Magnificent: The Charlie McClendon Story
With generous support from L-Rev founder Steve Herman, the Virginia Folklife Program has been documenting the remarkable stories of Charlie McClendon and others involved in R&B music in Hampton Roads in the 1960s. We have created an online exhibit that includes recent and archival video, audio, and still photography, and extensive interviews with Charlie McClendon, Richard Levin, and others. It also includes an edited film, “Put Me Down Easy: The Charlie McClendon Story.”Best viewed in full-screen mode with settings adjusted for HD vide0.
The Hampton Roads region of Virginia boasted an incredibly vibrant rhythm and blues scene in the 1960s. Rising from the African American clubs of Church Street, the Norfolk Sound became nationally known for its raw soul and infectious dance beats. Among the chart-topping local artists who emerged from the Norfolk R&B scene are Gary U.S. Bonds, Jimmy Soul, and Gene “Daddy G” Barge. Lesser-known, but equally masterful, was Charlie McClendon, a brilliant musician, composer, and producer. Anyone with a passion for the Norfolk Sound has enjoyed Charlie’s playing, though they may not be aware of it. They likely have heard Charlie’s band backing seminal recordings on Norfolk’s famed Legrand label or supporting nationally known artists that came through Hampton Roads. Serious collectors in the U.S. and abroad covet his locally popular recordings on the L-Rev label. And lovers of Hampton Roads gospel music have undoubtedly enjoyed Charlie’s performing, compositions, and production work. His impressive career in R&B and gospel spans almost sixty years, and at age eighty-five, he shows no signs of slowing down.
Charlie McClendon was born in 1928 in Barnsville, Georgia. His childhood was difficult by any measure. His mother, Anna McClendon, died when Charlie was about four years old. He was then placed in the care of his uncle, who Charlie believed to be his father until about five years later, when his uncle died. Charlie never met his real father, though he was told throughout his life that his father was still alive and living in Atlanta.
After his uncle’s death, Charlie lived with his aunt and grandmother. They had very little money, and Charlie remembers being forced to stuff newspapers in his worn-out shoes. The memory of his cousin Annie Ruth spending all of her money to buy Charlie a new pair of shoes for Christmas brings tears to his eyes. Charlie views Annie Ruth as one of the few people in his family who truly cared for him, and he has been grateful to her his entire life.
Charlie began working to help support his family at a very early age. At sixteen, he left home to work alongside Eddie Dixon, an itinerant farm worker and family friend. Charlie traveled with Eddie across the Southeast, traveling from New Jersey to Florida, picking everything from tomatoes and string beans to oranges. The life of the itinerant worker was grueling, and Charlie remembers very little joy from those early years—but he does remember an early fascination with music. “I used to stick a pitchfork into the side of a barn,” Charlie recalled in an interview conducted at his home in Hampton, Virginia. “I could pull down on it and hear it make a note. I started to figure out sounds and how they were made that way.”
Charlie’s days with Eddie ultimately ended in tragedy. A notorious gambler, Eddie was fatally shot during an altercation over an apparent unpaid debt. Not only did Charlie witness the shooting, he suffered bullet wounds to his arm and kidney. He was rushed to the hospital, where he remained in a brief coma and suffered several seizures.
During these dire moments in the hospital Charlie had his first spiritual encounter, foreshadowing the religious dedication that would define his later life. “I know you won’t believe this, but it’s the truth,” Charlie said. “Right there in the hospital, I heard a voice. And it said, ‘Charlie, you’re going to be all right.’ The doctors didn’t think I was going to make it, but I did. God is real.”
Charlie recovered and was drafted into the army in 1953. He completed his basic training just as the Korean War was coming to an end. He was stationed in France and Germany and served out his final tour of duty at Fort Eustis in Newport News, Virginia. Charlie’s military service offered him stability and opportunity, and set the stage for the full awakening of his musical talents. At Fort Eustis, Charlie would often watch a band led by fellow GI Tom Bodie. The band played what would now be considered rhythm and blues, though at the time it was simply called rock and roll. Charlie was drawn to the piano player and quickly learned to play himself just by watching the player’s fingers on the keyboard. Though completely self-taught, Charlie demonstrated a natural knack for the instrument and soon emerged as one of the most talented players in the area. After finishing his time in the service and getting on the GI Bill, Charlie bought a house in nearby Hampton and joined Bodie’s band. Not long afterward, Charlie left Bodie’s band and formed his own: Charlie McClendon and the Magnificents. He also purchased some used recording equipment and began building a home studio.
