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Mighty Sam McClain: "The Joy Inside My Tears"

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Sam McClain is a man with a huge talent and an even bigger heart. He's a singer with a booming voice who nearly hit the big time in the late 1960s. But his career was derailed by a fickle music industry, and he proceeded to wander through decades of poverty, substance abuse, and a series of failed relationships. Then, in the early 1990s, he finally managed to straighten out his life and battle his way back into the business. Through all the hard times, he pressed on with good humor and an unshakable faith in God. Here's the story of his brush with stardom. 

When he was about 15 years old, McClain hooked up with Little Melvin Underwood, a blues guitarist from Mississippi. "I started as his valet, and I worked my way up to backup singing. And then I worked my way up to lead vocal."  

 

He traveled with Little Melvin's band until they stopped in Pensacola, Florida in 1963. "We went to Pensacola for two days, and I stayed ten years!" He laughs. Little Melvin was headed north. "I said, 'I want to hang right here, with the big palm trees and the beach!'" He laughs again. "So that's when I quit the band." 

 

It was in Pensacola that McClain got his nickname. "Before I got there, I was called 'Good Rockin' Sam.' And a club owner there, Tom Golson, somehow me made a mistake and put up 'Mighty Sam.' And it stuck. It's been Mighty ever since." 

  

He kept busy in Pensacola, singing at Tom's Tavern and Abe's 506 Club, and going on regional tours with the Dothan Sextet, a regional band that had once backed up Otis Redding. 

 

At one of his gigs, McClain caught the attention of Papa Don Schroeder, a local DJ who was trying to get into the recording business. Papa Don arranged some recording sessions for him at Muscle Shoals, Alabama; one of the tracks he cut was "Sweet Dreams," a country song made famous by Patsy Cline.  

 

 "Sweet Dreams" became a minor hit for McClain in 1966. He toured as a headliner, including a stop at the renowned Apollo Theatre in New York City. "I went from standin' on the corner to making 1200, 1400, 1600 dollars a week," he recalls. "But as soon as it happened, it was over. It was like God took me to the mountaintop, showed me what I can have if I'm willing to work for it, and then it was all over. And there I was, from the Apollo Theatre, working with Albert King, Jackie Wilson, and all those people, and the next thing I knew I was eatin' out of a garbage can."  

The rest of McClain's story is told in my book, including the abusive childhood that led him to run away from home at age 13, his years of poverty and substance abuse, and how he finally put his life and career back together.  
 
Read excerpts from my interviews with McClain, including: his years living in Nashville, in a futile effort to get back into the music business; a very dangerous encounter with deep-south racism; and his current struggles to make a living as a working musician.
 
Visit McClain's website to order his music (highly recommended!) and check out his performing schedule.   

Contact me by e-mail at john (at) johnswalters (dot) com.