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Remembering the Mighty Sam McClain: Joe Harley

Mighty Sam McClain Remembering the Mighty Sam McClain

"In early 1992 I was sent a cassette tape by the great Hammond B-3 player Bruce Katz. My record label (AudioQuest Music… now known as Sledgehammer Blues) was in its infancy then with only 13 or 14 releases at that point.

The cassette rode around with me for a few months on the floor of my car. (In those days I was getting swamped with tapes from artists looking for a deal.) Finally one day I finally played the cassette and was floored by what I was hearing. A singer with a voice full of genuine soul emerged from the speakers. I looked at the tape. Had someone sent me a Bobby Blue Bland tape? The tape was labeled “Mighty Sam McClain demo” and there was a phone number from a Boston area code. I called the number as soon as I got home and Bruce Katz answered.

One thing led to another and I arranged for a recording session at one of LA’s premier recording studios, OceanWay Recording. Mighty Sam’s band at the time included some of Boston’s best players, including B-3 wizard Katz, guitarist Kevin Berry, drummer Lorne Entress, bassist Michael Rivard and legendary tenor sax player Bennie Wallace.

The sessions were incredible… we did a lot of live to two track recording, meaning that the final mix was established as the take was going down. Definitely old school! Sam was still drinking at that point and by late the first afternoon he was pretty much in an “over-served” state. Rather than call the whole day I decided to send Sam back to the hotel to sleep it off. Then we switched over to multi-track and recorded a couple of instrumental backing tracks for Sam to sing over the following day, Sunday. With an ace team like we had, those backing tracks went very smoothly. At breakfast in the morning, the bass player (who was next door to Sam’s hotel room) told me that he had heard “knocking around” and women’s voices in Sam’s room until the wee hours. I started to envision an instrumental album with “special guest” Sam McClain fearing that he would be in no shape to record that day.

Sam finally showed up with dark glasses on, not looking too well. He took those glasses off and the look in his eyes almost gave ME a hangover! However, I thought let’s just see where we’re at so I had engineer Mike Ross put up the instrumental track of Give It Up To Love. Sam went to his mic, put on his headphones and we played the track back to him. He began to sing this song of sorrow and redemption and out came the vocal track that is on the final record. One take. Perfection. It was Sunday morning after all.

Mighty Sam McClain Give It Up To LoveSo many great tracks on that album. Another one that always gets me is Sam’s version of the Carlene Carter song Too Proud. That one was done live to two track, meaning no overdubs of any kind. What you hear is exactly what went down. That first album (Give It Up To Love) was a sensation when it came out. Rolling Stone called it the “R & B comeback album of the year” and Sam and I were off and running.

We made 5 more albums together for AudioQuest Music and Telarc. One of Sam’s performances (New Man In Town) even ended up as a recurring theme on the popular Alley McBeal show. Sam made enough money off of that alone to buy a tour bus!

Sam was a dear friend and a supremely sensitive soul. I miss him."

- Joe Harley

Joe is currently a member of the Blue Note team producing The Definitive Vinyl Reissue Series.  Learn more at

In addition to his long standing position as VP at the high end cable company AudioQuest, Joe is perhaps best known for his production work for various labels over the last 17 years, including AudioQuest Music, Telarc, Enja, ECM and GrooveNote.

Have a story, photo or memory of Mighty Sam to share? Send an email to eric(at)

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  • Sandra McClain on

    It hurts me that after 6 other recordings, his friend, Joe Harley couldn’t find something more positive to say about a voice unmatched and a heart so pure.

  • Sandra on

    Let’s note that after that 1993 recordings and after 1995 Mighty Sam McClain went on to record 12 or more CDs—alcohol free. A man of great determination he stopped one day—just stopped — telling me (his wife) that “he was done” and he never had a drop of alcohol after that time.

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