Many of the top soul singers of the 1960s were church-trained. Garnet Mimms, Lorraine Ellison, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke and Sam Cooke, for want of better instances, all started out singing gospel. Another classic example is Judy Clay - the rich-voiced singer famed for her terrific 45s on Scepter, Stax, Atlantic and Ember - whose first recordings were as a member of New Jersey's Drinkard Singers. This is her story.

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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 Troy.

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 We Go".

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.

Recommended further reading:
* Judy Clay Discography - Rob Hughes (Vintage Soul magazine, #7, 1994)
* How Sweet The Sound - Cissy Houston & Jonathan Singer (Doubleday, 1998)
* Gospel Records - Cedric J. Hayes & Robert Laughton (Record Information Services, 1993)
* The Gospel Sound: Good News & Bad Times - Anthony Heilbut (Simon & Schuster, 1971)
* Judy Clay & Veda Brown "Private Numbers" CD notes - Billy Vera (Stax, 1993)
* Billy Vera & Judy Clay "Storybook Children" CD notes - David Nathan (Ichiban, 1995)
* The Drinkard Singers "A Joyful Noise" LP notes - Joe Bostic (RCA Victor, 1958)
* The Drinkard Singers "Yield Not To Temptation" LP notes - Ozzie Cadena (Choice, 1961)
* Judy Clay interview - David Nathan (Blues & Soul magazine, #646, 1993)
* "Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 2" CD Box Set notes - Rob Bowman (Stax, 1993)