The Magnificents were an instant sensation in the thriving black music scene of Hampton Roads. Charlie was a stalwart of the local music landscape, regularly performing two shows a night at any one of the many vibrant music clubs around Church Street, Norfolk’s African American business and cultural center, and at other Hampton Roads clubs. Venues included the Wagon Wheel, the Jamaica Room, Queens Lounge, the Congo Lounge, and the Longshoreman’s Hall. Though there is little documentation of the Magnificents’ club gigs, they were by all accounts scintillating performances. The band primarily played covers, satisfying audiences’ hunger to hear renditions of chart-topping records by such artists as Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, and Booker T. and the MGs.
The Magnificents and the MGs had more in common than just their sound: like the Memphis-based MGs, the Magnificents was a multiracial group performing in a deeply segregated city where racial tensions ran high. Though Virginia public schools were forced to desegregate in 1959, the state government resisted, and 90 percent of all Norfolk public schools remained either all white or all black throughout the 1960s. Similarly, the city’s neighborhoods were either predominantly black or predominantly white. Yet the city’s jukeboxes and radio dials were ahead of the curve: biracial bands were embraced by blacks and whites alike, and, although they rarely ventured to the black dance halls of Church Street, Hampton Roads’ white youth were turning from their own familiar radio stations to those that played black R&B, such as WRAP and WHIH.
In addition to his work with the Magnificents, Charlie was often hired to back up larger national acts that performed in the area. Because of its location and vital music scene, Norfolk was often the starting point for the various R&B package tours that traveled throughout the South. At the time, it was customary for many popular soul and R&B singers to travel without a band, and it was the responsibility of the show’s producer to provide one. Charlie was in high demand, and backed up the likes of Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, and others, usually without a single rehearsal.
In part because Charlie and his band were such quick studies, the Magnificents were often booked for studio work, serving as the backup band for recordings of numerous local acts, including Roy Hines, Ida Sands, and Gary U.S. Bonds. Local producer and songwriter Frank Guida signed the Magnificents to a two-year contract on his label Legrand Records, which produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s several national hits, including Tommy Facenda’s “High School USA,” Jimmy Soul’s “If You Wanna Be Happy,” and Gary U.S. Bond’s “New Orleans” and “Quarter to Three.” Though the Magnificents were regulars on Guida’s studio recordings, contributing much to what became nationally known as the Norfolk Sound, they never received credit for their work and Guida never recorded them as a featured group. When the contract expired, Charlie refused to renew it.
About this time in the mid-1960s Charlie met Richard Levin, a sixteen-year-old who, unlike many of his white peers, ventured to Church Street to hear the Magnificents at one of their regular gigs at the Longshoreman’s Hall. This encounter altered the course of Charlie’s music career. During the break after a particularly spirited set, Richard approached Charlie and asked if he had a booking agent. Charlie, who handled all business matters for the Magnificents, answered that he didn’t. Richard proclaimed, “Charlie McClendon, I’m going to make you a star!” Charlie laughed as he recalled the story:
When Richard first came up to me I thought he was a little colored boy. I mean he had that pretty curly hair. He called my name after the set and I thought, man, what does he want? And he said to me, “Do you have a booking agent?” And I said no, and he said, “Well, I can make you more money than you make now.” And I said, “You can? Well, let’s try it!”
Charlie accepted an offer from Richard that required very little risk—Charlie would continue to book his regular schedule, with Richard and his friend Tom Herman booking any additional shows targeted to white audiences. Sitting with Charlie more than forty years later, Richard explained his logic:
I knew they were going to love Charlie. I mean there wasn’t anything not to love. Charlie was absolutely killer. And you have to remember, the white kids were already listening to this music. They just couldn’t get to it. And Charlie was already huge in the black community, but white kids had no idea who he was, which was totally insane. But if you didn’t have a record at that time, then they just wouldn’t have heard you, ‘cause they just didn’t have access to these bands live. So we saw ourselves as a kind of bridge. Honestly, it was a no brainer.
Soon Richard and Tom booked Charlie at the popular Nansemond Beachside Resort hotel in Ocean View. The audience’s response was ecstatic. They went on to book Charlie at high school dances, debutante balls, college fraternity parties, and makeshift Virginia Beach dance halls such as the Peppermint Lounge and the Club Top Hat, which catered to young crowds.
Many of the fraternity gigs, as well as those at the Peppermint Lounge and Club Top Hat, were raucous affairs. Sam Berkeley, one of the other members of the Magnificents, remembers a show at a University of Virginia fraternity where a young couple drove a motorcycle into the house, up and down the stairs, and on to the stage—stark naked. At the Peppermint, the band was instructed to avoid even the shortest breaks between songs so that fights wouldn’t break out. Still, the Magnificents were commanding larger and larger fees for these “crossover” gigs, just as Richard had promised.
