The Short Life and Career of Tony Clarke


Introduction to Tony Clarke

Tony Clarke (1940-1971) was an American soul singer-songwriter whose claim to fame during his short lifetime was his Top 40 pop/Top 10 R&B single “The Entertainer” in 1964. He was also credited as one of the writers behind Etta James’ Top 40 pop hit “Pushover” and her #63 pop single “Two Sides (To Every Story)” the year before. The cause of his early death in 1971 was homicide, when he was shot and killed by his estranged wife as an act of self-defense. Clarke was only 31 years old.

Tony Clarke’s early life and struggles in his career

Soul singer-songwriter Tony Clarke was born on April 13, 1940 in New York City, New York. However, he grew up and was raised in Detroit, Michigan. Although some sources say that his real name was Ralph Thomas Williams, it seems to have never been verified. Other sources cite other possible birth names were Ralph Ferguson and Ralph Clarke.

Either way, Tony Clarke inched his way to become an accomplished singer as well as songwriter. By the late 1950s he had been performing as an amateur vocalist before he secured his first recording contract with Stepp label. It was through the help of his mail man Fred Brown, who heard Clarke in one of his performances and was impressed by his singing.

Clarke’s first single on Stepp label was entitled “Hot Rod Car” which failed miserably. Nevertheless, Clarke was convinced and determined that singing and songwriting would be his future. He moved to another label called Fascination in 1962, and recorded another single “Cry” which again bombed. Clarke was still undaunted, though, and went on his way trying to make a name for himself.

Tony Clarke’s career as a songwriter

The moment came for Clarke came when he and Billy Davis (aka Roquel Davis) teamed up to write a song for Etta James. The song turned out to be a Top 10 R&B hit for James, titled “Pushover” in 1963. It also paced the Top 40 pop charts at #25. Clarked and Davis also wrote another single for James, “Two Sides (to Every Story)” which only became a minor hit on the Hot 100. In being a songwriter, Clarke sometimes used pseudonyms such as Tony Lois and even the effeminate-sounding Thelma Williams.

Tony Clarke’s hit with “The Entertainer”

His link with Davis greatly helped Clarke to snag another recording deal, this time with Chicago-based Chess Records. He waxed several records for Chess, including his first charting single “Woman, Love and a Man” which peaked at #88 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964. “Woman, Love and a Man” was co-written by Clarke and Wlifred McKinley.

However, it was his another single “The Entertainer” that raised his name into the consciousness of the record-buying public. His self-penned hit peaked at #31 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #10 on the Billboard R&B singles chart. The success of “The Entertainer” certainly brought Clarke some financial cushion; it’s even said that he used the money to purchase Detroit’s Brute label from LeBaron Taylor.

Later career after “The Entertainer”

After the success of “The Entertainer,” Clarke was occupied in several engagements. He starred the top bill on many big venues in Detroit. In 1966 he relocated to Hollywood and co-founded Earthquake Productions. He even dabbled in films, with his most notable appearance being a small part in the Sidney Poitier-starred They Call Me Mr. Tibbs.

His own subsequent singles failed to chart again, but he wrote one hit for the Spanish beat group Los Lobos, “I Don’t Care.” It became Los Lobos’ hit single in the UK at #16.

Homesickness and missing his children (with estranged wife Joyce Elaine) prodded Clarke to return to Detroit, where he permanently settled. He was signed to M S Records where he released “(They Call Me) A Wrong Man.”

Tragic end

In the wee hours of August 28, 1971, Clarke is alleged to have broken into the house of his estranged wife, with a tire jack in hand. However, his wife had a gun and, in an act of self-defense, shot him. Clarke was only 31 years old when he was killed.

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