The Story Behind: Gene McDaniels, “A Hundred Pounds of Clay”

Each month in “The Story Behind,” I’ll look at the history of a well-known Top 40 hit based on interviews I’ve conducted with individuals who performed some of the most familiar pop hits of the 1960s and ’70s. This month, I’ll look at Gene McDaniels’ “A Hundred Pounds of Clay.”

Eugene McDaniels was working on the West Coast when he came to the attention of Liberty Records, who signed him in 1959. “I did an album conducted and produced by Johnny Mann of the Johnny Mann Singers called In Times Like These, which was also my first single, actually,” McDaniels said.

That single and his next one did nothing, but his next, the 1961 classic “A Hundred Pounds of Clay,” went very big. But at the time, McDaniels was more aware of the internal strife at Liberty than the song’s potential.

“When I signed with them, Liberty Records was owned by Si Waronker, but after Si died, Liberty was taken over by Al Bennet, a ‘bean counter’ for the company who was from Lubbock, Texas” McDaniels explained. “There was also a guy in the mailroom from Lubbock, Snuff Garrett.

“He was a friend of Al’s, and Al called him up from the mailroom to be the producer to the artists at Liberty Records. That’s a helluva jump, from mailroom to head producer at Liberty! I was stunned by the fact that they had elevated this young guy to this position, and I didn’t know that he had any musical background. “

“Well, he had this song for me, ‘A Hundred Pounds of Clay,’ and he put this song together with the arrangers, and he was producing it. He didn’t like the way I was singing the song. Being a singer, and being very young, I was incensed by some guy from the mailroom telling me how to sing. I didn’t understand; nobody explained to me that there’s a specific sound out there that the audience wants to hear.

“He told me, ‘You’re singing too much, clip the lyrics.’ I clipped them, and he thought I was responding angrily to his request. And I was! Well, he went to Al Bennet, who asked him, ‘How’d he do?’ and Snuff said, ‘He blew it.’ Al said, ‘We’re putting it out anyway. I’m not gonna spend $1,500 and not put this thing out.’

“So, he puts ‘A Hundred Pounds of Clay’ out, and it goes all the way to #3. Well, it’s egg on Snuff’s face because he thought it was poorly done, and it’s egg on my face because I wasn’t performing to my ultimate ability. But it taught me a lesson, and that lesson is that you can always learn something. Snuff had a golden ear and produced Top 10 hits for a lot of Liberty artists.”

“A Hundred Pounds of Clay” told the story of God creating the human race, and while it was a strange topic for a popular song, with backing vocals by the Johnny Mann Singers and McDaniels’ strong lead, the song shot up the charts and earned a gold record.

Here, the story takes an even stranger turn. As I’ve written before, in England the BBC had some very odd rules about banning music, and sure enough, the BBC banned the song and wouldn’t allow British radio stations to play it. The controversy arose not from the fact that it was a religious song, but because the censors interpreted the song as suggesting women were created simply to be sexual beings, and the BBC felt this was blasphemous.

[10 Well-Known Songs Banned by the BBC (For Ridiculous Reasons), 1965-1977]

British pop singer Craig Douglas, who had already had a #1 hit with a cover of Sam Cooke’s “Only Sixteen,” was not about to miss an opportunity like the banned record presented. Douglas decided to rewrite the “offensive” lyrics so they would pass the BBC censors.

“He created a woman and a-lots of lovin’ for a man” became “He created old Adam, then He made a woman for the man.” “For every kiss you’re givin’” was changed to “For all the joy He’s given,” “For the arms that are holdin’ me tight” became “For my world full of beauty and life,” “Doin’ just what he should do” was changed to “Makin’ land and sky and sea,” and “To make a livin’ dream like you” became “And doin’ it all for you and me.”

Basically, the changes seemed to de-sex the woman in the song and dispel the idea that God would have created a being simply for man to love. Douglas knew how to work the censors, and he was given BBC approval to release the song and saw it soar to #9 on the British charts.

In America, McDaniels’ next single, “A Tear,” would go to #31 before finished 1961 with a third straight Top 40 song in “Tower of Strength” at #5. The year 1962 followed the same successful pattern, and after “Chip Chip” (#10), four of his next five singles would make the Top 100.

Soon he’d branch out into songwriting; he not only wrote Les McCann’s 1969 #1 jazz hit “Compared to What,” but he also wrote Roberta Flack’s 1974 hit “’Feel Like Making Love,” which earned platinum status and a Grammy Award. McDaniels later won a BMI award for the song, which had more than five million plays by the 1980s.

But with all his success, McDaniels thought “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” was important for the life lessons he learned at the time. “Life is different every day, and sometimes your enemy is your best friend,” he said. “I’ve been looking for Snuff Garrett to ask him to forgive me for my attitude during those times. I was a kid — I didn’t know what I was doing.

“I have great respect for him now. He got hit records from all of the Liberty artists, and it was amazing. I’m now probably one of his biggest fans. He doesn’t know that, but I’ve tried to find him to tell him ‘thanks.’ He set me up in a way that everybody was paying attention, and then he got me two more Top 10 songs. That really helped because when I started writing people took me seriously.”

Because McDaniels knew the song taught him an important lesson in life, and the BBC found it blasphemous, you might say the story behind “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” is one of the most interesting ones in this column so far.

Author’s Note: I did this interview a few years ago and considered myself extremely fortunate to be able to interview Gene McDaniels; sadly, he passed away about seven months later. He spent the last years of his life living in Maine in a type of self-imposed exile (he referred to himself as a hermit), but he was one of the coolest, classiest, deepest thinking individuals I ever interviewed. I don’t know if he ever had the chance to reconnect with Snuff Garrett, but I’d like to think he did; Garrett himself passed away in 2015.

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Dr. Rick Simmons was born in South Carolina and currently lives in Louisiana. He has published five books, the two most recent being Carolina Beach Music from the '60s to the '80s: The New Wave (2013) and Carolina Beach Music: The Classic Years (2011). Based on his interviews with R&B, “frat rock,” and pop music artists from the '50s, '60s, and '70s, his books examine the decades-old phenomenon known as Carolina beach music and its influence on Southern culture. His next book, The Reference Guide to Carolina Beach Music Recordings and Artists, 1940-1980, will be published by McFarland in 2018.