Richard and Tom also recorded Charlie McClendon and Magnificents on the L-Rev label, which they started with Tom’s older brother Steve Herman, who had recorded the Golden Crest R & B artist Cartrell Dixon. Steve, a law student at the time, suggested they name the label after the academic footnote abbreviation for law review journals. They made their records in the famed Virtue Recording Studio in Philadelphia, the site of many early recordings by the incomparable Philly producing duo Gamble and Huff.
The L-Rev recording sessions included the single “Put Me Down Easy,” originally written by Sam Cook for his brother L.C. Charlie’s version reached the top-five on the local charts. The Magnificents also recorded the Arthur Alexander–penned single “We’re Going to Hate Ourselves in the Morning” for L-Rev. The song was soon picked up by Jerry Ross’s Colossus label. The Colossus single showed much promise out of the gate, but Ross pulled it after Charlie, suffering from a ruptured appendix, backed out of an engagement that Ross had arranged for him at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. Unbeknownst to Charlie, Richard, or the Herman brothers, Ross in fact did release “We’re Going to Hate Ourselves in the Morning” and other Magnificents cuts on the Polydor label in Germany, selling thousands of copies throughout Europe.
Richard and Tom continued to book Charlie into the 1970s, when the gigs began to dry up. “Once the whole psychedelic rock thing became popular, it just wasn’t cool for the white kids anymore,” Richard remembered. “And that was pretty much it.” Charlie found that there were fewer good paying jobs in the black community as well. “What killed it for us were the deejays,” said Charlie. “Once they came along, they just didn’t want to pay the bands anymore.” Sadly, audiences seemed as happy to dance to their favorite records as to a live band.
Despite the decline in performance opportunities, Charlie remained a local favorite and had plenty of work producing other local artists in his home studio. But his R&B career ended in a flash—literally. After a late evening performance, Charlie invited his friend Gene Williams, who sang for the Platters, to his house to hear a recording he had just made of “Rainy Night in Georgia.” As he played Gene the tape, lightning struck the house, blowing out the power and throwing Charlie and Gene across the room. Charlie made his way through the darkness and stopped at his bedroom door to see that the suit he had worn on stage that night and later draped over a chair was engulfed in flames.
“I said to myself, the Lord’s trying to tell me something,” Charlie remembered, “so that’s when I started looking for a church.” Charlie found one in the Goodwill Baptist Church in Hampton, Virginia, where he has served as musical director for more than twenty-nine years. Since joining the Goodwill Gospel Church, Charlie has ceased singing R&B music and turned his attention exclusively to gospel. His first gospel group was the Sounds of Glory. With them, he penned “I Want to Be More Like Jesus,” the first of his many gospel compositions. Along with his own composing and performing, Charlie has produced countless recordings of local gospel groups. Most recently, he started a new band, Charlie McClendon and the New Beginnings. As he did with the Magnificents, Charlie handles all aspects of the band and leads them with soul and passion.
At age eighty-five, Charlie is still a force in Hampton Roads gospel music. Most of his work these days is done quietly, staying behind the scenes, allowing others to have their moment in the spotlight. “Brother McClendon is one of the most humble men I’ve ever met,” said Reverend Tarrence Paschall, recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship for his singing with his family’s Tidewater gospel quartet. “We call him the One Man Band ‘cause he can do it all. Still, he remains dedicated to his pastor and to Christ. I don’t think there’s anyone more respected in Hampton Roads.”
Though he’s experienced great highs and lows, Charlie is clearly a contented and happy man, living without regrets. Pointing to a tall tree in the front yard of his Hampton, Virginia, home of nearly fifty years, he said proudly, “I planted that tree myself, and built this studio with my own hands, too.”
I asked Charlie if he ever longs for the days of playing R&B music. “No,” Charlie laughed. “I mean, I’ve been playing gospel for almost thirty years now.” But with a mischievous smile, he added, “Well, I suppose every now and then I like to go into the studio and bang up a few tunes.” When I had the opportunity to visit Charlie in his studio, he played me some of the many gospel tunes he has written and recorded, most of which remain unreleased. And on the shelf above the soundboard sat an old reel-to-reel tape, with a yellowed label that read “Rainy Night in Georgia,” sitting right where he left it, untouched, since that fateful evening when lightning struck. Though the tape was the last R&B recording Charlie ever made, he saw it as a beginning. “That’s it right there,” he said to me with a smile. “That’s the one that started it all.”