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Blues great Clarence Carter achieved independence and stardom stroke by stroke

The Chicago Crusader is reposting this article in recognition of 32 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

He started off early wanting to be an attorney, but the college that Blues guitar great Clarence Carter attended didn’t offer that major. So, he pursued a degree in what has proven to beneficial for himself and his fans—music. Carter was in Chicago recently to kick off the Chicago Blues Fest and, as well, to help spread awareness about the Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) 25-year anniversary.

During an exclusive interview with the Crusader held at Chicago s Hard Rock Hotel, Carter—who was born blind in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1936—says that measures that have been put in place because of the ADA have helped him immensely. “Years ago when I first started recording, you had to get all the musicians in the studio. But now with the computer and because of the work of the ADA, when people make software for the computer they have to make it accessible to me, and then I can do my music when I get ready.” He said that the computer “completely revolutionized his life” and that it is “his right hand.” He illustrated a program that he uses that allows him to hear what has been written, for instance, the words in an email.

Carter’s appearance at the Blues Fest was sponsored in part by ADA 25 Chicago, a regional initiative in which more than 150 local public and private partners have come together to commemorate and leverage the 25th anniversary. This year, the organization is poised to improve access, equality and opportunity for people with disabilities throughout the Chicago area. “ADA 25 Chicago was created with a goal of making metropolitan Chicago the most inclusive region in the nation. Multiple partners have stepped forward to expand and launch new programs, initiatives and ideas that increase opportunity, equality and accessibility for people with disabilities,” said Emily Harris, executive director of ADA 25 Chicago.

SHARON FOUNTAIN, CRUSADER managing editor, from left, Emily Harris, ADA, and CRUSADER columnist Elaine Hegwood Bowen listen in as Clarence Carter shares his amazing life story. (Photos by Juan Anthony Photography).

Carter didn’t have it easy while growing up in Alabama; and being Black and blind was an extra burden, but he has overcome many other obstacles in so many ways. “I feel incredibly good about what I’ve been able to accomplish, but it was not easy. Our world presents challenges and barriers to success for people with disabilities, but I always wanted more in life and believe that the ADA helped me get to where I am today.”

I would like to say that Carter now has three “B’s” behind his name, Black, Blind and Blessed. Carter is known for serious Blues music, which includes a string of R&B hits. The songs “Back Door Santa,” “Slip Away,” “Patches,” “Too Weak to Fight” and the dance hall hit “Strokin” are part of his Blues legacy.

While many may think that the lyrics in the song “Patches” refer to his life, Carter says that this song isn’t entirely about his life. “It touched a lot of people’s lives, and most people think that it was really my life, but partially it was,” he explained. “General Johnson of Chairmen of the Board wrote it and received a Grammy for it, as well.”

Carter, who at one time played classical music, also shared just how he came to record “Strokin.” He said that back in the 80s when the music business had turned to keyboards, and a musician then only had to put his voice on the track, he came up with the words, “I be stroking.” He mentioned that Chicago’s WVON station had been playing his song “Working on a Love Building,” and he would sing, “I’m not only working on a love building, I be stroking.” And the rest is history. Carter’s music has been featured in dozens of movies and television shows. “Strokin” has been featured in “The Nutty Professor” and most recently in the 2011 movie “Killer Joe,” and his “Looking for a Fox” was featured in the 1998 movie “Another Day in Paradise.”

BLUES GREAT CLARENCE CARTER demonstrates his adaptive computer program.

Carter is such an affable man. He attributes his independence to his early education at the Alabama School for the Blind in Talladega and the Alabama State College in Montgomery, where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in music. The unwavering commitment of his mother to not treat him as if he had a disability was paramount in his upbringing. “She would have me wash dishes and the windows in the house,” Carter said. “I knew that the dishes were clean once they started squeaking.” He also shared a story of him starting a fire with kerosene in the family home and chopping wood.

After college, Carter did secure a job teaching history in a remote section of Montgomery, but his weekends would have been taken up with teaching, and this wasn’t a good fit for him. “I wanted to be in Montgomery on the weekends and not in the country, and my roads divided right there. I made the decision to be in music.” He says he has never regretted this decision. “When I was about 24, I had a chance to meet many entertainers, i.e., John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and others. They let me play with them, and I was able to talk to people. I heard about the good times. I was looking for all them good times and I found them [by travelling all over the world].”

Harris said that family involvement in a disabled person’s independence is so important, because that one family member’s limitations affect the entire family. “We all know somebody who may be disabled and the repercussions of discrimination in the workplace or schools or not being able to get into a building. This isn’t just for a small group of people. It is really for everybody and affects everyone,” she said. “We use Greater > Together as our anniversary tagline. When we open the doors to people with disabilities, we make the world more accessible.”

I learned much from Carter about the American Disabilities Act and how people across the country are assisted in all walks of life, particularly with employment and daily accessibility. More than 1 in 10 Illinois residents have a disability—whether they can’t hear or see or even struggle with a learning disability.

Elaine Hegwood BowenElaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago ( or email: [email protected].


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