luther of course did one of his own songs.

On the night of the performance, the band chickened out. Of course, I cursed them out and said, “Screw you guys. I’ll go out there by myself.” I came in second place. The next thing I know Luther says, “Come down to the Apollo to support me. I’m going to try out for this band.” I go down there and I’m standing there supporting Luther. Then I go a second time. Peter said, “What do you do?” I said, “I play guitar.” “I don’t want to see your face down here again unless you bring that guitar and show me what you can do.”

My father had recently died. Once I paid my dues at church, he bought me a real guitar and a little amplifier. I brought my little Sears and Roebuck guitar and amplifier to the next rehearsal. I could hear these people snickering. I played “Soul Finger” for them. I nailed it. I got in the band. Nat Adderley, Jr. was the piano player. We remain friends to this day.

Clark: Luther also brought Fonzi Thornton down to the Apollo. I think Fonzi and Luther’s sister Ann lived in the same projects. There was another singer named Diane Sumler who would sing background with us on Young Americans and later went on to become a member of Luther’s first group, “Luther”. She was the youngest of all of us and went to high school with Luther and I. We brought her down to the Apollo as well.

Joe Cobb and Van McCoy wrote the A-side for the only single we ever released, “Only Love Can Make a Better World” (1969). Joe and Van went on to write the Top 10 R&B hit “Right on the Tip of My Tongue” (1971) for Brenda & the Tabulations, as well as songs for Gladys Knight & the Pips, Melba Moore, the Whispers, David Ruffin, Faith, Hope & Charity, and many more. Of course, Van exploded with “The Hustle” (1975), which went to number one.

So the group that Peter Long assembled at the Apollo turned into Listen My Brother?

Clark: Yes, Listen My Brother was Peter’s brainchild. He culled these kids from all over New York — the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. He amassed a group of about 16 kids. He was the mentor and the visionary. He took you from singing into a hairbrush in the bathroom to singing on the Apollo stage at 17-years-old.

We got a rich musical background for free in the entertainment industry. It was every day after school. George Stubbs was the pianist for the Reuben Phillips Orchestra. He would come down and play with us. We had another member named Edgar Kendricks. His background was in gospel. He was from the South and wrote most of our songs. At one point, we had drama lessons with Ernie McClintock of the Afro-American Studio. We were also given voice lessons. We had a choreographer named Tommy Johnson as well as the legendary Honi Coles (from Coles and Atkins). He would often come downstairs and talk to us about choreography.

One day Pete came to me and said, “Nancy Wilson is on the show and I want you to go upstairs and watch her microphone technique and her posture. Watch how she utilizes the stage.” We learned how to carry ourselves. We learned how to use a stage. We were taught transitions, how to handle the mic, how to speak to an audience, and even how to dress. It wasn’t just about singing.

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Listen My Brother, Apollo Theater, 1967 (courtesy of Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar)

Alomar: At one point, Hair (1968) opened on Broadway so the music from Hair became part of our repertoire. Starting like this sets you on a level of expectation of what you should demand of yourself, to be able to match and meet the challenges. Peter Long was all about facing these challenges head on. Nobody could hide in the background in Listen My Brother. If you came in with low school grades, you were out of the group.

Clark: I got snatched out once. Peter said, “Your mother called and you’re not doing well in school because you’re here so you’re out of the group until your grades improve.” I quickly snapped it together. Then the most wonderful thing happened when Peter said, “You’re not going to have to be called ‘the Rehearsals’ anymore. You’re going to perform on the stage.” We started with shows and festivals. We performed for the first Earth Day concert in New York City.

We also sang at Jackie Robinson’s home, as well as doing a show with Isaac Hayes at City Center. I got to perform with Mahalia Jackson, the gospel singer whose song I had used to audition for Listen My Brother. We opened for Sly & the Family Stone at the Apollo.

Alomar: When those Apollo curtains opened, grey grill amplifiers were stacked from the floor to the ceiling … we’re talking 20 feet. Imagine from top to bottom! It’s like a wall. The first song they did was “M’Lady”. With the pulsation of that song people went crazy. I actually went upstairs and tried to call someone to tell them what was going on. You could not hear anything in the telephone booth.

One of the exciting things for Robin and I was that we were invited back to their hotel. While we were experiencing the “Black Consciousness” movement, Sly & the Family Stone were more like hippies with gigantic Afro wigs, bellbottoms, fringed vests, and bright colors. Me and Robin were just taking it all in. It was the most surreal thing for us.

Clark: The other thing was that we were clean cut. Nobody did drugs. Nobody drank. It was totally forbidden and never a thought for us. If Pete caught anyone doing that, you were out of the group. It was different for Sly and the Family Stone. They had a whole different thing going on but it was one of the most exciting moments of our lives to be seventeen and eighteen years-old and taking all this in. It was just amazing.

Luther essentially brought the two of you together through Listen My Brother. How did you start dating?

Carlos: Luther, Bruce Wallace, Fonzi Thornton, and Robin were all in Listen My Brother. I really liked Robin a lot. Then I found out that our assistant choreographer Bruce was going out with Robin!

Clark: My sister was in the group. She used to say, “That guy Carlos really likes you. He wants to go out with you. He’s so intelligent. He’s such a good conversationalist”. I remember saying to her one day, “Since you like him so much, why don’t you date him?”

Alomar: I waited and waited and waited. Then one day, I notice Robin and Bruce having an argument across the street from the Apollo.

Clark: We’d come from doing a concert at Jackie Robinson’s house. He’d passed away by then but his wife ran his foundation. Bruce and I had an argument. Carlos stood on the other side of the street watching the argument. I took Bruce’s briefcase and I hurled it into the street. Papers flying! Carlos came over to me and he asked, “Are you okay?” He then put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Everything is going to be alright.” On that day, we became best friends.

Carlos: At the same time, Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles were exploding. They were really everywhere during this time. Their development was getting to the point where they had a record out every six months. They toured locally on the east coast. They were the Sweethearts of the Apollo. Luther, Fonzi, and Bruce started a fan club and we got into the whole thing. They all had plans on going to this place called the Cheetah Club but Robin didn’t have any money.

I was a go-getter kid. I was doing whatever jobs I could to make extra money, so I said, “Do you want to go to the Cheetah? I can give you the money.” She said, “Really? Sure!” When we were getting ready to go to the Cheetah, Robin was walking up the stairs of the Apollo. When she turned to me and said, “Where are you going?”, I said, “I’m going to the Cheetah.” She said, “No you’re not.” I said, “Yes I am.” Then she hit me over the head with this bag full of coins that I gave her. When she hit me over the head I was like, That’s it! I’m done with you, which made her realize the error of her ways … (laughs)

Clark: We go to the Cheetah and Patti invites someone from the audience to come up and sing.

Alomar: Robin didn’t know it but we were behind her, pointing …

Clark: I was still in my rehearsal clothes. I had a do-rag on my head and was ill-prepared to sing to a packed house. They pushed me up on the stage with Patti, Nona, and Sarah. I had to sing with them. It was a dirty trick to get back at me. I was mortified but I was taught to be a trouper, so I made it through.

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Alomar: We kind of courted each other and then eventually we got together. I think our favorite song was “You Got Me Going in Circles” (Friends of Distinction). We were just inseparable.

Listen My Brother performed on the pilot episode of Sesame Street in 1969. How did that opportunity come about?

Clark: Peter Long knew a lot of people. He said, “Someone’s going to come down to watch the show, to watch you rehearse.” It was Jim Henson who came with his producer and Joe Raposo who was the musical director at the time. We sang our songs for them and the next thing we knew we were on Sesame Street.

Pete’s wife Loretta Long played Susan on Sesame Street. She came to me one day and said, “Would you like to do a jingle?” I said sure. I didn’t know what a jingle was.

We went to this guy’s studio. His name was Tom Dawes. He was in a group called the Cyrkle. They had a song called “Red Rubber Ball”. Tom was a well-known jingle producer and writer. He had a jingle house. We went there and I did my first commercial called “Bring All the Sun In”. I was 18-years-old. It was for Windex. She said, “It’s going to be national.” I didn’t know what she was talking about! I went home and told my mother, “I did this jingle and it’s going to be national. I’m going to get paid every time it runs.” She said “that’s impossible.”

I made $50,000 at 18-years-old. That commercial was in heavy rotation all across the country. The residuals were much higher then than they are now. Those checks started coming in and I gave that money to my mother. I was still a kid so she got that money and used it for our family. That’s how I got into the jingle business, through Loretta Long.

There’s this great clip where Listen My Brother is performing “You’ve Got to Learn Something” on Sesame Street. Watching this now, does it feel like another lifetime?

Clark: Totally! Patrick Adams wrote “You’ve Got to Learn Something”. My mother made that dress. My sister Leslie is in the corner in the red dress. They had a wardrobe person who said they wanted bright colors but they didn’t supply the wardrobe. We had to bring the wardrobe.

Alomar: Notice the color schemes. We were put into a scenario where we were not just representing Harlem, we were representing the youth of America. It was fabulous. We were so wide-eyed and so receptive. We were showing the world what we had. Pete gave us the fire.

Clark: Pete thought that Fonzi and I had the capability of going out and starting to work as soloists. He saw me as a lead singer and said, “I want to be your manager.” Luther was doing a lot of writing, not just singing. Fonzi was writing as well but Luther was the most prolific of everyone. He just wrote all the time.

13 December is your wedding anniversary. What took you from dating to “I want to spend the rest of my life with you”?

Clark: I wanted to live together and be boyfriend and girlfriend but because of his religious background, Carlos wanted to get married. I graduated from high school, I was working at Alexander’s Department Store on 59th Street, I was also doing Listen My Brother, and I was still living in Harlem on 149th and Convent Avenue. I was pretty much a straight arrow. My mother went through a period where she was getting very strict. I think that was because she saw me pulling away. By then, my dad was no longer with us, so my mother became very protective.

Alomar: Robin’s mother was going through a lot of changes at that time. I was visiting a lot. I was walking three to four miles from the Bronx across the 145th Street Bridge! It so happened that this gigantic blizzard came. Robin’s mother did not want me to walk from Manhattan all the way through that blizzard to get back home. She told me to spend the night.

The problem was that with her type of dementia, she had forgotten that she had told me to stay, which sent her into a major confused rage when she woke up and found me on the couch. “What’s this man doing in my house?” No matter how much Robin tried to tell her otherwise, it created a major rift.

Clark: I was a kid and I didn’t understand that she was going through something. Now that I’m older I put it in its place, but in 1969? I had felt that I had done everything she wanted me to do. I’d been a good kid. I wasn’t doing drugs. I was working, going to school, and going to rehearsal for Listen My Brother every night. I thought she was being unreasonable.

One day, I said that’s it. I’m moving out. I called Carlos up and said, “I’ve got to move out. It’s getting stifling. I’m probably going to stay at the Y.W.C.A.” I packed my shopping bags because I didn’t have any luggage. I was putting stuff in my guitar case. Carlos came and he got me. He took me to his mother’s house.

Alomar: At this point, my father had died. My older brother was working. I was doing Listen My Brother and pursuing my career. My mother never stopped me, knowing that she was charged by my late father to let me follow my music. She’s seeing me not playing in church, but doing music. She’d never met Robin in her life.

One day I came home to her and said, “I have a girlfriend.” I told her “she is having a big problem with her mother and it’s gotten to the point where she can’t live in her mother’s house. She’s talking about just going anywhere. I can’t let that happen. I love her, I’m going to marry her. I promise you that if you let her come here that I’ll behave.” My mother moved out of her bedroom and told me to sleep in my brother’s bedroom. We all changed rooms.

Mind you, my twin sisters Judith and Edith Alomar got the hippest sister in one night! Not only that, Robin brought with her something we did not really have too much of: television!

Clark: Carlos’ mother had the spirit and the mindset of a missionary. If someone was in trouble you try to help them.

Alomar: She would have people visiting from Guatemala, Ecuador, or Puerto Rico staying in our house all the time! My mother accepted Robin. After a little bit of time, she came to Robin and said, “Your mother must know that you’re in a Christian home and that her daughter is being protected.” Robin’s mother visited our home. Rita Vear Clark was Trinidadian and my mother Carmen Maria Alomar was Puerto Rican. Although my mother only spoke Spanish, I was able to translate and they communicated beautifully.

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Listen My Brother, outdoor concert on 125th Street in Harlem, 1967 (courtesy of Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar)

Clark: We were Catholics. We were West Indian and my father was from Little Rock, Arkansas. I had a totally different environment growing up than Carlos. I went to Catholic school and Sunday school but it wasn’t anything like his home, which was religion 24/7. My mother came to visit and she was actually relieved. I think I was there for about a year and then Carlos’ mother said, “When are you going to get married?” so Carlos asked me to marry him. We got married at the church where I was christened and where I went to school from first grade to sixth grade.

Alomar: I converted to Catholicism. I didn’t care, as long as I could marry Robin! We lived on Kelly Street — the worst block in the Bronx, in recorded history! During that time, I couldn’t just be a musician, so I got a job at Guttmann’s Picture Framers and became an antique picture frame re-producer. We would go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, under the watchful eye of guards, take these masterpieces out of the frames, bring the frames back, and re-create the old frames. Mr. Guttmann was the sweetest man. He was very kind to Robin and I as newlyweds and throughout our lives as a couple.

I was also playing after-hours joints. First I was doing the Apollo Theater Amateur Hour house band and then the Reuben Phillips Orchestra house band. That’s when I started working behind James Brown, Edwin Starr, Martha Reeves, Chuck Berry, and all the artists that would come through the Apollo Theater that needed a guitar player. I would do after hours gigs, come home, and do my day jobs.

Robin would do commercials and background sessions during the day. She was also getting calls from Tom Dawes for all sorts of session work, Foghat being one of them. She went on to do commercials for American Airlines (“Doing what we do best”), Alka-Seltzer (“Plop-Plop, Fizz-Fizz”), and Coca-Cola.

Clark: Tom Dawes lived in Woodstock. He invited us up. We wound up staying there a year in this little A-frame house. Bob Dylan, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Richie Havens, and other rock and folk musicians were up there. Carlos started giving Tom’s first wife Joanna bass lessons.

Alomar: In Woodstock, everybody was jamming in barns. We were being exposed to a new caliber of musicians. We got into this amazing scene where we were now being called for jobs. We were called upon to be creative. For us, the music industry that we were a part of during that time was so explosive and so expressive. Look at all the different genres that we had to deal with!

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Tasha Thomas

Clark: At this point, I started recording with a whole new set of musicians such as Will Lee, the Brecker Brothers, Don Grolnick, David Sanborn, Buzz Feiten, Neil Larsen, Steve Jordan, Chris Parker, Patti Austin, Joe Beck, Andy Newmark, and Willie Weeks. I had also met a woman who was very pivotal in my career, Tasha Thomas. I met Tasha doing jingles for Tom Dawes. Carl Hall was her partner. She asked me if I would do some sessions with them. I started working with Carl and Tasha, exclusively. It would be the three of us.

I also did Edgar Winter, Jimmy Cliff, the Rascals, KISS, and Alice Cooper with them. This was also a time when they didn’t give you any credit on the record. You’d come in and you’d sing. You’d get paid or you might not get paid and then Tasha would have to threaten to burn the studio down if we didn’t get paid! It was like the wild west.

Although I didn’t go to music school, I learned early on that I had a good ear, developed during my formative years with Listen My Brother. Not until nine years later would I study solfège (sight singing) with famous Cuban flutist Alberto Socarrás, well-known for his work with Xavier Cugat. He not only taught me sight reading, but he emphasized how important it was to develop my ear, to retain and to use my memory. He spoke about memory and often told me that “you will not always have the charts.”

Carlos, how did you begin playing with the Main Ingredient?

Alomar: I was in a trio with a drummer named Johnny Griffin and George Stubbs, who was the keyboard player from the Apollo. Johnny introduced me to Tony Silvester from the Main Ingredient. Tony and I got on really well. The Main Ingredient needed a guitar player. They were in this weird time when they had a hit song called “Spinning Around” (1970) but they couldn’t do anything because their lead singer, Donald McPherson, had died of diabetes. They had gotten a new lead singer, Cuba Gooding, and were on somewhat of a hiatus. At that time, I was also the house musician for RCA Studios. I proved that I could really play.

My first live recording was with Peter, Paul & Mary in Studio A. Mind you, Studio A was Elvis Presley’s studio. It was a big deal. As I started getting more recording credits, the Main Ingredient needed a band so Tony Silvester hooked me up.

In the beginning, the Main Ingredient only played shows on the weekends. We’d play Jersey or some local venues. Remember, I was also still working at Guttmann’s, as a framer. The weekends then started turning into four days. Then the Main Ingredient started getting popular with their hit song “Everybody Plays the Fool” (1972). The jobs went from three days a week to four days a week to a week ….

Clark: … then two weeks turned into a month and then he’s traveling all over the country. He came home one day and said, “Honey, they’ve got a tour. What am I going to do?”

Alomar: At the same time I’m trying to go on tour with them, Robin was doing jingles and actual background session work. She would do one jingle, go home, and get a call from Artists Service — “You have to be in the studio in two hours” — then come back and do a recording session. It was crazy.

Robin, did you have any solo aspirations throughout this period in the early-’70s?

Clark: I did but I was making so much money as a session singer and doing jingles. I was truly fulfilled because I was really doing what I had wanted to do all my life. Luther is the one who came to me and said, “You got to do a record.” He wrote a bunch of songs for me. I started doing a record with Luther. It was during the time we had just gotten the gig with Bowie. By then, Carlos was Luther’s band leader, and Carlos had to make a choice between Luther and David.

Part Two of PopMatters‘ interview with Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar will publish in early-2016.

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